File this great comedy under social science fiction, subheading ‘H’ for hilarious. Alec Guinness’s comic boffin hero is both a bringer of miracles and one of the most dangerous men alive. The story of Sidney Stratton, brilliant chemist and inadvertent industrial terrorist, is a consistent laugh riot. Call the jokes droll, understated, dry, and reserved, but they certainly aren’t stupid — Ealing’s high-class comedy is slapstick heaven, yet hides a lesson about modern economics that most people still haven’t learned. And Guinness’s romantic foil is the woman with the velvet-gravel voice, Joan Greenwood.
The Man in the White Suit
KL Studio Classics
1951 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 85 min. / Street Date September 3, 2019 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Alec Guinness, Joan Greenwood, Cecil Parker, Michael Gough, Ernest Thesiger, Howard Marion-Crawford, Henry Mollison, Vida Hope.
Cinematography: Douglas Slocombe
Art Direction: Jim Morahan
Film Editor: Bernard Gribble
Original Music: Benjamin Frankel
Written by John Dighton, Alexander Mackendrick, Roger MacDougall
Produced by Michael Balcon, Sidney Cole
Directed by Alexander Mackendrick
I’ve never met a person that saw The Man in the White Suit and wasn’t fully delighted by it. If there are folk out there that hate it, I need to avoid them!
The postwar recovery in England was so slow that in 1951 a giant fair was prepared. The ‘Festival of Britain’ was built over a section of London damaged by The Blitz, that had still not been repaired. The country was trying to find an optimistic economic path forward, to a new and more equitable social system. English movies by and large only hinted at the challenge to the country in these years, mostly reflecting a severe rationing that was still in force. But those rascally satirists at Ealing occasionally found ways to create hilarious entertainments with quality social comment.
One of the best English movies from this time is The Man in the White Suit, a razor-sharp examination of industrial realities in the form of a sci-fi- tainted fantasy. Entrenched manufacturers struggle to keep profits high while resentful union laborers work up new grievances. Into the mix comes futuristic technology, the kind of technical miracle that became a daily discovery in the second half of the 20th century. Most science fiction fantasies used the ‘Fear of The New’ to shape stories about disastrous monsters. The wickedly insightful geniuses at Ealing steered away from an overblown allegory, to go straight to the heart of the matter: Progress means Disruption. The textile miracle invented by Alec Guinness’s altruistic ‘Boffin,’ might also topple the country’s economic foundation.
Alec Guinness leaped from clever character chameleon to top Brit star status at Ealing, playing multiple roles in Kind Hearts and Coronets and an eccentric criminal mastermind in The Lavender Hill Mob. Director Alexander Mackendrick’s The Man in the White Suit is an ambitious comedy in Ealing’s audience-pleasing understated style. The story is packed with droll laughs, and even slapstick foolishness, yet it’s one of the most intelligent movies ever about technology and economics.
We begin squarely in the industrial reality of Northern England, an economic dynamo that nevertheless is a dreary worker’s purgatory of old factories and entrenched power. But a little thing called progress can turn it all upside-down. Research chemist and visionary genius Sidney Stratton (Alec Guinness) steals equipment and facilities in various labs while trying to perfect his fantastic ‘long molecule’ synthetic fiber. Tossed out of the textile mill of Michael Corland (Michael Gough), he soon sets up shop in the nearby facilities of Alan Birnley (Cecil Parker). There he manages a breakthrough. Caught in the act, Sidney is nevertheless given a lab of his own and carte blanche to make good on his theories. It’s all thanks to the intervention of Birnley’s daughter, Daphne (Joan Greenwood), who sees something in this crusader for progress that others don’t. Sidney succeeds in creating an indestructible cloth that doesn’t wear out and never gets dirty, a development that anyone can see is a miracle. But the mill owners know that it will disrupt the entire system, and threaten economic ruin for all.
The incomparably droll The Man in the White Suit is a practically perfect comedy. For many years it was mainly known as the movie with the funny lab apparatus that makes cute cartoon noises. The audio from Sidney’s goofy science project glassware rig was made into a novelty record called The White Suit Samba. With his disarming smile and meek appearance, Sidney Stratton stays an invisible mole, off the payroll but occupying plenty of bench space. Not even the accountants know what he’s doing. He’s so adorable that he charms the union zealots, the somewhat haughty Daphne, and even his impoverished landlady. Everybody wants to take the ‘helpless’ Sidney under their wing, not realizing that he’s going to hatch into a danger to all of them.
