The Man in the White Suit

By Josephine Grahl

Paul Kinsey: It’s from the future, a place so close to us now,
filled with wonder and ease.

Don Draper: Except some people think of the future and it upsets them. They see a rocket, they start building a bomb shelter.

— Mad Men

There are films which seem as though they come from another world. The Man In The White Suit (1951)  is one of those. In some ways it’s a straightforward comedy about unforeseen consequences; but in another way, it’s a film about a world that might have been but never was – that might have been but now never can be.

Sidney Stratton (Alec Guinness) is a maverick research scientist in the textile industry occupied with synthesising a new fabric. As a researcher, he’s fired from several mills, but then finds himself working for Birnley’s, first as a labourer and then, by accident, as a researcher. The gradual sequence in which he appears, peering from behind his lab equipment, disappearing behind a door, to the gentle ‘blip… bloop’ of his chemical process is a gently comical delight.

In the end he succeeds in his aim: developing a textile which can neither get dirty nor wear out. But this throws everything into disarray – a textile that never wears out will put an end to both profit and employment. This immediately sends both the mill-owners and workers into a panic, both realising that this will put an end to their livelihoods

Capital and Labour locked in their futile dance. This is literally a dance, with both sides characterised by a bustle and momentum completely absent from Alec Guinness’s inward stillness. The two sides are shown as united in more than one way: the assonance between Bertha (the be-dungaree’d trade unionist) and Birnley draws a parallel between employers and employees which seems impossible now. The comedy of the film comes primarily from the outrage of these two sides at the invention of a substance which ought logically to be the answer to their prayers: the perfect textile, one which would put an end to the need for further dreary toil. Both sides of the divide are characterised by an escalating hysteria culminating in the final chase scene.

By contrast, Alec Guinness is wonderfully calm and withdrawn. He’s introduced and remains an outsider, shown first as a semi-hidden figure behind a complex stack of test tubes, then stepping behind a door. Sidney Stratton has been described as an Oppenheimer figure: someone so entranced with the magnificence of his scientific invention that he fails to comprehend the havoc he is about to wreak. I think instead one can see him as a visionary, able to see beyond a symbiotic relationship between employers and workers to a world of leisure and plenty.

The film makes comedy of the two central tensions of the post-war era: that between capital and labour, when the 1945 Labour government had sought to regulate and tame business to avoid any return to the conditions of the 1930s Depression; and that between scientific progress and scientific destruction, the hydrogen bomb versus the washing machine. But despite these tensions it would be wrong not to mention how delightfully funny the film is. It’s tremendously comedic and beautiful too: the restored print shows off the elegance of the film-making. The gentle dripping and sloshing of Sidney Stratton’s chemical equipment resolving itself into a beautiful and frenetic music.

It’s noticeable that the only characters Sidney seems really to engage with as equals are those set apart from the worker-employer duality – Daphne, the mill-owner’s daughter (played by Joan Greenwood), who is neither employer nor employed, and the child who helps him escape captivity. With others he seems to keep apart, until the point where the entire situation escalates into a farcical chase sequence. Once he’s developed his fantastic fabric, the luminous suit he has tailored for himself glows out of every frame, at odds with the introvertedness of the character.

At the end of the chase he comes face to face with his landlady, a pathetic, wizened old woman. ‘What will I do without my little bit of washing?’ she asks him. Are we really meant to see her view as the reasonable one? I think the film allows us to look beyond, to wonder about a world in which there was no little bit of washing, no mills, no labour, no exploitation. It’s noticeable that the film is sited within the textile industry, locus not just of the Industrial Revolution (dark satanic mills) but also of modernity and glamour – think of GIs and the nylons they supplied. The past collides with the future.

The STUDIOCANAL restored version of The Man in the White Suit is out on DVD and Blu-ray on 19 November 2012.

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