Friday, January 24, 2014

The Man in the White Suit

Back in December 2010, I briefly made mention of The Man in the White Suit when it was airing on TCM during a night of comedies from Britain's Ealing Studio. I hadn't seen it at the time, but it's been on a couple of times since then, and it's going to be on again overnight tonight at 1:45 AM. If you haven't seen it before, it's well worth watching.

The movie begins with the textile mill run by titan of industry Michael Corland (played by Michael Gough). Or, more specifically, at the mill's research laboratory. There's an experiment going on that looks almost as though it could have fit in an early 1930s horror movie, what with the complex contraption and various bubbling potions, and the odd sound effects that punctuate the experiment's operations. What exactly is going on here? Well, that's going to be explained later, but the experiments are being carried out by janitor-turned-research chemist Sidney Stratton (Alec Guinness). They're also being carried out somewhat surreptitiously, as when Corland finds out how much money is being spent on these experiments that nobody seems to know what purpose they serve, he has an apoplectic fit and orders the person in charge of them fired.

Stratton goes to Corland's rival Alan Birnley (Cecil Parker) and worms his way into Birnley's laboratory in order to continue his experiments. Stratton doesn't really care which company reaps the benefit; he's trying to do something that's going to be for the benefit of all mankind. So the experiments continue, punctuated not only by the odd soundtrack, but by a series of explosions every time one of the experiments fails. You'd think that would have been a good reason to fire Stratton, but no.

Eventually, Stratton's experiments succeed! It turns out that Stratton was trying to create a new synthetic fabric, and what he's produced is a white fiber that's so white it seems to glow in the same way as that glass of milk Cary Grant carries upstairs to Joan Fontaine in Alfred Hitchcock's Suspicion. But the point of this fabric isn't its seeming glow, but the fact that it's extremely resistant to dirt, and extremely resistant to wear. Imagine the boon to mankind: everybody, and not just the upper classes, will be able to afford a fine suit, as they won't continually have to pay for dry cleaning or getting a new suit when the old one wears out.

Ah, but here lies the problem. Never mind whether the stuff Stratton invented is about as stylish as a 1970s polyester tie; the bosses see a bigger problem. If nobody ever needs a new suit because the old one wears out, that's going to kill the textile industry by reducing demand to near zero. Sure, things don't really work that way, but the term Luddite comes from a real person whose name was appropriated for an early 19th century campaign against new industrial machinery in the belief that it was going to destroy jobs. The modern day Luddites depicted in The Man With the White Suit (eventually including not only the business owners but the labor unions) may be foolishly short-sighted, but they weren't unpredictable. About the only person who supports Stratton is Birnley's daughter Daphne (Joan Greenwood), and the industrialists try to use her to get Stratton to sign a contract granting them the rights to produce this new fabric, although the industrialists are really only planning to buy him out and never actually produce the fabric or release any information that it's actually been invented.

The Man in the White Suit covers some of the same ground that the later British comedy I'm All Right Jack did, alhtough the style of humor is radically different. I'm All Right Jack is nothing but farce, while The Man in the White Suit is much more subtle. There's good visual humor in the sciencey stuff when Stratton is doing his experiments, but when it comes to industrial relations, the humor, while there, is somewhat more understated. Both movies work, and I don't know that you can say one is necessarily better than the other. By the time I'm All Right Jack was made in 1960, British society was, I think, really beginning to change, although that's a topic that British posters would be better able to discuss. The Man in the White Suit is more gentle in any social commentary it's trying to make, but does it in a very entertaining way. Alec Guinness is just as good here as he is in all those other Ealing comedies, and the rest of the cast supports him well. For whatever reason, The Man in the White Suit isn't as well known as some of the other Ealing comedies, and that's a shame. It deserves more recognition.

The Man in the White Suit is available on DVD is you miss tonight's overnight showing.

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