(8/10) In a nutshell: This cynical 1951 Ealing comedy explores the upset within the British textile industry when a driven scientist invents a fabric that never wears out and never needs to be washed. Alec Guinness and Joan Greenwood are superb in this witty, funny and extremely well directed, filmed and edited little low-budget gem. A slow start, flat characters and a certain lack of emotional investment prevent the film from reaching absolute top rank.
The Man in the White Suit (1951). Directed by Alexander Mackendrick. Written by Roger MacDougall, John Dighton, Alexander Mackendrick. Based on a play by Roger MacDougall. Starring: Alec Guinness, Joan Greenwood, Cecil Parker, Michael Gough, Ernest Thesiger, Howard Marion-Crawford, Henry Mollison, Vida Hope. Produced by Michael Balcon for Ealing Studios and J. Arthur Rank Organisation. IMDb score: 7.4
I don’t know whether this film has, for some reason, just been rediscovered, but in the last couple of weeks I have seen it pop up on two different lists of ”the greatest sci-fi films in history”, and I don’t recall it being a staple on such lists. Or perhaps I’ve just not noticed it before, as I hadn’t seen it before starting this blog. But it truly deserves its place among the science fiction classics.
The film is difficult, however, to properly rate among the ranks of other science fiction greats, as it is a very atypical science fiction film. Not only is it British, it is also an Ealing comedy. It certainly can’t compete with the visual grandeur of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) or Metropolis (1927, review), nor the technical innovation of Star Wars (1977) or Jurassic Park (1993). It doesn’t have the genre-defining impact of Alien (1979) or Terminator (1984), the artistic relentlessness of Stalker (1979), the world-shattering vision of The Matrix (1999), nor the allegorical depth of District 9 (2009). When thinking of really good sci-fi comedies, films that spring to mind are Sleeper (1973), Dark Star (1974), Back to the Future (1984), Ghostbusters (1984), Spaceballs (1987), Galaxy Quest (1999) and Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), but the film doesn’t really bear much resemblance to any of them. It is, in short, an anomaly within the sci-fi genre, and infused with the wits and talent of another genre, to which it wholly and fully belongs – the Ealing comedy.
One could go on forever about the Ealing Comedies, but suffice to say that they were a series of comedy films produced between 1947 and 1957, all in all numbering from 14 to 17, depending on how you count. Some were traditional slapstick comedies of mediocre quality, but a good third of them were cinematic masterpieces in every sense of the word. The Man in the White Suit is one of those. The best Ealing comedies are known for their highly intelligent and witty scripts, their bold themes that pushed the bounderies of the acceptable (some of them had to be editied to pass American censorship), their superb acting, impeccable techical and artistic merits and their sometimes dark, stingy anti-establishment satire.
The greatest star of the Ealing comedies (rivalled only by Stanley Holloway) was Alec Guinness. Guinness starred in the three films often cited as the greatest Ealing comedies: Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), where he played eight roles, The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), one of the greatest heist films of all time, and The Ladykillers (1955), just simply one of the best movies of all times, all categories. The Man in the White Suit is often omitted when recounting the Ealing classics, perhaps because of its more subdued nature and the darkness of its satire, as the film almost plays out as a tragedy at times. Nevertheless, the sparkling bits of comedy shine through all the brighter when they occur.
In The Man in the White Suit Guinness plays the mild-mannered, driven scientist Sidney Stratton in a Dickensian textile industry town, who works as a low-level employee at a string of textile factories. In secret he uses company funds to discover the chemical formula for a synthetic fabric that is unbreakable and dirt-repelling, getting thrown out of factory after factory after his dabbling is discovered. Not only would the discovery be a great scientific achievement, it would also be a miraculous product for the consumers, as one would never have to wash, mend or buy new clothes.
And now I graciously give the floor to Simon Moore at Flickering Myth, because he explains the rest with a grace and beauty I could never muster: ”To begin with, we haven’t the faintest idea what Sidney is up to in his dark little corner of the laboratory at Corland Mills, his experiment tooting and plooting and bubbling away, confounding anyone to guess at its true purpose. Only Daphne Birnley (Joan Greenwood), daughter to one mill owner (Cecil Parker) and engaged to another (Michael Gough) even bothers to notice Sidney exists.
After several false starts at mills all over the country, Sidney finally perfects his formula at Birnley’s, working as an unpaid researcher so his name cannot appear on the books. Only Daphne, who had spotted him working at Corland’s previously, tumbles to his ruse. Sidney only just stops her from spilling a great many beans to her father, explaining the unprecedented significance of his work to her.
