The Bottom Line
A brilliant but overlooked chemist (Alec Guinness) discovers a new artificial fabric that never gets dirty and lasts forever, but his discovery has more consequences than it at first appears.
The Rest of the Story
Based on a successful 1951 stage play, the story is simple enough. Our hero Sidney Stratton (the white suited man in question - more on that later) is a Cambridge-trained chemist with a dream: to create a fabric that will never get dirty or tear through artificial polymerization (the film seems admirably educated on its pseudoscience.) Fired from his first job for using unauthorized company funds to his ends, he finds himself working at Birney's, another textile mill, as a truck loader. When serendipity strikes and he's mistaken for a research scientist, he takes advantage of the situation to once again renew his efforts.
"Eureka!" An initial success leads to him getting a cushy scientist job to replicate it, and when he does, he is (at first) the toast of Mr. Birney (Cecil Parker). But then it gets complicated. The other textile industrialists complain that if his new fabric goes into production, they'll all be out of business in 6 months. Meanwhile, Stratton's old coworkers the mill crew feel the same way, while Stratton himself blindly goes about assuming his fabric will improve mankind and he'll be known as the greatest scientist of the 20th century.
Donning a white suit made from his fabric, Stratton prepares to meet the press about his stupendous discovery, as parties on all sides plot against him. Will his discovery come to light? What steps will be taken to prevent him? Is it true that no good thing lasts forever? The answers lie with The Man in the White Suit.
Of the Ealing Studios pictures I've seen this may be the most traditional in terms of plot and humor. It has only the faintest sniff of whimsy that produced such classics as The Ladykillers, Kind Hearts and Coronets, and The Lavender Hill Mob. And yet in its conventional way, it conveys all of the same viewpoints that made those films so successful: the eccentric protagonist and supporting cast, a bit of light moralizing on economics and class, and of course, a wacky and well-populated crescendo and climax.
Alec Guinness is serviceable but not excelling in the main role of the blithe and naive chemist. His rakish charm and erudite manner capture the principles but not the blindness of the character. He spends much of the movie hiding or off-camera, and this only subtracts from his aura. So much the better that Sir Alec's future roles were considerably broader than this.
The film makes great use of its supporting cast, particularly Cecil Parker as Birnley the conflicted businessman who stands to profit from the fabric but can't stand to actually coerce Sidney into submission. The theme music and the memorable beep-boop of Sidney's fabric making apparatus are great (this little ditty was later turned into "The White Suit Samba" by Jack Parnell), as is the titular white suit, so bright it glows in the dark (a salient plot point.)
Aside from a few sight gags, the film's humor mainly derives from its iconic chase scene at the end. With a bit of martial arts or slapdashery, one could find perhaps a gem of a picture here, but instead it feels lazy and particularly unsure of where the laughs are within itself. Perhaps the only way to approach this notion is in quaintness and understatement rather than farce (both The Hudsucker Proxy and Tucker: The Man and His Dream pays homage to this movie in spirit and execution.) In short, the film is a morality play about progress and capitalism disguised as an Ealing comedy. Many people seem to insist that it works as both, when in reality it only works as the first, and then is subsequently undone by that typical Ealing flair for the absurd. Charming, but not as subversive as some would have you believe.
My Rating: 6 out of 10.
Roger MacDougall (play)
Alec Guinness ... Sidney Stratton
Joan Greenwood ... Daphne Birnley
Cecil Parker ... Alan Birnley
Michael Gough ... Michael Corland
Ernest Thesiger ... Sir John Kierlaw
Howard Marion Crawford ... Cranford
Henry Mollison ... Hoskins