Film/Classic logo

The Man in the White Suit

Directed by Alexander MacKendrick with Alec Guinness, Joan Greenwood and Cecil Parker, black-and-white, 84 minutes, 1951

Man In The White Suit

By Carter B. Horsley

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Ealing Studios in England produced an impressive group of classic, delightful and wry comedies that made great fun of English pomposity and traditions.

By and large, they were rather unpretentious and a far cry from the great slapstick comedies of the Silent Era and a far cry from the contemporary "Carry On…." Series.

The Ealing Studios comedies stand out for their timing and direction and ensemble acting, but most of all for the incredible performances of Alec Guinness, one of England's greatest actors, and "The Man in The White Suit" is the best because it combines Guinness's great mirthful character with a sensational plot that transcended comedy and bore into the heart of capitalism and politics, to say nothing of the morality of science.

Guinness would star in such wonderful films as "Kind Hearts and Coronets," "Great Expectations," "The Ladykillers," "The Lavender Hill Mob" and "Oliver" within just a few years, demonstrating a range of acting skills perhaps unparalleled in film history. Later in his long and illustrious career, he would win plaudits for "Tunes of Glory," "The Bridge Over The River Kwai" and "Star Wars." His only true challenger for the role of greatest British actor of the 20th Century was Laurence Olivier and Olivier's brilliant career ranged from heroic roles in "Wuthering Heights," "Hamlet," "Henry V," and "Richard III," to his later great character roles in "Marathon Man," "The Entertainer," and "The Boys from Brazil." Olivier was a leading man who became a great character actor, but he never had great comic skills. The other giants of English acting, of course, were Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud and John Mills, leaving aside for the moment the not unimpressive action-hero skills of Sean Connery, Roger Moore, Michael Caine and Robert Shaw. Richardson and Gielgud were the embodiment of nobility and pomp and slyness, but their characters generally remained the same. Mills, on the other hand, could combine impishness, irascibility and heroism and had a long and interesting career highlighted by "Great Expectations," "The Wrong Box," and "Tunes of Glory," but his range was fairly limited. The depth of stalwart quality among English actors is astounding when one also remembers James Mason, Edward Fox, Ian Bannen, and Harry Andrews.

Peter Sellers is often cited as the other great pre-Monty Python comic, and while his slapstick work in the "Pink Panther" series and "Dr. Strangelove" was immensely popular, his best film work was as a doctor with an affection for cats in a short segment of "The Wrong Box."

Guinness, however, possessed the widest range of acting skills and is at his most charming, lovable and irrepressible self in "The Man in the White Suit." "Great Expectations" rates a bit lower, 17, in my list of the 500 Best Sound Films but not because of the roles played by John Mills and Alec Guinness, both of whom are excellent, of course, nor the extraordinary performances of Finlay Currie and Jean Simmons and nor because of David Lean's near-perfect rendering of the great Dickens novel, a story that combines adventure, love, horror, ambition, tradition and honor as few others ever have, but because it was only a superb adaptation of a great classic novel.

"The Man in the White Suit" is both a hilarious comedy and a brilliant, political attack on capitalism. Guinness portrays an inventor who creates an indestructable fabric that never gets dirty or wears old who secures the aid of the textile mill's owner's daughter, played with delicious sensuality and feminine wiles by Joan Greenwood, whose low-register, raspy voice is among the most seductive in film history. Guinness's invention at first unleashes her father's ambitions for profits until his competitors convince him that it will quickly put them all out of business, a notion that soon also turns all of the inventor's friends in the labor unions against him as well.

At the film's end, he is pursued in a wild chase wearing his virtually incandescent suit in this black-and-white film by both the mill owners and the workers and suddenly his suit disintegrates to the delight of his attackers and his surprise. Although the world then appears safe for capitalism once again, Guinness has another "brainstorm" on how to solve the disintegration problem and rushes off, no doubt to once again start his elaborate and hilarious laboratory apparatus whose gurgling sounds forever evoke smiles and laughter from all viewers.

Innocence and bluster, avarice and ambition, comradery and capitalism, joy and consternation, all alternate at a pell-mell rush in this classic tale of caution and comedy. Despite Guinness's brilliant performance and Greenwood's radiance, the film is "stolen" by Ernest Thesiger, who plays the ancient owner of a competing mill who goes into apoplexy over Guinness's inventions in a preposterous, heavy-handed scene of corporate skullduggery that is gloriously silly and gloriously on very direct political target.

This film ranks 13th in Carter B. Horsley's list of the 500 Best Sound Films.

The film is available now only on VHS and can be ordered from Amazon.com for $9.98 by clicking here.

The Internet Movie Data Base, of course, has substantial material on "The Man in the White Suit," which can be accessed by clicking here.

Use the Search Box below to quickly look up articles at this site on specific artists, architects, authors, buildings and other subjects

 

Home Page of The City Review