Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library through interlibrary loan on rockin’ flatscreen.
When I was a kid, I knew who Alec Guinness was because of Star Wars. Now that I’m older, I can appreciate Guinness for who he really was. A lot of that is his roles in the classic Ealing comedies like The Man in the White Suit. Whenever I watch one of these films from the earlier part of Guinness’s career, I’m always a little surprised. It’s not that Guinness couldn’t do comedy. He could and he was great at it. What surprises me is that half a decade after a fun little goof like The Man in the White Suit, he pulled off one of the greatest acting performances in history in The Bridge on the River Kwai. Proof, if it was needed, that the man was a real talent.
The Man in the White Suit is a simple little film that touches lightly into the genre of science fiction. We get three roughly equal acts—a set-up, a slow realization of the implications of a discovery, and a conclusion. And, while the film isn’t laugh out loud funny, it escalates into a ridiculous situation very quickly.
Sidney Stratton (Guinness) is a chemist (in the American sense) about to lose his seventh job in the lab of a textile mill. A tour is being given to Alan Birnley (Cecil Parker) in hopes of an investment when the tour group happens upon a very strange experiment taking place. This is Stratton’s experiment, and it’s an expensive one. Stratton is secretive in what he is doing, and, because nothing seems to be coming of it, he is dismissed. Shortly thereafter, he takes a menial job in another textile mill with the hopes of continuing his research as he is able. This mill is owned by the aforementioned Birnley.
When a new electron microscope is sent to the mill, Stratton simply happens to be in the lab. He appears to know something about the device and so the men around him assume that he is the man who delivered it. Stratton uses this confusion to claim that position and asks to stay for a few weeks to teach the use of the machine to everyone else. Suddenly freed to do his research, Stratton completes his experiment, but confusion results and his new discovery is lost. In fact, the only other person who understands what he has done is Birnley’s daughter Daphne (Joan Greenwood). What Stratton has done is create a new type of long-chain polymer that, as a cloth, will never wear out and never need washing. The thread is infinitely strong, slightly radioactive, and contains a static charge that repels all dirt.
When Birnley understands the initial implications, he gives Stratton the run of the lab and all of the money he needs to buy his necessary ingredients (including thorium). After a number of explosions, Stratton replicates his formula and makes himself a shockingly white suit, white because the miracle fabric repels dyes just as it does dirt. And that’s when the fun begins.
Once Birnley’s excitement wears off, he and all of the other mill owners realize that the miracle fabric will put them all out of business eventually. When people have clothing that won’t wear out and can’t get dirty, they’ll stop buying clothing. It will put the mills out of business and soon destroy the cotton and wool trade as well. Bertha (Vida Hope), who worked with Stratton in the loading dock, realizes the implications as well, and soon the mill workers are as upset as the mill owners. Nothing anyone can do will get Stratton to sell the rights to the fabric, since those rights would be used to prevent it from being made. In fact, the only person who believes in him at all is Daphne, who the mill owners use in a crass attempt to sway Sidney with sexual promises. Yes, that’s a little racy for the early 1950s.
Guinness was a year away from this first Oscar nomination with this film, but he’d already demonstrated that he had acting chops before this film. This is one of his great early performances. It plays on subtlety of character, little expressions he makes when only the camera can see him. He carries the picture and he’s more than up to the task. Joan Greenwood is worth a mention as well. I’ve seen several of her films before, but I immediately pegged her as the main love interest from Kind Hearts and Coronets because of her voice. I had always assumed that her voice in Kind Hearts was an affectation for the character, but evidently not. Her voice, which sounds like a cat purring with a mouthful of butter, is truly unique.
The script helps, too. There’s a moment when Sidney is accosted by an old woman who makes ends meet by doing a little washing for her neighbors. She’s upset that Sidney’s invention will take even this little bit away from her because he’s never really considered the implications of what this new fabric are. In that moment, Guinness gives a performance that presages the climax of The Bridge on the River Kwai, and he does it in service of a silly little comedy. If nothing else, that sells the movie.
If there is an issue here, it’s that the film is slight and lightweight. But that’s not something that bothers me when the execution is so well done. It feels short (because it is) and I would love it to be a little longer, but at the same time, I’m not sure the film could be successfully stretched out to something much longer than it already is. The Man in the White Suit is worth tracking down. It’s fun while it plays and even though Sidney Stratton is unashamedly trying to destroy multiple industries, he’s still a guy we enjoy spending time with.
Why to watch The Man in the White Suit: Ealing comedies are always worth your time.
Why not to watch: It’s ridiculously short.