The comedies that the Ealing Studios produced in the post-war period in Britain remain one of the most remarkable sequences of films ever made. They are films brimming with fantastic actors, drawn from the glorious stage tradition of the British theatre. They are almost always razor-sharp and never less than entirely entertaining. Most fascinatingly for me as a student of history, they are also films that brilliantly represent and dissect many of the fundamental issues in Britain at the time – the birth of the welfare state, the still-deep class divisions, the changing nature of the working-class. The post-war period in the UK is easily one of the most interesting eras in British history, although it has to be said that it doesn’t have much competition.
The Man in the White Suit very comfortably fits the three aforementioned prerequisites for a good Ealing comedy. The excellent performances are provided by Joan Greenwood, Cecil Parker and – who else? – Alec Guinness. The film is as entertaining and smart as one would expect it to be. And finally, it is brimming with a very particular representation of Britain at the time. It is satiric, but in a very understated, unmistakably British sort of way.
The story is that Sidney Stratton (Alec Guinness), a chemist, has figured out a way to create a fibre that is unbreakable and does not need washing. Unfortunately, he is incapable of finding someone willing to listen to his ideas or with the spare money to fund his research. All of his previous employers up to now have fired him upon hearing of the costs of his experiments, regrettably without listening to what he is experimenting for. Eventually he succeeds, and stands on the edge of releasing his invention to the world. The industrialist businessmen then realise that such a fibre would put them out of business once people have bought enough cloth and attempt to smother his invention. The workers and trade unions get wind of this invention too and join in, despite the fact that Sidney is represented as one of them: he lives, eats and sleeps in a small lodgings in town with a group of other factory workers.
Amidst this kooky, science-fiction-tinged backdrop lies a film of great intelligence and wit. The joining of forces of the trade unions with the capitalists to keep a technological innovation out of the spotlight is a brilliant moment within the film, but what is startling is the level of detail that these moments are fleshed out with, particularly in a film that runs for less than 90 minutes. The two sides are constantly misunderstanding each other: initially the trade unionists believe that the capitalists want to release the invention into the world and go marching off to the offices arguing. After a lot of to-and-froing it is discovered that the two sides essentially want the same things: stability in the industry.
Alan Birnley (Cecil Parker) is the man whose factory is to produce the new fibre, but once the other mill owners discover his plans they round on him and convince him to do otherwise. They’re led by Sir John Kierlaw, played by a gloriously aged and frail-looking Ernest Thesiger. Together they scheme and hatch plans to foil the production of Stratton’s invention. At one point one of the group even suggests the use of brute force, to which another replies that “there are one or two laws in this country”. It is another superb little detail, biting at both the factory owners’ futility in the face of change and also at the simple fact that for all its problems, Britain is a pretty decent place to live in the world. The film depicts a Britain that is resistant to change, not necessarily because it is a backwards place but because it potentially upsets an already delicate balance between a huge array of social factors and demographics. Change here has always come incrementally, for better or for worse, and The Man in the White Suit is a film that illustrates this with a very keen eye.
For me to list all these moments that litter The Man in the White Suit would require an exceptionally long review and me spoiling the film for you. Instead, I will talk about Alec Guinness for a moment. Truly, with every performance the man simply bats it out of the park – even when he’s phoning it in a la Obi Wan Kenobi – and this is certainly not a phoned-in performance. The greatness of Guinness’ powers as an actor lie in his ability to subsume himself completely in a role and make you entirely believe he is that character. He is never Alec Guinness. He is always Sidney Stratton here. He is always Professor Marcus in The Ladykillers. He is always Fagin in Oliver Twist and always Colonel Nicholson in The Bridge On the River Kwai. Here he plays a man who looks as if he should not be the leading man in a film. Sidney Stratton is a shy, humble man, with almost no interest in anything beyond his science. He cares little for money except to fund his experiments, he barely notices the two women that show affection for him, and he quietly slips into the background of most scenes even when he’s the centre of attention. Only an actor of Alec Guinness’ brilliance could take such a leading role, make the character almost anonymous in the larger context of the film, and yet still make you completely believe in every single moment he expresses.
There’s a lot I could go and gush on about in regards to this film, but it is not quite perfect – for a comedy as intelligent as this it is a little low on genuine laughs, and most of its humour is of a very understated wry kind. This is no bad thing, but sometimes one longs for a solid belly laugh to release the tension. Regardless, this is my only nitpick in an otherwise entertaining and sharp film.