Friday, May 07, 2010


This film, a biopic about William Friese-Greene, a largely forgotten figure in the development of moving pictures, was produced for the Festival of Britian, a sort of World's Fair exhibition intended in part as a post-war pick-me-up for the British. Almost every working actor of any repute in England at the time appears in the film, mostly in cameos. Robert Donat plays Friese-Greene, a photographer who becomes an absent-minded inventor, tinkering in color photography and in the very early stages of moving pictures. Throughout his life, he goes into great debt and ignores the needs of his family. His first wife (Maria Schell) leaves him, and his second wife (Margaret Johnston), with whom he has an amicable separation, complains that his "real life" happened before she met him. He insists on claiming that he invented moving pictures, though because he's not mentioned in any textbooks, his son gets beat up at school for repeating that claim. The man's story is a downbeat one, and to its credit, the movie doesn’t seem to try to sugarcoat it much; it begins on the last day of his life, when, as an ailing and lonely old man, he is about to speak his mind at a British film industry meeting, and the rest of the narrative is comprised of two major flashbacks, the first covering his later years with Johnston and the second of his earlier, slightly happier days which includes his breakthrough in getting a short sequence of moving pictures projected in his basement; he's so excited, he races out into the night streets, dragging a policeman (Laurence Olivier) in to witness his triumph. Sadly, that’s about the peak of his life, as he ignores his photography business, which goes bankrupt, and he loses his family, slowly sliding into obscurity. The character isn't one that the audience can really admire or warm up to, and the whole thing feels too reverent and too trivial at the same time. It is fun to spot the star cameos, which include Richard Attenborough, Glynis Johns, Margaret Rutherford, David Thomlinson, and Peter Ustinov, but overall, it's a rather drab affair. [TCM]

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