I recall seeing Alexander Mackendrick’s 1951 film The Man in the White Suit listed as both a comedy and a science fiction film in two separate movie books and as I hadn’t seen it at that time, I was a bit perplexed. Of course, I think I was also about twelve years old, so I was perplexed about a great many things. And in a constant state of perplexed about those great many things believe you me.
Thankfully, once I finally saw this classic a few years later, all my questions were answered – it’s a comedy AND a science fiction film (and a bit of social commentary, to boot). And of course, it’s an Ealing Studios film so it’s just about perfect in every aspect and yes indeed, comes very highly recommended…
Alec Guinness is superb here as Sidney Stratton, a very talented but somewhat aloof chemist who comes up with a miracle fabric impervious to damage, wear and stains after plenty of trial and error (and explosions) at assorted textile plants around London. His miracle fabric is a wee bit too perfect to the point where it can’t even be dyed properly (must be the radiation he’s added to the fiber mix) so a dazzling natty white suit is made and as it just so happens to be Sidney’s size, he gets to wear it around for the bulk of the movie. While you’d think indestructible fabric would be a great thing, once word gets out and about that there’s a suit that’s a bit too sturdily made, Sidney soon finds out there’s a price for perfection as textile manufacturers around the area do anything and almost everything to insure his genius invention never makes it to market.
As with other Ealing comedies, the casting is fantastic all around with Guinness giving his all as Stratton, so caught up in his experiments and chemicals that he’s too oblivious to the boss’s daughter Daphne Birnley (the always lovely Joan Greenwood) attempting to put the moves on him at the request of her father and a few others who want Stratton to fail. The film is filled with plenty of hilarious scientific-sounding babbling and a bunch of funny scenes where Sidney presses a button and his latest experiment goes up in explosions of varying degrees of impact. Things take a slightly serious (but still amusing) turn when the suit gets completed and we see all the forces conspiring against him, but in the end it’s science that has the final say as everyone gets a lesson in impermanence and the film sets Sidney back to where he maybe needs to be.
Granted, the subtleties of Britich humor may (Oh, alright… WILL) be lost on those raised on today’s “comedy” films where everything is either explained to the audience (for the slow ones in the back row…) or cut together so incomprehensibly that any sense of verisimilitude gets shrugged off thanks to sloppy editing and too many fart jokes. You won’t find that here at all, ladies and gentlemen. You’ll just get a film that works on multiple levels and keeps you grinning (and maybe grimacing a little) every time Sidney Stratton goes near a bunch of test tubes and fancy machinery. Hmmm… I wonder what would happen if this one was remade… er besides Alec Guinness’s ghost popping up to take revenge on anyone who decides to wreck this classic. On the other hand, under the right hands (I wonder what Wright, Pegg and Frost have on their plates next?), this could be an innnteresting tribute if done proper justice.
But don’t my my ramblings at all – see the original first and recommend it around to all so we don’t need to even THINK about a new version.