The Man in the White Suit (1951)


(director/writer: Alexander Mackendrick; screenwriters: Roger MacDougall/John Dighton/based on the play by Roger MacDougall; cinematographer: Douglas Slocombe; editor: Bernard Gribble; music: Benjamin Frankel; cast: Alec Guinness (Sidney Stratton), Joan Greenwood (Daphne Birnley), Cecil Parker (Alan Birnley), Michael Gough (Michael Corland), Ernest Thesiger (Sir John Kierlaw), Howard Marion-Crawford (Cranford), Duncan Lamont (Harry), Henry Mollison (Hoskins), Vida Hope (Bertha); Runtime: 85; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Michael Balcon; Universal-International; 1951-UK)
“A witty Ealing Studios satirical mad scientist comedy that concerns itself with modern day societal and technological problems.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A witty Ealing Studios satirical mad scientist comedy that concerns itself with modern day societal and technological problems, and adds a sharp commentary on what divides and unites the bosses and workers. It’s knowingly cowritten and directed by Alexander Mackendrick (“The Ladykillers”/”The Maggie”/”Sweet Smell of Success”), who keeps the ingenious premise cooking throughout with well-executed droll comedy and provocative insights into the ruthless power structure of capitalism. It’s based on the play by Roger MacDougall, who also was cowriter with John Dighton. This proves to be one of Alec Guinness’s best comic roles, as he amazingly just disappears into the part of the obsessed humanitarian scientist who possesses no guile or social graces in his quest to bring progress to mankind by inventing a fabric that will never wear out and will never soil but finds himself a target of hate when it’s discovered he can really deliver the goods and cannot be bought off to keep the product from being manufactured.

In the Northern England Corland Textile Mill eccentric former Cambridge science student whiz but often fired lab researcher Sidney Stratton (Guinness) is working as a lowly worker in the lab and has been secretly developing an indestructible fabric resistant to dirt. Somehow he has been using the company’s equipment and money without the managers knowledge, but when discovered irate mill owner Michael Corland (Michael Gough) fires him.

But the determined shy recluse gets hired in a menial job in millionaire Alan Birnley’s (Cecil Parker) textile mill, Corland’s wealthier rival, and manages to find a way to carry on his lab experiments that also call for the gurgling sounds of liquids in special tubes–which becomes a running gag. Everyone thinks he’s a lunatic but for Birnley’s rebellious daughter Daphne (Joan Greenwood), the dejected fiancee of Corland who is disappointed by his underhanded tactics to court her so he can get her wealthy father to financially back him. Daphne soon is impressed with Stratton’s scientific enthusiasm and pure heart.

After many lab explosions, Stratton actually develops an everlasting thread in the form of a luminous white suit. But that threatens everyone around him, as labor and management unite to make sure such a product doesn’t go to market. Both sides think if this material lasts forever then the textile mills will no longer make a profit after selling their initial inventory and the workers fear they will lose their jobs.

The wise comedy reflects that even if someone invented something as beneficial to mankind as a free substitute for oil running a car, it would be blocked by those who have only their self-interest in mind and are not concerned necessarily with making the world a better place to live in (think Tesla and how his inventions for free energy were suppressed by the big boys).