There’s something about the way director Alexander Mackendrick lingers on Daphne’s softened expression. Sidney is bumbling on about long chain molecules, but we see something else. We see, as she does, this weirdly wonderful little man for the first time, coming to life as he holds forth on the things that really matter to him. It’s to Joan Greenwood’s immense credit that we read every hint of fascination and wonder and affection for this man in those feline features of hers.
She and Guinness give some of their very best performances, skewing very subtle, far beyond most of their comedy contemporaries’ abilities. For all Joan Greenwood’s sultry looks and seductive purrs, she elevates Daphne Birnley above the typical functionality of a mere love interest role. Her own quirks and eccentricities offer new angles and alternatives to the usual hanging-on-the-hero’s-sleeve routine. Her character may not be a world-class chemist like Sidney, but she immediately dives into the nearest encyclopaedia in an attempt to educate herself about the possibilities of his discovery.
As this discovery gains momentum, certain vested interests start to take notice. Textile multi-millionaire/warmed up corpse Sir John Kierlaw (Ernest Thesiger) appears with a warning to get a hold on Sidney and his invention, before it puts them all out of business. Similarly, the mill’s Works Committee cry havoc at the prospect of ever-lasting unemployment. For once, Capital and Labour are in agreement: Sidney Stratton must be stopped.”
Thank you, Simon, for those eloquent words.
From here on, then, it is full throttle all the way. A great fight breaks out at the offices of industry, when the bosses try to make Sidney sign over his investment’s patent to them, so that they can suppress it. After escaping he seeks refuge with his confidantes in the worker’s movement, but they lock him up all the same, as they fear immediate unemployment, should his invention be put to wider use. Daphne plays along with the executives and uses her sex appeal to try and convince Sidney to accept the bribe of a quarter of a million pounds to sign over the patent for the invention, and to her relief, he refuses. The film ends with a memorable foot chase through pitch-black streets, an angry mob of industrialists and workers on the heels of Sidney in his glowing white radioactive suit. The chase, and seemingly the story, ends with an unexpected and shocking plot twist creating a very strong emotional, and indeed moral, finish to the film, leaving the the sympathetic, Promethean scientist standing literally almost completely naked in the midst of a laughing and jeering throng. But, in the very last seconds of the film, another twist is thrown in, ending the film on an ambiguously optimistic note.
The film is based on the stage play Roger MacDougall, who was the cousin of director Mackendrick. The screenplay was then re-written by MacDougall, Mackendrick and John Dighton, who also contributed to Kind Hearts and Coronets and the classic romantic comedy Roman Holiday, starring Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn. The film is an unusual social satire in the way it refuses to take any sides, and portrays a social paradox as the multi-faceted problem that such usually are. Guinness’ character represents the single-minded focus of scientific progress, often oblivious to the social repercussions of its discoveries. We certainly feel no sympathy for the pompous elite who would suffer immense economic damage if their textile business would go out of business, but it is a lot easier to relate to the wrath of all the poor factory workers who would be out of jobs if their factories closed down. It isn’t until the final chase scene that the message is driven home to Sidney. When he seeks a last refuge with his old, kind-hearted landlady, she turns him away in one of the most poignant scenes in the movie, with the words: ”Why can’t you scientists leave things alone? What about my bit of washing, when there’s no washing to do?”
The film isn’t just a parable about scientific progress and the moral responsibilities of scientists, a very relevant question just seven years after the events of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It also tackles a question that is perhaps more burning now than ever, in our automated and computer-driven world: what happens when science makes physical labour redundant? This is a question that is ever more pressing in the post-industrial industrialised countries, and one that many of us hope a movie could bring revelation to. Alas, this film brings no answers, it only poses the question in an extremely intelligent and funny way. (My answer is basic income, but that’s beside the point.)
Mackendrick apparently went even further than this in his allegory. According to Mark Duguid at BFI Screenonline the director said that ”Each character in the story was intended as a caricature of a separate political attitude, covering the entire range from Communist, through official Trades Unionism, Romantic Individualism, Liberalism, Enlightened and Unenlightened Capitalism to Strong-arm Reaction. Even the central character was intended as a comic picture of Disinterested Science”. This is not necessarily something you have time to reflect on during the break-neck pace of the film, though. The screenplay was nominated for an Oscar for “best story and screenplay”.
