"Now that calm and sanity have returned to the textile industry, I find it my duty to reveal something of the true story behind the recent crisis...a story which we were happily able to keep out of the newspapers at the time." –Alan Birnley
"Why can't you scientists leave things alone? What about my bit of washing when there's no washing to do?" –Mrs. Watson
The Man in the White Suit starts with the first quote and almost, but not quite, ends with the second. In between is one of the funniest and best-made of comedies.
In post-war Britain, Sidney Stratton is a young man with a passion for chemistry and an obsession with creating his "long molecule." With this he'll be able to create a fabric that is indestructible and will never need cleaning. It will be a blessing for humanity. But Stratton keeps getting fired from his jobs, which always are at places where he can secretly set up his chemical experiments. At last, through wonderful confusions, he finds himself running a giant laboratory at Birnley Mills; he has the support of the delicious daughter (Joan Greenwood) of the owner; and he succeeds in creating his fabric. At first the mill's owner, Alan Birnley, can barely suppress his glee. His mills will turn out fabric that everyone will want. Then the workers and the other mill owners realize there's a problem. With a fabric that will never wear out and never needs cleaning...what happens to their mills and what happens to their jobs?
What happens is that labor and capital join forces to suppress Sidney's invention. The movie takes on all comers with sly dialogue, chases and kidnappings, some sharp-elbowed pokes at the self interest of both unions and management, and some fine comic acting. Through it all Alec Guinness, playing the sweet-natured and obsessed Sidney Stratton, dominates the film with a sly, gentle performance. Near the end, when Sidney is left standing in his shorts and shirt with everyone laughing at him, the movie also is poignant. But then, at the end of the movie, we realize that we just may not have seen the last of Sidney Stratton.
The movie features a number of wonderful British actors who couldn't be touched in their era (or ours, in my opinion) for their skills in playing sophisticated comedy: Joan Greenwood, Cecil Parker, Michael Gough and Ernest Thesiger. Thesiger, looking as aged and dry as an old twig, steals his scenes.
Of the comedies Guinness made in this period -- The Lavender Hill Mob, Kind Hearts and Coronets, etc -- this one is my favorite.
I recently purchased The Horse's Mouth (1958) from Amazon as well as "The Alec Guinness Collection" which includes The Man in the White Suit (1951) plus four others: Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), The Captain's Paradise (1953), and The Ladykillers (1955). Frankly, I was amazed how well each of the six films has held up since I first saw it.Directed by Alexander MacKendrick (who also directed The Ladykillers four years later), what we have in The Man in the White Suit … more
Since I retired in 1995 I have tried to hone skills in muttering to myself, writing and napping. At 75, I live in one of those places where one moves from independent living to hospice. I expect to begin … more
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Ealing comedy--cozy, gentle, and whimsical, right? In this case, think again. Alexander Mackendrick was always the most politically aware of the Ealing directors, and inThe Man in the White Suit(1952) he takes the studio's favorite theme of the little man up against the system and gives it a sharp satirical twist. Sidney Stratton (Alec Guinness at his most unworldly), a maverick scientist working in a textile mill, invents a fabric that never gets dirty and never wears out. He's hailed as a genius--until management and unions alike realize what his brainwave implies. Mackendrick's humor is exact and pointed, and the satire turns savage as a lynch mob of bosses and workers hunt Sidney down through dark, narrow streets. Mackendrick's disenchanted view of class-ridden British society still rings horribly true, and he draws note-perfect performances from the cream of British character actors: Cecil Parker as the liberal mill owner (based, it's said, on Ealing boss Michael Balcon); Ernest Thesiger as the evil old godfather of the industry; and, wittily sensual as Sidney's confidante, the ever-wonderful Joan Greenwood. Plus, listen out for the "voice" of Sidney's bizarre apparatus, the funniest and most unforgettable sound effect ever devised.--Philip Kemp