by Ned Depew


Photos courtesy of Ealing Studios


Another month, another benefit of the pandemic: getting to revisit classic movies I haven’t seen in 60 years! This month, it’s The Man in the White Suit, an Alec Guinness classic Ealing Studios comedy/drama from 1951. From director Alexander Mackendrick, it’s an adaptation by Mackendrick, John Dighton and Roger MacDougall of MacDougall’s stage play of the same name. It’s a gently satirical comedy that pokes fun at both the working classes and the bosses, while raising fundamental questions about the artificial assumptions that underlie the whole structure of capitalist economy, in a way that is still relevant today.

The idea that production and consumption chase each other in a never-ending, upward spiral has been the basis of capitalist theory for more than a century. The “law of supply and demand” is in fact a fairy tale told by the bosses in order to avoid responsibility for the consequences of their decisions. The idea that an invisible hand, rather than the machinations of special interests with the full support of government, when they can enlist it, is what drives markets is another such fable, meant to bamboozle the hoi polloi.

As a number of observant economists have remarked, the kind of unending expansion on which capitalism insists requires endlessly expanding markets and endlessly expanding resources. But in the real world, neither of those things exist—both markets and resources are finite. The self-storage industry in America is proof that people already have far more perfectly good things, too good to throw away, than they know what to do with or can possibly use. Yet for capitalism to move forward, those objects have to be discarded—self-destruct or fall victim to planned obsolescence—in order to make room for the new generation of things. The most familiar organic model of such unbridled, expansive growth in nature is cancer, and it eventually kills its host.

The conceit here is a simple one. Idealistic, eccentric but brilliant chemist Sidney Stratton (Alec Guinness), has taken a series of menial jobs at textile firms in hopes of finding a way to pursue his research in creating a textile fiber of a “long chain polymer” that is both indestructible and soil repellant. His creative idea, rejected on theoretical grounds, gets him fired seven successive times. But the seventh time he makes a breakthrough—just before he is fired.

Along the way, in that last job, he meets Daphne Birnley (Joan Greenwood), scion of a textile magnate, Alan Birnley (Cecil Parker), and intended of junior textile magnate, Michael Corland (Michael Gough). With the key to his process in hand, Sidney solicits Birnley for the funds to complete his research. When he is initially rejected, Daphne—who has taken a liking to him—intercedes to get a hearing with her parent.

Meanwhile, Sidney is living in a workers’ boarding house with several of his fellow workers from his previous job. They initially take his part against the boss’s rejection and Sidney’s firing, championing him as a classic underdog. But Birnley sees the possibilities in Sidney’s process, and sets him up in his own lab to perfect it. After a series of explosive disappointments that almost bring the project to an end, Sidney succeeds, and as a demonstration, produces a stylish suit of white cloth that has to be cut with a welding torch, and which repels any kind of soiling.

But success, both Birnley and his factory workers realize, is no success at all. A fabric that never wears out nor gets dirty will put them all out of work once a run is completed to meet initial demand. Far from a boon to society, they argue, Sidney’s discovery will destroy the artificial supply and demand chain that drives the artificial economy, on which their livelihoods depend.

The textile bosses, assembled by Birnley, try to get Sidney to sign over the rights to his process so that they can permanently suppress it. When he refuses, they imprison him while trying to figure out what to do next. Birnley suggests that Daphne, who he has noticed has a friendly relationship with Sidney, could use her feminine wiles to convince him to accept their offer of a huge lump sum to forget the whole thing.

Daphne resents this attempt to use her, but she goes to Sidney and presents the offer. When he refuses, she is very happy, and rewards him by helping him escape, using a filament of his thread to lower him down from a third story window. He returns to his lodgings, where he encounters his fellow workers. When he tells them the bosses want to suppress his discovery but he wants to pursue it, they turn on him, pointing out that his discovery would put them all out of work.
They imprison him in their turn, but he enlists the aid of a street urchin passing by his window to fool his guard and escape. He rushes about through the “dark, Satanic” mill town, pursued by the bosses in their Rolls-Royces on the one hand, the workers on the other, until finally he is cornered at bay. The mob closes in, and it looks as if mayhem will ensue, until...

The story mixes some elements of slapstick comedy with a dash of romance, and a heavy helping of social satire, as the selfishness of the bosses and the selfishness of the workers become congruent, while both are shown to be rooted in a process that cares more for self-interest than for the greater good. That idea of the capitalist, who, as Adam Smith puts it, “By pursuing his own interest... frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it” is the myth this film seeks to explode.

As screenwriters, Mackendrick and his collaborators have adapted McDougall’s play into a very Shavian piece of social commentary. It is compassionate about the dilemma in which the characters find themselves, and even forgiving towards their foolishness, with an almost Shakespearian “what fools these mortals be” conclusion. The dialogue is crisp and witty, with plenty of wordplay and snappy banter to leaven the story. The story line, while convoluted, remains simple enough to be neatly wrapped up in 90 minutes.

As director, Mackendrick has taken from here and there, borrowing a lot of technique—especially from the German impressionists—in his framing and filming of the mill town, to emphasize its sinister aspects and dramatize the gloom. At the same time, he gives Guinness plenty of room to use his expressive face and body language to convey nuances the script can only suggest, and make the story real and personal. His chase scene borrows from the Keystone comedies. But he ties it all up, as he did in so many of the Ealing Studios comedies, with a technical coordination that finally establishes an underlying coherence to the madcap episodes.

Alec Guinness, whose performances in this kind of understated social comedy were a staple—and a predictable highpoint—of my early moviegoing, is as good as ever here. Playing the eccentric, good-hearted innocent, who only wants to make things better for everyone, his gradual awakening to the venality behind the veneer of “honest business” parallels the awakening the film seeks to provoke in its audience. And with his open-hearted, likable sincerity, Guinness (the British Tom Hanks of his era) pulls it off.

As in all the Ealing comedies, the supporting characters are worthy of films of their own. Joan Greenwood brings a mix of cynicism and hopeful idealism to Daphne that is touching. Cecil Parker makes the elder Brinley a mix of pompous ass, caring father and selfish capitalist that is laughable, but also pitiable. Ernest Thesiger, as the Khan of the textile moguls, Sir John Kierlaw, is a Scrooge-like caricature of furious but ultimately impotent avarice. Henry Mollison, as lab-manager Hoskins, is the epitome of the detail and status-obsessed petty bureaucrat.

The various workers, Vida Hope, Patric Doonan and Duncan Lamont, add a down-to-earth, yet deeply self-deluded, note, witnessing that neither righteousness nor selfishness are the exclusive territory of any group.

The sets are excellent, most likely Ealing soundstages but in stunning black and white looking every bit authentic. The location shots throughout the city don’t shy away from the grittiness and wear of the actual. The cinematography by Douglas Slocombe is—especially for the time period—inventive and imaginative, with a wide variety of framing choices and shot angles that keep the film visually engaging. The music is thematic, more background sounds to underscore certain characters or ideas than music in the usual cinematic sense, and works very well. 

The Man in the White Suit holds up very well over time. I saw it as a pre-teen in the 1950s, and understood mostly the slapstick aspects and the plucky-underdog-standing-up-for-what-he-believes nobility of the Guinness character, without openly understanding the political and social message that went along with it. Seeing it 60 years later, I appreciate the subtlety, as well as the fine performances and clever writing, that have made it deservedly a classic.