The Man in the White Suit (1951)
It’s so interesting to me to think that Alec Guinness was largely thought of as a comedic actor in his early prime. My regard for him is based on his iconic dramatic roles in “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Star Wars.” His first credited screen roles were in adaptations of “Oliver Twist” and “Great Expectations,” but he gained his fame as the star of Ealing Studios comedies like “The Lavender Hill Mob,” “Kind Hearts and Coronets” and “The Ladykillers.”
When I set aside my bias, his proclivity to merrymaking is understandable. Guinness had a thin, good-looking face with a slightly rubbery quality. It’s a common trait of comic leading men to have features that are generally classically handsome but seem slightly sabotaged — a googly eye here or a schnoz a bit too long there. Steve Carell and Leslie Nielsen are good examples. Guinness’ sharp bird nose and watery eyes helped him play characters who were misfits on the margins of society. He made for a kindly but stubborn rebel.
“The Man in the White Suit” is a comedy, but with a strong sociopolitical message. Guinness plays Sidney Stratton, a brilliant chemist working as a janitor in a textile plant who discovers a fiber that is virtually indestructible and never gets dirty. Even oil and grease wipe off like magic.
The first half of the movie is fairly conventional and not all that interesting. Sidney attempts to complete his experiment successfully, which is hard considering he’s doing most of his work on the sly. He’s thrown out of the plant owned by a young up-and-comer named Corland. He’s played by Michael Gough, best known to modern audiences as Alfred in the original “Batman” movies of the 1980s and ’90s. His physical appearance remained remarkably unchanged over the intervening decades, and he even wore similar eyeglasses in both roles.
The result of all the typical laboratory scenes of bubbling tubes and random explosions is the titular white suit, which turns out to be just as impervious as advertised. It even glows in the dark, the only downside of its miraculous construction being that you can’t dye it.
Birnley (Cecil Parker), a wealthy cloth magnate, intends to make a killing selling the stuff exclusively. But soon, wiser minds — or at least more cold-bloodedly rational ones — prevail. A bunch of other industry titans converge on Birnley’s factory and convince him it would be disastrous. They’re led by Sir John Kierlaw (Ernest Thesiger), an ancient capitalist who leers like a bird of prey, wrapped in layers of robes that frame his head like a mantle, and coughs spasmodically. He’s literally as rotten on the inside as the out.
The big twist is that the unionized workers, who had initially embraced Sidney as one of their fellows who made good, also come to oppose the miracle cloth. Like the owners, they realize that they would essentially be manufacturing the means of their own obsolescence. Yes, the new clothes would sell like hotcakes — once. Since they never need washing or replacement, once everyone in the world had the clothes they required, there would never be a need to make more.
I rather liked Vida Hope as Bertha, a tough worker gal who takes a shine to Sidney. She has blunt features and even blunter manners, but in her few scenes, we sense a loneliness behind the bluster. It’s clearly implied that she’s attracted to Sidney, and he’s so clueless he doesn’t even notice. He’s crushed when Bertha reveals that she and the other union members want to suppress his invention, too.
I was much less enamored with the female lead, Birnley’s daughter Daphne, played by Joan Greenwood. She speaks in these long drawn-out vowels and intonations of upper-crust Britain that frankly are grating. Imagine Kate Hepburn playing a spoiled rich brat and about two octaves lower. Daphne is a clever girl with strong streaks of both morality and opportunism. She agrees to take a payoff from Kierlaw to use her womanly charms to entice Sidney into dropping the whole matter but is thrilled when he resists her advances.
The last act is a farcical affair with lots of chases and slamming doors. The big reveal at the end is that Sidney’s invention was a fluke, and the white suit falls to pieces the moment his pursuers lay hands on him. He walks off into the sunset, assured that he’ll find the solution to the problem.
I enjoyed “The Man in the White Suit,” even as I recognized its many limitations. The common Ealing theme of one man (or a few) up against the establishment is so familiar that we more or less known in advance how things are going to play out, so there are few surprises. But Guinness is charming as the brilliant but socially inept inventor, who dares to invent something entirely new out of whole cloth.