GenreComedy ScreenplayT. E. B. Clarke WriterT.E.B. Clarke LanguageEnglish
Release date19 October 1950 (1950-10-19) (UK)
26 February 1951 (1951-02-26) (US) CastStephen Murray (Dr Brent), Kay Walsh (Mrs Brent), James Fox (Johnny Brent), Meredith Edwards (Harper), Gladys Henson (Nanny), Thora Hird (Nanny's friend) Similar moviesIce Age: The Meltdown, 127 Hours, 30 Minutes or Less, Finding Neverland, City of Ember, Inkheart
The Magnet is a 1950 Ealing Studios comedy film featuring Stephen Murray, Kay Walsh and in his first starring role James Fox (then billed as William Fox). The story involves a young Wallasey boy, Johnny Brent (Fox), who obtains the eponymous magnet by deception, leading to much confusion. When he is acclaimed as a hero, he is shamed by his own sense of guilt.
Johnny Brent (Fox), home from school during a scarlet fever outbreak, manages to con a younger boy out of a magnet by trading it for an "invisible watch". The other boy's nanny accuses Johnny of stealing, which makes Johnny feel guilty. He runs away from home. After an older boy uses the magnet to cheat at pinball and Johnny is implicated, Johnny tries to get rid of the magnet. He meets an eccentric iron lung maker who is raising funds for the local hospital, and gives him the magnet to be auctioned for charity. The iron lung maker tells the story of the magnet at various fund-raising events, exaggerating wildly and portraying Johnny as everything from a spoiled brat to a Dickensian ragamuffin.
After he returns 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 is guilty of murder. He hides in the back of a van which takes him to Liverpool, where he comes into conflict with the local boys. He wins them over by convincing them he is a fugitive from the police. 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, which he gives to the magnet's original owner, clearing his conscience.
Production and casting
The Magnet was filmed on location in and around New Brighton, Wirral, Cheshire and Liverpool, and at Ealing Studios, London, in black and white. 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. A Chinese boy 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 fluent scouse.
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; his performance was largely appreciated, being described by the British Film Institute's reviewer as "certainly lively enough as the over-imaginative Johnny". 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; at the time he was a candidate in the General Election.
The film has not achieved the general popularity of better-known Ealing comedies such as Passport to Pimlico and The Lavender Hill Mob, although it is described as "a mild-mannered affair and the comedy gives way to a decidedly poignant conclusion". Leslie Halliwell similarly described it as a "very mild Ealing comedy, not really up to snuff". 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".