One of the most paradoxically romantic scenes in any film ever can be found in Alexander Mackendrick’s second film for Ealing Studios, 1951’s The Man in the White Suit. In this scene, Joan Greenwood visibly falls in love with Alec Guinness when he unloads a heap of scientific argot upon her, even though she clearly has no idea what he’s talking about. As Daphne, the daughter of textile industrialist Alan Birnley (Cecil Parker), Greenwood utilizes her modest range, a pillar of rational stability amidst a typical Ealing free-for-all, matching brilliantly with Guinness’ passionately aloof (or vice versa) transient scientist, Sidney Stratton. Sidney strives to create a material that would be absolutely resistant to both wear and stains, something indestructible. It’s a fly-by-night endeavor, pilfering various materials from textile factories and working under the cover of his lowly status as a lab assistant. As Sidney’s personal experiments are discovered in the opening scenes, it’s implied that he’s bounced around north England mills before for these very reasons, and will continue to do so.
Sidney’s able to successfully “parlay” his new position as a warehouse worker at Birnley Mills into an unpaid researching gig, which, with Guiness’ affable empty-headedness, is a surprisingly sympathetic development, even as Mackendrick himself remains rightfully wary of the industry’s penchant for exploitation. Like the explosions that repeatedly rock Birnley Mills as Sidney tries to strike the perfect balance of incompatible chemicals, The Man in the White Suit’s humor in these passages of scientific invention are concentrated bursts that break from more pedestrian intervals. Were the film relegated merely to the relatively easy realm of jokes furnished by a “wacky” scientist, it’d be pleasurable, maybe a little too digestible, and not much more.
However, the eponymous white suit, an amalgamation of invincible fibers that are luminous for their dye-resistant properties, is produced, Sidney’s success in this arena only a digression in Mackendrick’s impossibly warmhearted and equally indicting film. The Man in the White Suit derives much of its humor from the otherwise despairing inner workings of everyday commerce: beyond the surface politesse of these mills is a system clotted by capital. Scientific progress is such that it can only function as a detriment to income, as the administrative parties have no desire to implement a safety net for their workers were their load lessened, the output cut. Naturally, as Sidney’s creation garners more attention — the idea of releasing this groundbreaking event to the press is frequently tossed about — both the management and the workers implore him to keep his work a secret. If Mackendrick comes across as casting too wide a cynical net, one only need compare the caricaturish villainy of the bosses, with their infighting, garish dress, and propensity for bribery and prostitution, and the united front of the mill’s union, as embodied by Vida Hope’s Bertha, another voice of reason in this maelstrom of power-struggle uncertainty.
The dryness of tone works to the benefit of this knotty collection of issues, never over-extending itself as Mackendrick would later in his career, such as in — the still quite strong though considerably more labored — The Ladykillers or The Sweet Smell of Success. It’s a rich contrast to draw from: what if these uppity business spaces were suddenly thrown into fits of chaos because of one Alec Guinness? The second half of the film is really a protracted chase scene, with characters stopping over in pockets of commentary, as opposed to arriving at them; the momentum sustains itself, engulfing everyone from Michael Gough’s perfectly limp nepotism baby to a local baker, whose white uniform gets him momentarily confused for the on-the-lamb Sidney. The welcome broadness of the comedy, the way it hits on a gut level, gives the impression that Mackendrick is spraying buckshot, but the character work is too pointed, too well-rounded. The catalyst of The Man in the White Suit’s delirious unraveling may not be wholly believable, but everything after is.
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.