The Man in the White Suit

The Man in the White Suit. Ealing Studios 1951.

Before watching the movie:

I’d heard about the premise of this movie before, but I never considered the idea that it might be a comedy. Alec Guinness leading a comedy sounds like the sort of idea Leslie Nielsen leading Airplane! was: a serious actor playing the straight man. However, the blurb describes him as “impish”, so I’m highly intrigued.

I also hadn’t realized until I started filing this post into categories that I’ve never done a movie from the 1950s. Now I just need to review Birth of a Nation and a Charlie Chaplin film, and I’ll have the entire span of feature-length movies represented (at least I assume the medium was too new to tell stories that long before 1910).

After watching the movie:

Sidney Stratton takes whatever textile jobs he can to get access to laboratories where he can attempt to perfect his idea for the ultimate revolution in fabric. He wants to create an infinitely long synthetic polymer that would be indestructible, and also inherently electrostatic to repel dirt. His expensive and explosive experiments get him labeled as a madman, but when he’s finally done it, his boss is quite pleased. Until the capital and labor leaders in the industry realize that it would mean the end of their industry.

This comedy is so subdued that I rarely laughed. That’s probably due to modern expectations of constant, snappy punchlines. A few scenes struck me as rather funny, but mostly it seemed more focused on the social commentary than the humor. Usually the scenes that I can tell are definitely funny involve someone being frenzied, but there’s one moment where Sidney gives a long resignation speech that turns out to not to be anybody but his reflection that I noticed as a somewhat primitive form of a joke that’s very common in modern comedy.

The focus of the story seemed weak early on. I came into it expecting Sidney to be the protagonist, but until some point after his initial success, the narrative feels more like Daphne’s story. Then after her role in getting her father to listen to what he’s raving about, she practically drops out until act 3, when a romance seems to have spontaneously erupted between them.

It’s hard to tell if this film is taking a side in its social commentary. On the one hand, there’s an anti-change angry mob after Sidney. On the other, Sidney won’t be silenced even though he gets to meet all the people his invention will put out of business. Thinking about it, the dilemma is a little too simplistic. The old industry dies and a new industry will replace it. We’ve seen often that progress happens, and the unfortunate part is when it happens so fast that it displaces everyone at once. Particularly though, what struck me was the factory owners trying to stop Sidney by any means necessary. Sidney gets knocked out and when the industry baron finds he’s still okay, he’s disappointed. We saw very recently how industry leaders put more effort into stopping change than trying to adapt, with Hollywood’s attempt to coerce the US government into passing SOPA, destroying the internet as we know it rather than figuring out how to use it. That battle isn’t over yet, as ACTA attempts to do something similar using international trade agreements.

 

Watch this movie: as a thought-provoking low-key satire.

Don’t watch this movie: for a zany sci-fi farce.

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3 thoughts on “The Man in the White Suit

  1. Barb February 18, 2012 / 10:11 am

    Ah. What you’ve just experienced is the division that used to exist in “comedy” up until –oh, probably about the mid 70’s– the division between slapstick comedy, screwball comedy, and the subtler form that was simply called “comedy”, because it wasn’t tragedy or drama. For another excellent example, (also with Sir Alec) I’d suggest that you add “Kind Hearts and Coronets” from 1949, to your queue.

  2. Valerie Wood February 18, 2012 / 10:37 am

    i would describe anything with Alec Guinness, including his serious work, as “impish.”

    • Barb February 21, 2012 / 10:28 am

      That’s an excellent way to characterize Sir Alec’s work. There are very few of his roles I can think of where there wasn’t a hint of mischief in the way he played his character — Bridge Over the River Kwai, for one.

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