“You can’t fire me! I don’t work here!”
The show is as funny as any Ealing comedy, while also illuminating some profound themes about progress versus commerce and labor. That territory just isn’t normal movie subject matter. Science fiction fans claim the movie, because it’s about nothing less than a world-altering, potentially menacing invention. Its portrait of the progressive scientist as an inspired force, whose ambitions might not be for the general good, was certainly a strong theme around this time: some critics even interpreted the film as really being about the threat of atomic power. Scientists in general were beginning to receive a bad rap. The U.S. government censured dissenting atomic bomb makers, cueing pop culture to begin scapegoating scientists as the problem. The tone was set just the year before, when the thriller Seven Days to Noon characterized a dissenting atom scientist as a dangerous terrorist. (The influential Seven Days to Noon is expected from Kino on November 5.) The ‘guilty atom scientist character’ would crop up in Hollywood films throughout the 1950s.
But The Man in the White Suit doesn’t rest on its profundities – the film is a constant flow of verbal and slapstick humor. The farcical misunderstandings lead to chases that resemble Chaplin and Keaton films, especially Stanley’s attempt to enter the Birnley manse. Sidney’s stealth takeover of the Birnley lab is a wonderful pre- Brazil view of hierarchical power reinterpreted as office space. To make room for Sidney’s experiment, the lab manager Hoskins (Henry Mollinson) is shoved into a jammed closet, where he must climb over his desk to reach his chair. He must wear a blitz helmet during Sidney’s explosive trial runs.
Alec Guinness creates one of his best characters here. Sidney Stratton is lovable, sensitive and yet oblivious to anything beyond his personal crusade to perfect his long-chain molecule. He cleverly exploits companies’ organizational incompetence to find places to continue his work: he quietly invents a job as an unpaid electron microscope expert, to wheedle his way into Birnley’s lab and start requisitioning equipment. Only women see the value in Sidney. Poor Bertha (Vida Hope) is certain that he is being oppressed, while Daphne sees Sidney’s technological idealism as something marvelous in itself — she recognizes the noble streak in his character. Only through Daphne’s good auspices do the textile moguls allow Sidney to proceed.
There’s also a bit of A Place in the Sun working here too. Even though Sidney is oblivious to class conflict, he has sprung forth from the working stratum of society. He first captures the eye of the union-obsessed Bertha, but can’t see her adoration for the charms of textile princess Daphne. This romantic tension is not at all flattering to the Sidney Stratton character.
“Now some fool has invented an indestructible cloth. Where is he? How much does he want?”
Starry-eyed and idealistic, Guinness’s Sidney is a loveable Quixote character, a dreamer in love with his electron microscope. Joan Greenwood will be another major discovery for viewers new to Ealing films — every critic remarks on her deep, sexy voice, and her sophisticated delivery of some of the wittiest dialogue in English films. With her velvety croak Daphne becomes Sidney’s Dulcinea, a muse rightfully inspired by his impossible dream. Note: Greenwood later overdubbed the silky-rough voice of Anita Pallenberg’s Black Queen in Roger Vadim’s Barbarella.
Stuffy Cecil Parker and crassly thick Michael Gough are terrific foils as the imbecilic captains of industry. The cadaverous Ernest Thesiger seems to have come from beyond the grave, demonstrating that the ownership of industry is a class-based carved-in-rock dynasty that can’t be taken down by revolution. Director Mackendrick has great fun making the bosses’ line of limos appear like a funeral cortege.
Sidney Stratton’s invention uses heavy water. It isn’t atomic, but it’s almost as powerful. Textiles is a labor-intensive industry, and perishable clothing needs to be repaired, cleaned and replaced. The labor spokesmen whine about hanging onto their hard-won concessions, but they’re right when they see that Stanley’s cloth will put them all out of business. The film’s most quoted line belongs to a little old washerwoman, who stops Sidney in his tracks:
“What about my bit of washing when there’s no washing to do?”
The irony is that Sidney’s miraculous invention is equally opposed by the stuffy powers-that-be in the front office. To the textile companies Sidney Stratton is Ibsen’s Enemy of the People, a maniac set to overturn the system that keeps the mill wheels turning and the profits rolling in. The ancient Sir John Kierlaw (Ernest Thesiger, fifteen years after The Bride of Frankenstein) immediately knows that Stratton’s invention must be suppressed, even if it requires smashing Sidney’ skull with his cane. An indestructible cloth might indeed upset the economic balance of the world. The fantasy cloth is comparable to plastics that don’t bio-degrade — plastics and other consumer waste may upset the world by choking us to death.
