What happens when the consequences of an amazing invention are so dire that it could destroy entire economies? In a thoughtful and typically Ealing Studios wry manner, that’s just what the brilliant classic 1951 film The Man in the White Suit explores.
Billed as a comedy — and certainly it has many amusing scenes — the film has many more serious overtones, coming as it did only five years after the detonation of two atomic bombs marked the end of World War II.
The film stars Alec Guinness as Sidney Stratton, a bit of a loose-cannon chemist who has been fired from textile mill after textile mill for his mad-chemist experiments. What he seeks is to create a new fabric that never wears out and has an electrostatic charge that means it cannot get dirty. Oh, and it’s luminescent and glows in the dark.
Sounds brilliant, but when he succeeds at inventing this miracle fabric, it becomes clear that he hasn’t really thought through any of the consequences of this invention, though everyone else involved, from union organizer Bertha (Vida Hope) to senior industry sage Sir John Kierlaw (Ernest Thesiger) to textile mill owner Alan Birnley (the splendid Cecil Parker) all quickly realize that it’d be the end of their industry — and possibly the entire British economy — if the product does come to market.
It’s curiously similar to a conversation I had a few days ago with a friend about whether inventors should consider the consequences of an invention before they reveal it to the public, and is a profound question that’s at the heart of this brilliant, stylish comedy The Man in the White Suit.
Ealing Studios has a long history and from the late 1940’s to the late 50’s it produced some of the best British films ever released, including Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Lavender Hill Mob and The Ladykillers, They’re all sly comedies, films that pushed the boundary of acceptability with their complex story lines and stylized visuals.
The Man in the White Suit is cut from the same cloth, a film that demonstrates what happens when a crack team of cinema professionals comes together for a film project. The acting is top-notch, the cinematography is splendid, the lighting, the costumes, the dialog, it adds up to a film worth not only watching to enjoy, but worth studying too.
Stratton (Alec Guinness) admires his amazing white suit in a classic scene
Stratton’s love interest is Daphne (the splendid Joan Greenwood), impetuous daughter of the mill owner and the only person who grasps what Stratton’s doing when he volunteers to work at the research lab without pay. Her role is perhaps the most interesting as she wrestles with the tension of being a rich daughter who doesn’t like her father very much, admires Stratton but has ambiguous feelings towards him, and finally is the only one who supports his foolhardy attempt to get the news of his miraculous invention to the media.
There’s a wonderful twist at the end of the film that resolves a surprising level of tension, but then the very last scene introduces a final tweak that’s delightfully ambiguous.
Really, I can’t say enough about how fun, entertaining and thought-provoking this film really is. You might be used to seeing Alec Guinness in some of his more modern roles, but before he was Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars, he was one of the best young actors in cinema for film after film, and with the possible exception of his nine-role tour-de-force in Kind Hearts and Coronets, you’ll be hard pressed to find a better example of Sir Alec at his young British best than The Man in the White Suit.