The Magnet (film)

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The Magnet
The Magnet (1950) film poster.jpg
Original UK quad format film poster
Directed by Charles Frend
Written by T. E. B. Clarke
Produced by Michael Balcon
Starring Stephen Murray
Kay Walsh
James Fox
Cinematography Lionel Banes
Edited by Bernard Gribble
Music by William Alwyn
Distributed by GFD
Release date
  • 19 October 1950 (1950-10-19)(UK [1] )
Running time
78 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom
Box office£75,000 [2]

The Magnet is a 1950 British black and white comedy film directed by Charles Frend and starring Stephen Murray, Kay Walsh, and in his first starring role James Fox (billed as William Fox). [3] A young Wallasey boy obtains a magnet by deception, leading to much confusion. When he is acclaimed as a hero, he is shamed by his own sense of guilt.



Eleven year old Johnny Brent is home from school during a scarlet fever outbreak, but not making much attempt to stay isolated. He lives in New Brighton on the North West coast. After watching his father board the ferry to his work as a psychologist in Liverpool, he spends the rest of the morning playing on the beach.

He manages to con a younger boy out of a large horseshoe magnet by trading it for an "invisible watch". The other boy's nanny is not happy with the swap and chases Johnny shouting, "thief". Johnny runs off and is almost run over by a car, as he spots a religious sandwich man and sees this as retribution prompting Johnny to get rid of the magnet. After an older boy uses the magnet to cheat at pinball and Johnny is implicated, Johnny continues to try to get rid of the magnet. He meets an eccentric iron lung maker who is raising funds for the local disclaimed hospital, and gives him the magnet in lieu of money. Later, the iron lung maker, is demonstrating his equipment in the middle of a seaside beauty contest, and tells the story of the gift of the magnet to the crowd, slightly embellishing for effect. The maker is prompted by Johnny's father to auction the magnet. The magnet goes for £40 but is refused by the final bidder. The maker goes on to tell the story of the magnet at other various fund-raising events, exaggerating wildly and portraying Johnny as everything from a Fauntleroy to a Dickensian ragamuffin, allowing the maker to re-auction the magnet continuously, finally achieving the goal of the cost of the iron lung.

On a train returning to school, Johnny sees the little boy's nanny and overhears her telling her friend about her budgerigar, which she says has died of a broken heart. Johnny mistakenly thinks she is talking about the little boy himself, and becomes convinced that he has caused the death of the boy. Various other things he overhears confirms his theory. His mum realises something is wrong and tries to make him feel useful. She sends him to the local Maypole Dairy on an errand. He is again startled by a policeman and hides in the back of a Jacob's cream crackers van, which takes him to the Liverpool slums, where he comes into conflict with the local boys. He wins them over by convincing them he is a fugitive from the police. They hide him in a building on the disused pier. He opens a tin of soup and eats some dry macaroni bought on the errand.

He saves the life of one boy who had fallen through a disused pier. The injured boy ends up in an iron lung made by the man to whom Johnny gave the magnet. When Johnny visits the boy, he sees the magnet mounted on the iron lung and is reunited with the inventor, who is delighted to have found Johnny again. Johnny is awarded the Civic Gold Medal. When he later re-encounters the original boy on the beach he swaps the medal for his old "invisible watch" and clears his conscience.


Production and casting

The Magnet was filmed on location in and around New Brighton, Wallasey, the Wirral, Cheshire, Liverpool, Ealing and at Ealing Studios, London. Given its setting, however, authentic local accents are absent until almost the end of the film, in a scene filmed in the shadow of the Liverpool Cathedral. [4] The Chinese boy Choppo appears in this scene, which was unusual for the time in film, although there had been a significant Chinese community in Liverpool since the 1860s, but when he is called home by his mother in Chinese, explains this to his friends in a fluent Liverpool accent. [4] [5]

James Fox (then known as William) had appeared in The Miniver Story earlier in the year, and this was his first starring role, at the age of 11; [6] his performance was largely appreciated, being described by the British Film Institute's reviewer as "certainly lively enough as the over-imaginative Johnny". [4] Stalwarts of Ealing's repertory ensemble, however, such as Stanley Holloway and Alec Guinness, were absent, although James Robertson Justice made a small appearance as a tramp, using a Gaelic pseudonym; [7] at the time he was a candidate in the General Election. [8]


The Monthly Film Bulletin wrote: "The plot of The Magnet is not allowed to develop naturally, but is carried through a whole series of improbable coincidences and misunderstandings. The attitude to children, too, is less natural than determinedly avuncular and whimsical, and Charles Prend has been unable to make William Fox (Johnny) appear very much of an actor. The same artificiality is apparent in the film's humour; the story departs from the adventures of the child to include a number of conventional jokes at the expense of such familiar targets as psychiatry, domestic difficulties, and the Labour Government. These defects and confusions in the script apart, the film might still have been knit together by strong direction. The Magnet, however, lacks both style and unity; even the location work seems flat, and it is only in some scenes on the beach that the picture really achieves a sense of atmosphere." [9]

Leslie Halliwell described it as a "very mild Ealing comedy, not really up to snuff". [10]

The British Film Institute's reviewer criticised it as "somewhat burdened by cumbersome moralising and too many credibility-stretching coincidences and misunderstandings" and described it as "an attempt to revisit the success of Clarke's earlier Hue and Cry ". [4]

Channel 4 described it as "a mild-mannered affair and the comedy gives way to a decidedly poignant conclusion". [6]

The film was a box office disappointment. [11]

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  1. The Times, 19 October 1950, page 2: First advertisement for The Magnet at Odeon Leicester Square, London
  2. Harper, Sue; Porter, Vincent (2003). British Cinema of The 1950s The Decline of Deference. Oxford University Press USA. p. 285.
  3. "The Magnet". British Film Institute Collections Search. Retrieved 5 November 2023.
  4. 1 2 3 4 "screenonline: Magnet, The (1950)". Retrieved 23 April 2009.
  5. "Port Cities: – Culture and Ethnicity Differences in Liverpool – Chinese Community". Archived from the original on 5 March 2012. Retrieved 24 April 2009.
  6. 1 2 Fortgang, Jon. "The Magnet Movie Review (1950) from Channel 4 Film". Channel 4 . Retrieved 23 April 2009.
  7. Alleged to mean "Big James with the beard": "James Robertson Justice". IMDb . Retrieved 23 April 2009.
  8. Watson, Howard. "James Robertson Justice". Retrieved 23 April 2009.
  9. "The Magnet". The Monthly Film Bulletin . 17 (193): 167. 1 January 1950 via ProQuest.
  10. Halliwell, Leslie (1997). John Walker (ed.). Halliwell's Film and Video Guide. HarperCollins. p. 466. ISBN   0-00-638779-9.
  11. Robert Murphy, Realism and Tinsel: Cinema and Society in Britain 1939-48 2003 p212