The Man In the White Suit (1951)

It often astounds me whenever I go to see a classic film on the big screen.  If it’s one that I’ve never ever seen before, the reason I’m there is because I did just barely enough research to know it’s critically acclaimed (or at least a good film), but I usually don’t read any form of synopsis (and if I do, I usually forget by the time I see the film).  This keeps the film experience truly fresh for me.  I recently went to see Rialto Pictures’ newly restored 35mm print of 1951’s The Man In the White Suit at Film Forum.  All I knew going into the film was that Alexander Mackendrick directed it, Alec Guinness starred in it, and it was supposed to be a comedy (and yes, it was supposed to be a good film as well).  Without spoiling anything for readers, the film is about a scientist who works at one textile mill after another in the hope of perfecting a formula he’s been working on (one that could alter the landscape of textile manufacturing if produced and sold).

The film was as terrific as I knew it would be.  The dry British humor that I enjoy ceaselessly was there.  Alec Guinness was terrific as Sidney Stratton, as was Joan Greenwood as Daphne (the daughter of one of the textile mill owners).  I enjoyed every second of it.  What struck me the most, or rather what I was unprepared to see, was seeing both labor (workers) and capital (management/owners) trying to silence/suppress Stratton because he’s created a new kind of fiber that can never get wet or dirty.  The fear of unemployment drives labor to strike at first, The Man in the White Suitthen try to capture Stratton.  The fear of profit loss drives the owner (as well as some other local textile mill owners) to try to buy out Stratton in order to suppress his formula.  This reminded me of how fearful we are as a people of scientific progress (for one thing, there are some people who are still trying to debate the theory of evolution) and that we’ll continue to fear what we don’t understand.

The workers couldn’t understand the big picture that Stratton was looking at.  All they could see was that they’d lose their jobs.  Stratton saw that his new material could benefit the world.  While it’s rational to worry about losing your job (especially in today’s economy), it’s troubling that the workers could not (or would not) see beyond that, especially when they could most likely find new jobs.  As for the owners, Stratton was lucky that they were only local textile mill owners in Britain.  They could’ve tried to have him killed rather than bribe and, when that didn’t work, essentially kidnap him, but they didn’t because they’re not low enough to be considered scumbag capitalists (like the ones we can find here in the U.S. today).  The local textile mill owners in the film at least cared about their workers (to a certain extent; at least they didn’t want to lay them off).

One thing that troubled me was how different this movie would be if it were made today and set in America.  For starters, it would’ve been a thriller.  The textile mill owners would try to buy the scientist’s silence, and the second that didn’t work they’d bring in someone to dispose of him.  As for the workers, the owners wouldn’t really care about them (and this is assuming that their jobs haven’t already been outsourced to another country in order for the owners to pay the workers less while putting more money in their own fat, greedy pockets).

In fact, the only remake of this film that might have a shot at working would be to do it as a period film (set at the same time as the original) in Britain.  Of course, parallels being drawn to today would have to be worked into the script in order to give the remake some relevance, otherwise it’s just a re-enactment with nothing new to offer.  And finally, I couldn’t help but notice the sequence where the workers and the owners realize that they both want the same thing (suppression of Stratton’s formula).  One of the owners walks over and tells them that this situation was a reminder of how much they needed each other, acting as a kind of mediator.  I couldn’t help but think if Mackendrick was intentionally spoofing the finale to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.  For a 1950s British comedy, this one was quite the thinker.


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