The comedy of the film is based not so much on the characters as it is on the situations, which I find is the case with many of the best comedies. The cast play the film with straight faces, apart from the occasional hamming from some of the industry bosses. The movie is a master-class in the art of British understatement, that is, the funniest moments are those we don’t see. One good example is the research phase, where we see Sidney elaborately setting up his experiment, then taking cover in an adjacent room. Nighthawk continues: ”We see Guinness getting everything ready, but then we follow another character out the door into the office next door. It is only there, outside of the room, that we get the tremendous explosion that rocks the entire factory. Only then do we go back to the room, with the astounding amount of destruction, and a calm, collected Guinness, who simply walks over and says ‘It shouldn’t have done that.’” Explosion after explosion follow, but we never actually see the explosions, only the side-effects in the rest of the factory, mostly viewed from the tiny, cluttered cubicle of the research executive (without doubt an inspiration for Terry Gilliam’s Brazil ). As the walls fall in over him, he doesn’t blink an eye, just calmly tells a visitor: ”Sit down, there will be another one in just a minute.”
Another brilliant piece of cinema is when Sidney is confronted by the angered industry execs as he refuses to sign away his patent. We see two big men closing in on Sidney and then – cut to the receptionist’s office. A calm, silent image. Then the buzzer on her desk goes off. And again. And again. Still everything is tranquil, that is until she opens the door to the executive’s office, and meet a room in full-fledged battle chaos, with Sidney pinned down over a desk on the buzzer button. The film is full of these genius moments of astute direction and editing. It is also filled with wonderful small quirks, such as the outlandish – Thing – that Sidney uses for his experiment, a tangle of spiral tubes and hoses, beakers and … things, that makes a brilliant rhythmic gurgling, bubbling, plopping sound. So great was the sound that it was used by Jack Parnell to make an song called The White Suit Samba (well, he used it as an intro and outro, so not much imagination on his part). And then there’s the details, like the scientist who is constantly caught drinking with a straw from his beakers, sheepishly embarrassed each time. Nothing is ever made of this, it’s just one of those splendid moments that come out of working with an ensemble cast and crew.
I could go on and on about this, and about the superb direction, lighting, editing, set design, prop design, and so forth. But let’s just say that everything in the film is absolutely top-notch. This is particularly impressive as the Ealing comedies were invariably low-budget efforts (although I haven’t found any actual budget numbers). Low-budget in this context doesn’t mean shoe-string budget, though. Much of the credit for the astounding look of the film (as many other Ealing comedies) should probably go to director of photography Douglas Slocombe, thrice Oscar nominated and responsible for filming The Italian Job (1969), Murphy’s War (1971), Travels with My Aunt (1972), Rollerball (1975), Julia (1977) and all of the three original Indiana Jones films.
Last but not least, the acting is absolutely superb. Alec Guinness is one of the top contenders for the title of the greatest film actor in history, and especially impressive is the ease with which he moved between comedy, drama and action. The chase sequences of the Ealing comedies are on par with the best work done by Buster Keaton in the silent era, and even though Guinness doesn’t quite have the athletic abilities of Keaton, he nevertheless did most of his own stunts in the Ealing comedies, or as he put it: the Ealing studios did their best to kill him. In The Man in the White Suit his safety wires actually snapped during a rooftop climb. Fortunately he was only four feet from the ground at that time – had they snapped a few seconds earlier, the fall might have been fatal. His comedic talents relied on the fact that he mostly played his characters almost straight, knowing exactly how much to send them up in order to be both believable and funny – a perfect example is his role in The Ladykillers, which in another context might well have been a truly sinister villain. In that film he completely usptaged and outclassed a young Peter Sellers, who 8 years later would create his iconic character Jacques Clouseau in The Pink Panther, and a year after that did his own Guinnessian tour de force of multiple characters in the sci-fi classic Dr. Strangelove (1964).
Guinness was a noted stage actor when he was brought to the screen by director David Lean in no less film than Great Expectations (1946). He did some of his greatest films with Lean, including Oliver Twist (1948), in which he played the iconic role of Fagin, The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), which earned him an Oscar as best actor, Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Dr. Zhivago (1965). Other notable films were The Horse’s Mouth (1957), for which he was nominated for an Oscar – for his screenplay, The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), Hitler: The Last Ten Days (1973), where he played the Nazi leader himself, Murder by Death (1976) and the TV mini-series Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy (1979). His last major role was in Steven Soderbergh’s splendidly absurd Kafka (1996).
