The Man in the White Suit appeared in August 1951, two months after another famous Ealing comedy – The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) – had its premiere. It was scripted by Roger Macdougall, John Dighton and director Alexander Mackendrick, and based on a play by Macdougall.
Alec Guinness – by now the most ubiquitous of Ealing faces, and the most chameleon-like of actors – plays a young would-be research chemist in a textile mill whose job is confined to washing up the dishes in the laboratory.
He constructs his own secret apparatus in an attempt to discover a new fibre, with explosive results, until he eventually makes a miraculous yarn which cannot wear out or even get dirty.
When the mill owners realise that their industry could be destroyed as a result, they join forces and wheel in an aged tycoon (Ernest Thesiger) to trick him into signing away his rights.
He refuses, and they try to keep him prisoner, but he escapes and runs to the trade union for help. For once, they are firmly on the side of management.
At the film’s climax, our hero is pursued through the streets in his dazzling white suit by workers and employers alike.
At one point, he seizes a dustbin lid and chair leg and confronts his opponents like a medieval warrior. Then, as they move in for the kill, his suit starts to disintegrate – the miracle yarn has an unexpected flaw – and as it falls to pieces, he is left standing alone in his underwear.
The film ends as – having consulted his notes and exclaimed, “I see!” – he strides off more confidently, perhaps to inflict his scientific genius on some other unsuspecting community.
The Guinness figure remains distanced and ambiguous throughout, and even the romantic involvement with Joan Greenwood as the boss’s daughter does not bring the audience any closer to what really motivates him.
The comedy is partly whimsical, partly satirical, offering a view of Britain conniving with age-old practices and inefficiencies not merely for the sake of the status quo, but for convenience as well.
“Why can’t you scientists leave things alone?” cries his old landlady, played by Edie Martin. “What’s to become of my bit of washing when there’s no washing to do?”.
Sir John Kierlaw