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The Man in the White Suit

Man in the White Suit, The (1951) Movie Poster
UK  •    •  85m  •    •  Directed by: Alexander Mackendrick.  •  Starring: Alec Guinness, Joan Greenwood, Cecil Parker, Michael Gough, Ernest Thesiger, Howard Marion-Crawford, Henry Mollison, Vida Hope, Patric Doonan, Duncan Lamont, Harold Goodwin, Colin Gordon, Joan Harben.  •  Music by: Benjamin Frankel.
      Sidney Stratton, a humble inventor, develops a fabric which never gets dirty or wears out. This would seem to be a boon for mankind, but the established garment manufacturers don't see it that way; they try to suppress it.


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The "little man against the Establishment" was a common theme of the Ealing comedies- the Scottish islanders of "Whisky Galore" who hide their precious whisky from the revenue men, the Cockneys of "Passport to Pimlico" who find that they are technically part of France and can therefore defy Britain's unpopular rationing laws with impunity, Alec Guinness' put-upon clerk in "The Lavender Hill Mob" who comes up with a scheme to rob the Bank of England and Dennis Price's poor relation in "Kind Hearts and Coronets" who tries to murder his way to a dukedom.

"The Man In The White Suit" falls within this tradition. It was directed by Alexander Mackendrick, who also made "Whisky Galore" and "The Ladykillers". Mackendrick was, however, only one of a number of directors working at Ealing Studios- others included Charles Crichton, Robert Hamer and Henry Cornelius- yet despite this diversity of creative talent the films nevertheless possess a remarkable unity of style and purpose, which might call into question the oft-repeated assertion that the director is the "author" of a film. Perhaps in this case the true "auteur" of the Ealing comedies was the producer Michael Balcon.

It is perhaps appropriate that it came out in 1951, the year in which Britain's post-war Labour government was defeated by Churchill's resurgent Conservatives, because it satirises both the political Left, in the person of the trade unions, and the Right, represented by the wealthy industrialists. The "little man" in this instance is Sidney Stratton, a brilliant young research chemist working in the textile industry who is obsessed with inventing a long-lasting artificial fibre. Eventually, he succeeds. His new fibre is incredibly strong, never wears out and repels dirt and therefore never needs cleaning. The title refers to a white suit which Stratton has made from his miracle new fabric.

Stratton expects to be hailed as a benefactor of mankind, but his invention is welcomed by neither the management nor the unions, both of whom realise that an everlasting, virtually indestructible cloth will destroy their industry. The mill owners try to persuade him to sell the rights to them, but he refuses, knowing full well that once they have control of the patent they will suppress his invention and prevent it from ever being manufactured. The film then turns into something of a slapstick comedy, with both managers and workers trying to lock Stratton away to prevent him from revealing the story to the press.

The Ealing comedy with which this one has most in common is "The Titfield Thunderbolt" from the following year, although visually the two films are very different. "The Man in the White Suit" is in black-and- white and set against the background of a Lancashire mill town, with most of the scenes filmed indoors in factories or dingy boarding-houses, whereas "The Titfield Thunderbolt" is in colour with most of the action taking place outdoors amid some beautiful rural scenery. Yet thematically speaking both films deal with the clash between public- spirited idealism and commerce as business and unions combine to defend their vested interests against change.

Ealing tended to rely upon a few actors who fitted in well with their style; Joan Greenwood, who appears here as the mill-owner's daughter Daphne Birnley (the nearest thing to a love-interest for Sidney), also appeared in two others, "Kind Hearts and Coronets", and "Whisky Galore". Stratton himself is played by Alec Guinness, another Ealing stalwart who also starred in "Kind Hearts and Coronets", "The Lavender Hill Mob" and "The Ladykillers". Here he plays Stratton as a rather geeky, unworldly idealist who is no match for the cunning and duplicity of his employers and the self-interest of his fellow-workers. (Luddite tendencies of this sort were, along with bureaucratic stupidity, one of Ealing's favourite targets). Like Henry Holland, Guinness' character in "The Lavender Hill Mob", Sidney is the archetypal put-upon little man, but unlike Holland he is never tempted to go outside the law in his fight against the system.

"The Man in the White Suit" is a sharp, effective satire on industrial relations and social attitudes in the Britain of the early fifties, and Guinness is very good (as he normally was) but I have never really regarded it as one of the really great Ealing comedies. It is one of the bleaker entries in the series, without the warmth and humanity of "Passport to Pimlico" or "The Titfield Thunderbolt", but does not quite possess the brilliantly cynical black humour of "Kind Hearts...." or "The Ladykillers". It is a good film, but falls just short of being a great one.

Review by James Hitchcock from the Internet Movie Database.