He is of course best known to younger generations for that one iconic role that would follow him for the rest of his life: Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars (1977). Guinness famously didn’t have much love for the film, and agreed to play the role only after serious salary negotiations, which gave him a small cut of the director’s earnings of the box office profits (George Lucas got 5 percent, Guinness got 2,25 percent of that). Little did he know that this little slice of the profits would set him up economically for the rest of his life. After reading the script, he had called it ”fairy-tale rubbish”, and had no love what so ever for science fiction. However, he did like the moral message of the film, and the use of the classic archetypical characters. And after seeing the screening of the finished movie, he actually wrote very positively about it in his diary, praising the visuals and the technical aspects, and calling it ”exciting, very noisy and warm-hearted”. He did feel, though, that ”some of the dialogue was excruciating”, but he wasn’t alone in that. What he didn’t like, however, was the way in which the role of Kenobi followed him around everywhere he went, and how he was always connected with that one role that he held in no high regard. He also found the fan cult around Star Wars extremely confounding, and stayed clear of it as best he could. During filming, he was nonetheless the perfect gentleman, and according to all sources, encouraged and inspired the young and inexperienced cast and crew. George Lucas is quoted as having said that Guinness was crucial to the finishing of the film. And although Alec Guinness might not have had much love for the sci-fi community, we will never stop loving him and his portrayal of Obi-Wan. May the force be with you, where-ever you are, Sir Alec.
The other star of the The Man in the White Suit, as noted in Simon Moore’s extract above, is leading lady Joan Greenwood, who appeared in two other Ealing comedies, and is remembered for The Importance of Being Earnest (1952) Moonfleet (1955) and Tom Jones (1963). Remembered perhaps chiefly for her smooth sex appeal acquired from her background as a dancer, and most importantly her husky voice and sensual purring delivery, she was in fact a very good actress, and holds her own against Guinness, which is no mean feat. Greenwood worked on both sides of the Atlantic, but appeared in few sci-fi films. Her only other major sci-fi role was as leading lady in Cy Enfield’s very loose adaptation of Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island (1961), where she fought giant killer crabs and man-eating plants. She also had an uncredited role in Roger Vadim’s campy erotic space comedy Barbarella (1968) as the voice of The Great Tyrant. Her last film role was, fittingly, opposite Alec Guinness in Little Dorrit (1987).
Fans of old horror movies will gasp with delight at seeing Thespian Ernest Thesiger as the almost mummified industry tycoon Sir John Kierlaw. Again, the scene where Kierlaw is introduced is absolutely superb. When it is announced that Kierlaw is arriving at one of the mills, his name is merely whispered, as fear spreads among the brass of the factory. We then cut to a row of cars, looking almost like a funeral cortege, and then see a shadowy silhouette in a plush leather seat in the back of a limousine. Then we cut to a factory hall where we see only his shuffling feet and a cane, as he is almost carried down the corridor by his aids. Cut again to the exec’s room where we only see his back, and the faces of the awe-struck executives as he is lowered into a giant leather chair. Then, and only then, as the scene is set and the players ready, do the filmmakers reveal the man himself. It is not too far fetched to think that George Lucas, as a huge fan of Alec Guinness, modelled his scene of the revelation of the emperor in The Empire Strikes Back (1981) on this scene, and would no doubt have called in Thesiger for the role, had he still been alive.
And Thesiger is wonderfully dry and understated as the old, wizened hard-as-bones industry magnate, the very embodiment of old money and the corpses he has had to walk over to attain them. And he is also extremely funny, especially in the brawl scenes, where he swings widely at Guinness with his cane. This was Ernest Thesiger’s only science fiction role besides his iconic performance as the sinister Dr. Pretorius in James Whale’s Universal masterpiece The Bride of Frankenstein (1935, review).
A young Michael Gough is also excellent as the industry boss set to marry Daphne, who takes great pride in being a self-made man and refuses to have any stake in Daphne´s father’s firm, as if to prove that he doesn’t want to marry for money. The big revelation of the film is that Alfred from the Batman films of the eighties and nineties has actually been young (for some reason IMDb doesn’t list the Batman films as sci-fi, although it happily lists the much less science fictiony film serials of the forties as such). Gough of course, as so many British character actors, got his great cinematic fame in the autumn of his life. But he had been a prolific actor in many sci-fi TV series prior to that, perhaps best remembered as the arch-criminal Dr. Clement Armstrong in The Avengers (1965) and for his role as the Toymaker in Dr. Who in 1966, and later as Councillor Hedin in 1983. He also appeared in the sci-fi films Konga (1961), They Came from Beyond Space (1967), Horror Hospital (1973) and The Boys from Brazil (1978). Noteworthy appearances in his later life were as Notary Hardenbrook in Sleepy Hollow (1999), and the voices of Elder Gutknecht in Corpse Bride (2005) and the Dodo Bird in Alice in Wonderland (2010). He passed away in 2011.
