Thursday, 21 April 2016

The Man in the White Suit

In 1946, people in Britain wanted a chuckle. You could hardly blame them, entertainment had been basically cancelled during the war years, and small delights were still being rationed. The celebratory consumerism going on in America wasn’t happening in British homes. Buildings were still being repaired, families were still buckling down. Victory feels different when you’ve been fighting on your own soil.

Over at Ealing Studios – the oldest continuously working film studio in the world – the business had been kept alive with documentaries, propaganda driven war films, and the odd symbolism-drenched thriller or two. But it was time to get back to something light and cheerful. A well-earned bit of jolliness.

So, Ealing went to work on Hue and Cry. It was the first instalment of a group of films that are known as the Ealing Comedies. But instead of being an actual comedy, the film is more like a gangster story for kids. Like that Disney one where everyone in Oliver Twist is dogs. (Lest we somehow wind up with angry British film historians over here, Hue and Cry not only isn’t a comedy, per say, it also isn’t the very first comedy produced by Ealing. But its financial success did kick off the new era, and it’s a great way to wrap your head around the change because of its mishmash of genres.) Hue and Cry is well worth watching for its location filming in a bombed out London, and it was well-received by audiences.

The big brains at Ealing kept going with the new model, picking up speed with a collection of beloved classics: The Lavender Hill Mob, Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Ladykillers, and The Man in the White Suit among them. A keen-eyed reader might notice that these feature Ealing regular Alec Guinness, and it’s fun to note for all of us who first saw him in Star Wars or Lawrence of Arabia, or even Smiley’s People, that Alec Guinness started his career as a comedic leading man.

In 1951’s The Man in the White Suit, he stars as Sidney Stratton, a young scientist who puts his foot in it when he devotes himself to inventing a fabric that will never stain or wear out. Along the way, he falls in love with the more beautiful but less interesting of two women in his life, and falls afoul of both Big Textile and the unions. Big Textile doesn’t want to sell a product it can never replace, and the unions don’t want people to lose jobs as the demand for labour falls off once the everlasting fabric starts hitting the market.

It’s sci-fi satire at its best, with a simple “what if” premise and believably outlandish human responses.

Sidney, for his part, is completely oblivious to all the social upheaval his breakthrough will bring. There’s a point towards the end where his kindly old landlady chides scientists for never leaving “well enough alone.” She takes in washing for extra money, and if clothes never need washing, what’s she supposed to do then?

You think that this might be a turning point for Sid, but it soon becomes obvious that he actually hasn’t learned a lesson from all this. Nobody has. Nobody is better or wiser, they all just keep going until next time. It’s a great ending, unless you prefer a big finish wrapped up in ribbon and a white wedding. Which is perfectly fine to prefer, but in that case you’ll probably hate this movie.

Visually, it’s super bright. It’s light and airy and full of daylight splendor, which feels really unique and bold when you’re dealing with a crazy inventor. The laboratory is a friendly, open space, the loading docks are full of sunshine, even the offices of bitter men of means are cheerful to look at.
Sidney’s fabric is startlingly white – it can’t stain, but that also means it can’t be dyed – and it glows in the dark a little bit because it’s slightly radioactive. He has a suit made from it, and at first his wealthy girlfriend laughs at how overwhelming it looks, but then tells him that the glow of it makes him look like “a knight in shining armour.”

The suit’s glow is part of the charm of the final moments of the film, which find Sidney hunted through the streets of a northern industrial town in the dead of night, trying to get on the train to Manchester to protect his revolutionary fabric. Even the night scenes are bright, by the way, and not just because the suit acts like a flashlight, but because they’re not full of expressionist shadows or narrow alleyways. They use big pieces of sky and open roads between short, stout buildings.

Factory furnaces loom in the background, but not like oppressive towers of Sauron, or belching symbols of corruption you might see in a film noir. They’re simply the heart of the town. Everyone’s lives revolve around the textile mill, and the textile mill is always present.

On the side of Big Textile are Hammer Horror regular Michael Gough, and ubiquitous character actor Cecil Parker. Gough is the young man on the make, Parker the father of Sidney’s love interest and owner of the mill. Joanne Greenwood is Daphne, the leading lady, and she has the same problem all Joanne Greenwood characters have: a total lack of relatability. This time around, she’s brimming with her usual cold blonde sexuality, but there’s also a manipulative quality to her interactions with Sidney that makes her seem out of touch with the story at hand. And she’s absurdly wealthy, calling her father “daddy” and pronouncing it “deddy” with her ear-splittingly upper crust accent, not helping matters in the empathy department.

Representing the unions is Vida Hope as Birtha. She’s not as seductive as Daphne, but Birtha seems to recognize more of who Sidney is rather than who he wants to be, and her perspective of wanting to do what’s best for everyone collides hilariously with Sidney’s idea of the same subject. She ends up locking him in a basement apartment in a solid bit of physical comedy. Her bossiness and warm heart are an interesting counterpoint to a flighty scientist, but we wind up going with the traditional fantasy rich girl instead. 

Supporting Birtha in representing the working class are Patric Doonan as your typical blue collar type, and Edie Martin in a wonderful turn as the landlady of the boarding house where Sidney and Birtha live.

All three groups – scientist, workers, factory owners – are as wrong as they are right, of course. Sidney’s dream of inventing a fabric that will save the average person money over time, with its implications for durability in other textile categories like ship’s sails and reusable bags, is as noble as his lack of understanding the major flaw is short-sighted. The world isn’t set up for his invention just yet. And while Birtha and the workers certainly deserve to have reliable jobs, the entire working class would benefit from durable, long-lasting clothes that they almost never have to replace. The factory owners are failing to see how human nature and the fashion industry will ensure demand for their high-priced product, and that monopolizing the ever-lasting fibre might be the best thing ever.

So which group is right? Is Sidney's improvement the next logical step, and society will have to adjust whether it wants to or not? Are jobs today more important that lower expenses tomorrow? Should business owners have the right to slow development of new innovations in order to better prepare themselves for the impact of competing products?

The Man in the White Suit doesn’t look like American science fiction from the early 50’s, and it doesn’t feel like it either. But then, it doesn’t feel like what we’ve come to associate with British sci-fi either. In 1955, just four years later, Ealing Studios would belong to the BBC and become the home of the Quatermass series and the original run of Doctor Who. The aliens arrived, and the small near-future stories of how to wrangle technological changes fell to the wayside.

But maybe they shouldn't have, because the questions they ask are ones we're still trying to answer today.

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