Written by Roger MacDougall, John Dighton, and Alexander Mackendrick, and directed by Mackendrick, “The Man in the White Suit” is a satirical comedy set in the laboratories of several textile-based companies in early 1950’s London. Alec Guinness stars as Sidney Stratton, a chemistry genius working on the latest applications to fibers in the textile industry, though he prefers to work back in the corners, unseen. Sidney is initially fired from the first laboratory we encounter him in once the accountants find his costly receipts. Once he’s gotten a job over at the Birnley mill, albeit as a lowly laborer initially, he makes friends with the blue collar workers such as Bertha (Vida Hope) as well as Daphne (Joan Greenwood) the daughter of the industry mogul, Alan Birnley (Cecil Parker) himself.
Sidney eventually becomes an unpaid researcher at Birnley by gushing over new machines arriving in the laboratory, exposing his knowledge and skill. It isn’t long before he’s back at work on his everlasting fiber theory, and after a series of explosive attempts he succeeds in creating a fabric that never wears down, repels dirt, and is unrealistically durable. Both the heads of industry and the blue collar workers initially believe the eureka moment to be innovative, groundbreaking, grand even– until they realize what a perfect clothing fiber would mean to their industry and livelihoods. Sidney then crafts a suit, with a luminous white glow, to showcase his miracle. The rest of the film is devoted to the hi-jinks that befall Sidney as he attempts to contact the press and move his product to sale.
With both the Industry titans and the mob of the masses initially suspecting each of revolting against the other, it was quite entertaining seeing Sidney attempt to sidestep each group and outwit them. The industry titans try bribing and tricking him to sign away his rights to the fiber while Sidney’s working-class friends try to talk him out of this to save their jobs. With only Daphne on his side Sidney almost gets away with his miracle of fabric, until both the kings of industry and the working class realize that for once, they’re on the same side. The last few scenes are of Sidney literally running through the streets in his white suit being chased by mobs of people until he’s cornered. Someone from the crowd grabs at him, and tears a piece of the suit off. To their shock and relief the crowd of rich and poor alike burst into boisterous revelry as dozens of hands reach out to rip off pieces of Sidney’s suit. After the revelation that the chemically enhanced fiber deteriorates over time, Sidney is fired from Birnley’s Mill and seems down on his luck as he’s leaving the mill. That is, until he looks back at his notes one last time, his eyes widen, and he smiles as he defiantly remarks, “Of Course!” before running off down the street- presumably to find a new laboratory to perfect the latest correction to his everlasting fiber.
Final Score: 1 White Suit and 1 Man’s ambition