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.