Noted character actor Cecil Parker may be known for sci-fi fans from his roles in the British Boris Karloff film The Man Who Changed His Mind (1936, review) and The Brain (1963). Duncan Lamont starred in the original TV series The Quatermass Experiment (1953, review) and Dr. Who (1974), and had small guest appearances on other British sci-fi series, as well as appeared in the films The Evil of Frankenstein (1964), Quatermass and the Pit (1967), The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1968) and The Creeping Flesh (1973). Harold Goodwin also appeared in the TV series Quatermass and the Pit (1958-1959) and the films Die, Monster Die! (1965) and Frankenstein Must be Destroyed (1969). I won’t go through the whole cast, as it is huge, but let’s point out that as the flabbergasted tailor who is hired to put together Sidney’s white suit we see Miles Malleson, that we have previously seen on this blog in another sci-fi comedy, The Perfect Woman (1949, review).
Costume designer Anthony Mendleson designed, among a few other sci-fi garbs, the futuristic clothes of the cult movie Saturn 3 (1980), starring Kirk Douglas, Farrah Fawcett and Harvey Keitel, including the memorable revealing and heavily shoulder padded s/m gear that Fawcett wears at one point in the movie, as well as the loose bath robes and night gowns that she sort of half-wears.
So how to summarise all this? As pure science fiction it is not spectacular. It is not the funniest of the Ealing comedies. As a satirical look at society it is razor-sharp, and far exceeds most of the rather obvious statements made by many science fiction films in the fifties, and later as well, for that matter. It probably ranks among the five best filmed sci-fi movies, and may be the best edited, of the decade. If it has flaws, they are probably that the characters are so archetypal and represent ideas rather than people, that they become quite flat, even though the actors do a wonderful job of trying to fill them with personality. The portrait of Sidney Stratter is so blandly drawn in the script, that all the credit for making him such an interesting character goes to Alec Guinness. And as mentioned above, Joan Greenwood also elevates her character above the writing. But these are the only two characters in the film that we care about in the slightest, perhaps with the exception of Bertha the unionist, thanks to Vida Hope’s sympathetic and highly human portrayal. The film also takes some time to get going and set up the characters and the premise. I’d say ten minutes might have been quite easily cut from the first 30 minutes of the film, without affecting the information we receive much. And I do understand that this is a comedy, and the filmmakers wanted to end it on a positive note, and that is why they have put in the little epilogue with the final twist in the end. You don’t want the audience to leave from a comedy feeling depressed. But it does take away from the poignant and sad climax of the film, which actually would have stood very well on its own.
It was a very difficult decision whether I should give the film 8 or 9 stars. Either way it would have set a benchmark for the rest of the films of the fifties that I am about to review. If I rated it as 8, then it would be extremely difficult for any film of the decade to make it onto my list of great films (which has stood untouched since 1935, no less). But if I rated it as 9, there might be the temptation to throw one of the classics up to the 9 mark even though it might not actually deserve, just because of the feeling that it shouldn’t be outdone by an Ealing comedy. I would love to have given in eight and a half, but that’s not how I roll. After long deliberation I decided to give it 8 stars, based on the fact that despite all its great qualities, it did lack somewhat in impact. It’s clever, charming, well-made and thought-provoking, but simply lacks that last thrust of emotional panache, that elusive quality that some films have that makes them Experiences more than merely films. And to climb up to that list of great films, you need that little bit of extra oomph!
The Man in the White Suit (1951). Directed by Alexander Mackendrick. Written by Roger MacDougall, John Dighton, Alexander Mackendrick. Based on a play by Roger MacDougall. 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, Arthur Howard, Roddy Hughes, Stuart Latham, Miles Malleson. Music: Benjamin Frankel. Cinematography: Douglas Slocombe. Editing: Bernard Gribble. Casting: Margaret Harper Nelson. Art direction: Jim Morahan. Costume design: Anthony Mendelson. Makeup: Harry Frampton, Ernest Taylor, Barbara Barnard (hair). Production supervisor: Hal Mason. Sound supervisor: Stephen Dalby. Special effects: Sydney Pearson. Visual effects (special processes): Geoffrey Dickinson. Produced by Michael Balcon for Ealing Studios and J. Arthur Rank Organisation.