The Man in the White Suit is therefore the rare picture that acknowledges that economics is an interlocked system, that man relates to the basics of his life (food, work, etc.) not directly, but through social and economic conventions that need careful management. It’s all extremely sophisticated, especially when compared to the usual emotional movie treatment of the labor-capital-technology triangle, starting way back with Metropolis.
Clever visual effects manage to make Sidney into a literal knight in shining armor, pursued through the streets as a public enemy and defending himself with the lid from a trash can. Sidney of course feels unfairly persecuted. The irony is that NOBODY is on his side. Note that in the last few years, innovative start-up companies now tout themselves as ‘disruptive,’ in that they move into a field with the idea of wiping out the established system. The obvious example are ride-share companies that have obliterated traditional taxi services. The important thing is to blow up ‘What Exists’ to make a mark on the economic landscape, get rich, and sell out before your innovation proves unworkable (such as replacing taxi drivers with self-employed drivers that can’t make a living). Sidney’s accidental disruption is now the business model. Want to make your video-streaming plan succeed? Hard-media home video must be destroyed.
Had the film been about a weapon, with national security at stake, nobody would have seen through to the underlying issues. With its disarming comic approach, White Suit is a great lesson-teacher for fools convinced that social problems can be solved in yes-no, right-wrong terms. Sidney is really just another fallable human, with an ego that seeks recognition, wealth and love. He’s a little like the character ‘K’ from The Trial, who sees himself as society’s victim, yet has an ego that elevates his personal crusade over the general welfare of society at large. When Sidney ambles away Chaplin-style at the conclusion, accompanied by his ‘gurgle-gloop’ theme sound effect, we realize that he represents potentially scary progress that can’t be stopped. What his all-important invention does to the world is not his concern. He could easily be some scientist enraptured by an idea for a new kind of super-weapon.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of The Man in the White Suit is a clean and clear presentation of this handsome Ealing production. Douglas Slocombe’s B&W photography contrasts the grim working-class boarding houses and factory pens, with the huge textile mills and Alan Birneley’s ‘stately’ mansion. Old Anchor Bay DVDs looked okay, but had distorted sound. Studio Canal’s restoration is sparklingly fresh for both the eye and the ear.
Stephen Frears, Ian Christie and couple of others weigh in with admiring words for Alexander Mackendrick’s show in a brief interview video. Dr. Dean Brandum’s audio commentary begins by analyzing the ‘White Suit Samba’ and moves on to a full discussion, often referring to his specialty, the way British films were (or weren’t) distributed in the United States. Brandum says that The Man in the White Suit never broke free of the arthouse ghetto, which in 1951 was limited to a few theaters in big cities. At that time, uniformly enthusiastic reviews could only do so much — he says that exhibitors complained that American audiences just didn’t like British accents.
The original trailer sells the show as a raucous comedy, which is probably the right way to go. In the trailer, the clip of Sidney falling from Daphne’s car is uncut — the feature cuts some frames so that he zips out of sight. I’ve always loved the original art for this film, the cartoon of Alec Guinness running. It reminds me of a book of beautifully inked 1950s Punch cartoons I had as a child.
I was an editorial aide for FILMEX in 1975 (or was it 1976?) when they put on a Science Fiction Marathon that lasted an entire weekend. Besides enjoying so many pictures in perfect studio prints, the highlight was meeting a couple of directors that came by to see how their older pictures were received. Robert Wise told me that his The Day the Earth Stood Still was filmed not far from where we were standing, the Century City Plitt Theaters screening venue. Alexander Mackendrick came as well, and watched happily as the crowd laughed at The Man in the White Suit. He taught locally for many years, so a generation of film students knows him far better than I ever did. But I’ll never forget the look of satisfaction and pride in his face.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Reference: Alec Guinness: The Films by Kenneth Von Gunden
The Man in the White Suit
Supplements: Audio Commentary by Film Historian Dr. Dean Brandum -Revisiting ÔThe Man in the White SuitÕ Ð Interviews with Filmmaker Stephen Frears and Film Critic Ian Christie -Theatrical Trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: August 20, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson