The Man In The White Suit (1951)

Director: Alexander Mackendrick

Starring: Alec Guinness, Joan Greenwood, Cecil Parker, Michael Gough, Ernest Thesiger

Written by: Alexander Mackendrick, John Dighton and (also based on his play) Roger MacDougall

Running Time: 85 mins

Original UK Cert: U

Original UK Release: 7th August 1951

If there is some things you can rely on in life (and let’s face it, there isn’t that much) it’s that if a film had the Ealing Studios brand next to it, you were in for a treat. You can be sure that it won’t offend, it won’t shock, it will bring a wry smile to your face and even though the politics and social comments may not be as relevant as they were all those years ago, they will still entertain more than anything that is produced now. The Man In The White Suit is one such example, a pithy satire on capitalism versus labour wrapped up in a comedy about indestructible fibres in the textile industry.

Sidney Stratton is a scientist who everyone thinks is crazy. Finding it hard to hold down a job, he sneaks into a textile factory owned by Alan Birnley and starts work on his invention, a fibre that is stain-proof, tear-proof and needs to cut by a blow-torch. The fabric that could revolutionize the industry. At first Birnley is amazed and has sole patent on the idea but it soon becomes clear that if invincible clothing is made, within six months the industry would be out of action and so both the bosses and the workers make up an unlikely alliance to stop it.

Based on a play by Roger MacDougall, this is one Ealing’s finest hours (along with the likes of The Ladykillers, The Lavender Hill Mob and Passport To Pimlico, to name a few). A short and sweet comedy that deals with the constant battles between those in charge and those who work. There are many references to he level of union agreements within the film and while it might be hard to understand for modern audiences now, this was a regular way of life in the 50’s. So the film satirizes these events in a subtle manner.

The rest of the film is a gentle tale of a man who has spent his life being pulled from pillar to post as a scientist, who just wants to make good on something he has created and that he thinks will change the world, without seeing the bigger picture. This isn’t a gag-fest of laughs but quietly charming and witty, not having to rely on joke after joke to inject its humour. It’s more character driven. It allows us to enjoy the interaction between the men and women of the story.

There are some less than subtle set pieces. The scene in which Sidney is chased around an office after refusing to sign a contract does seem a little out-of-place yet manages to induce more than a smile. Sidney’s escape from forced imprisonment in his basement apartment seems obvious yet the use of an innocent child brings an element of the ah-factor.

Everything about this film is perfectly placed, including the performances. Joan Greenwood’s Daphne Birnley, the daughter of Alan and the only woman who understands Sidney, is nicely pitched, while Cecil Parker’s Birnley is brimming with snobbery while at the same time full of bumbling confusion. It’s also nice to see a young Michael Gough years before he played Alfred in the Batman movies.

The film, however, belongs to Alec Guinness as Sidney, a complicated man full of wild-eyed energy and extreme passion. It’s one of the great actor’s finest creations, a man on the brink of imploding just from the sheer exuberance of his new invention. It’s the kind of character was a master at producing, one that you instantly sympathize with, one that you are willing to take this madcap journey with.

The Man In The White Suit may bewilder many who are used to their comedies being a lot less subtle and gentle but this is a cinematic treat. A snapshot of a society long forgotten with the added bonus of being full of joy and whimsical humour. Always an entertaining experience and one that should never be ignored if screened on TV.


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