No, not Star Wars. A full quarter century before he played Obi-Wan Kenobi, Alec Guinness starred in one of the purest, most science-focused science fiction films ever made. The Man in the White Suit is about scientific progress, and the law of unintended consequences, and it’s brilliant.
The Man in the White Suit is an Ealing Comedy, meaning it was one of a slew of comedies produced by Ealing Studios between 1947 and 1957. Guinness was a mainstay in these productions, and is probably best known for starring in Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Lavender Hill Mob and The Ladykillers.
Guinness’ other Ealing Comedies are about crime, one way or another, but The Man in the White Suit is squarely about technological innovation and social change. (It’s based on a play of the same name by Roger MacDougall.)
Guinness plays Sidney Stratton, a young inventor who keeps getting himself hired by textile companies as a menial laborer, and then fired when they discover, over and over, that he’s using their facilities to do his own research into textiles. Sidney keeps building the same bizarre appartus, full of glassware and funny “bloop bleep” noises, at every textile mill where he gets hired to sweep the floors.
But eventually, Sidney reveals that he’s close to making an incredible discovery — by creating an unbelievably long chain-molecule, he can manufacture a fabric that’s basically indestructible. It won’t tear, you can only cut it with a blow torch, and it never gets stained or dirty. It actually repels dirt, thanks to a static charge.
At first, the mill owner is ecstatic at the idea of a super-fabric that never wears out. Think of the profit potential! He allows Sidney to go ahead and manufacture a prototype suit — which even glows in the dark — and schedules a press conference.
But then, the other leaders of the textile industry come to him and point out that people won’t need to replace their clothes. Once you buy a suit made of this fabric, you’ll never need to buy another one. People will buy clothing, and then the demand will dry up. Meanwhile, the workers at the mill get wind of what Sidney is created, and they call a strike because they envision six months of employment, followed by a total shutdown once demand is satisfied. Soon, both the industrialists and the workers are howling for Sidney’s blood.
(Of course, nobody ever brings up the notion of industrial fabrics, or the countless other possible uses of a material that can withstand temperatures of up to 300 degrees fahrenheit without breaking. But this movie is more of a parable about how we respond to scientific innovation than it is an entirely realistic film.
That said, The Man in the White Suit is one of the few movies ever to do what classic science fiction is supposed to: imagine a scientific breakthrough, a novum, and then see how it changes everything. (Or how it creates a social backlash, in this case.)
What’s great is that Sidney is the ultimate idealist, who believes he’s creating something that will benefit everybody. Alec Guinness has a playful, naughty-schoolboy affect throughout a lot of this film: sneaking around, doing his experiments, extolling his brilliant discovery.
And his quasi-love interest, Daphne (the daughter of the mill owner), explains the dream most succinctly, when she tells Sidney: “Millions of people all over the world are living lives of drudgery, fighting an endless, losing battle against shabbiness and dirt. You’ve won that battle for them. You’ve set them free. The world’s going to bless you.”
But the prediction that “the world’s going to bless you” is sorely mistaken — and in a sense, The Man in the White Suit predicts the dilemmas that we’re still facing today. Technology is poised to eliminate more and more “drudgery” from our lives, by automating jobs that used to be done by hand. But that also means eliminating jobs (including, at this point, a ton of white-collar jobs.) And it turns out, as Sidney discovers, that setting people free isn’t an unalloyed benefit.
In the end, after hearing from factory owners who fear that Sidney’s invention would end planned obsolescence, and workers who fear losing their jobs, Sidney finally runs into his landlady, who makes a bit of extra income doing “washing up” and points out that she’d be out of a job if everybody had clothing that never got dirty. “ Why can’t you scientists leave things alone?” she asks.
The Man in the White Suit takes a certain amount of care to portray a wide spectrum of society, as part of its broad social satire. We get to know some of the workers at the textile mill where Sidney has been hired as a menial laborer, as well as a lot of the rich capitalists who own the mill and other similar ones. Sidney is befriended by his landlady, as well as one of the workers on the textile mill floor, Bertha. Later, when the workers find out what Sidney’s been up to, Bertha insists that he’s being exploited, because in her mind he’s one of the workers. (And Bertha gets a lot of the best lines in the film, about the “dead hand of monopoly” and the relentless logic of capitalism.)
The film is structured as a farce, with lots of people running in and out of rooms and being chased and hiding — but it’s also a very broad look at how technological change threatens entrenched interests, and the ruthlessness with which the system of capital and labor colludes to keep innovation down.
And The Man in the White Suit might also be the only comedy movie ever to have a “scientific adviser” listed in its opening credits. Geoffrey Myers was a textile chemist who worked at ICI Fibres, and consulted on the chemistry in the film (as well as designing the ridiculous apparatus that Sidney keeps building.) A review of the film from the American Chemical Society quotes one of its members as saying it features “the highest quotient of ‘chemistry per screen time’ of any feature film.” Sidney’s descriptions of “polymerizing amino acids” to create “long-chain molecules” are mostly kept scientifically plausible, although he veers into meaningless technobabble at times.
And the film carefully namechecks nylon and rayon — which, in 1951, were relatively new inventions, viewed as scientific miracles. The notion that, on the heels of these incredible super-fabrics, we could invent an even greater fabric that resists damage altogether, must have seemed incredibly relevant.
And the actual suit worn in the film required a large amount of technical innovation — they needed a suit that would be luminous (for the scenes where it lights up at night) and would somehow resist all the dust in the studio. As the movie’s official press notes say, “At one time, it looked as though production of the film might be delayed as report followed report that the experiments were not proving successful... In the end, a special form of acetate rayon was used for the scenes in which the white suit would be seen with two of the suits treated luminously.” The film-makers made 14 stand-in suits, including some which could disintegrate on cue. (And some of the suits used for reshoots and added angles were made of paper.)
Also, some sources claim that the character of Sidney Stratton is based on the real-life inventor and eccentric misfit Geoffrey Pyke, who committed suicide in 1948.
Another way that The Man in the White Suit comments, slyly, on its time, is the heavy Blitz imagery. When Sidney gets started in earnest on developing his indestructible fabric, suddenly his research — which previously was pretty benign — starts causing huge explosions. Sidney is forced to pile up sandbags higher and higher around the laboratory, and wear a helmet, and little by little, his lab resembles London being bombed by the Germans (which was just a decade or so earlier.) Either this is just playing on a very familiar trauma for comic effect, or the film is hinting that scientific progress is going to shake people just like a V-2.
The 1950s and 1960s had plenty of films about scientists who meddle with things that people weren’t supposed to know about — from creating giant ants to inventing “flubber” — but The Man in the White Suit is unusual in that it tries to present real science, it presents its scientist hero as an idealist, and it creates a complex picture of how society responds to new inventions. And it’s absolutely blooming hilarious.
Oh, and if you want to own it on DVD, looks like it’s available pretty cheap as part of this box set.
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