Have you ever had an idea that your peers have not supported? Have you ever felt like you were underestimated? How did people react when you proved them wrong? In the 1951 film, The Man in the White Suit, the protagonist Sidney Stratton goes through a situation where he faces these challenges and gains some answers. Alexander Mackendrick directs the classic film, but the unquestioned star is Sir Alec Guinness (better known as Obi-Wan Kenobi in the first three Star Wars films) who plays the quirky and dedicated scientist Sidney Stratton.
Sidney is a chemist who is trying to create a fiber using long chain molecules that is stain resistant and does not wear out. In a suspenseful and comedic whirlwind, Sidney develops his fiber and makes an indestructible suit out of them. The whirlwind does not stop there though; Sidney’s suit causes a panic among the textile owners and workers and, his once amazing suit, is now seen as a threat. The Man in the White Suit uses all the proper elements that make a film great: the proper use of sound effects, camera angles, and character development. Combine these things with the film’s comedic effects and its dexterous star, and you have a timeless movie that has audiences of all ages laughing.
The Man in The White Suit opens with the roll of credits and bubbly, suspenseful music that leads to the image of a chemical experiment. The experiment grasps the attention of an audience, as Sidney hides. Daphne Birnley, the daughter of a wealthy textile factory owner, sees Sidney, but does not say anything. At the time Daphne, who is played by Joan Greenwood, is romantically involved with another textile owner, Michael Corland, who is also Sidney’s current boss.
Early in the film, there is already a use of sound effects and character development. Michael is played by Michael Gough (better known for his role as Alfred the Butler in the 1990s Batman movies). At this stage of the film, Michael is trying to play the salesman to Daphne’s father, but Michael is interrupted with news of a large expense being spent on chemicals his factory does not need. Michael is extremely vexed as he is in the middle of an important business deal with Mr. Birnley. Sidney loses his job and Daphne loses her boyfriend once Michael’s deal with her father falls through. Daphne questions Sidney about his project after seeing him a second time in her father’s factory, and she begins to seek knowledge instead of a just boyfriend.
After Daphne gains interest in Sidney’s project, she seeks to help the young scientist by letting him use her father’s textile laboratory. Sidney was recently given lab space in exchange for working with Alan Birnley’s electron microscope in a comedic scene where he is mistaken for the microscope specialist. Mr. Birnley, played by Cecil Parker, is furious when he finds out about the amount of money being spent on supplies for Sidney’s project, but Daphne uses her recent research to convince her father that he should endorse Sidney. Birnley agrees after he realizes the profit he could make off the new fabric and provides Sidney with the needed funds and materials for his experiment.
The music of the experiment is played every time Sidney conducts his scientific work, which is another comedic factor in the film because they continually explode causing Sidney and his assistant to stack sandbags and barricades for their protection. One day, Birnley hears about the extraordinary costs for Sidney’s project and goes down to tell him that he can no longer fund him; but to both Sidney and Birnley’s surprise, the experiment works (fortunately for Birnley who risked explosion by going into the lab against advice during a test of the fiber). Sidney creates an iridescent white suit out of the fabric that is both stain and wear proof. Sidney’s characteristic determination pays off and the suit is now a symbol of progress.
The feeling of Sidney’s success is soon shattered when Michael calls Sir John Kierlaw, the head of the textile branch containing both the Birnley and Corland factories, and tells him the news. The humorously-ailing Sir John, played by Ernest Thesiger, is introduced when he is assisted into a chair with the back facing the audience. This scene builds suspense and makes Sir John an ominous character. When the camera focuses on Sir John, we see a weak, old man who likely represents the old ways compared to the newer way represented by Sidney. Michael and other textile owners convince Birnley that he would have to share production of the fabric. The argument soon turns to whether the fabric should be produced at all, and a plan is hatched to keep Sidney from releasing the news of his fiber.
Once they agree not to manufacturer his new fiber, the textile owners call in Sidney to sign a new contract. Sidney walks in wearing an all white suit made from his new fibers, which contrasts with all of the industrialists who are wearing dark-colored suits. This contrast represents yet another symbol of the suit, which is purity. Sidney is thinking of the future and the good his invention can do, while the textile owners are merely thinking about the current equity of their factories. The owners present Sidney with a contract that offers him a lot of money for the suppression of his discovery, but Sidney refuses to sign it. In a comedic scene, the textile owners try to catch Sidney in a chase where Sidney is knocked out with the clanging of a metal-forged picture.
The textile owners lock Sidney up in Birnley’s house and attempt to use Daphne against him. Daphne shows her newly found knowledge by debating the price offered to her by the textile owners. Daphne then pretends to seduce Sidney into signing the lucrative contract that the textile owners drew up for him. The look in Sidney’s eyes shows that he has grown to look past his determination and care about something other than his project, leaving the audience in suspense as to if this new character development will get in the way of Sidney’s goal. Sidney refuses when a sound of a train snaps him back to reality, and Daphne rejoices in yet another shocking and thrilling scene.
Daphne helps Sidney escape, but it is not long before the workers of the textiles catch up to him. While the textile owners were trying to dissuade Sidney from sharing his discovery to the world, the textile workers and their labor union leaders had also become nervous about the idea of an indestructible fiber that never gets dirty and never wears out. Panicked at the prospect of losing their jobs, they capture Sidney after his escape from Birnley’s house and lock him in his old boarding room. Sidney convinces a child who sees him through the window in a comedic scene to trick his guard into thinking he escaped, so that he can abscond once the door is open.
Sidney escapes, but is soon found and chased down again by both the industrialists and the workers, who have become allies against Sidney’s discovery of an indestructible fiber. More humorous misdirection follows when the same little girl helps Sidney again by pointing the men chasing him in the wrong direction. The mob in full-frenzied panic then chases the wrong guy in a white suit. The chase scenes are full of suspenseful music that keeps the audience’s heart beating, until Sidney is cornered. Sidney is surrounded by stern and threatening faces, but these faces turn into relieved smiles and riotous laughter when his suit starts to fall apart.
During the chase, Sidney’s lab assistant discovered that the fabric was unstable, which the mob discovers when they grab at his coat sleeves. Sidney is left half-clothed and humiliated and the crowd of workers and industrialists roar with wild and unrestrained laughter as the threat lifts from their fortunes and livelihoods. However, after this outburst of sudden relief, the crowd abruptly ceases its laughter and a sense of shame seems to come over everyone. One of the workers offers his coat to help clothe Sidney who is only wearing his undergarments. Everyone begins to disperse looking ashamed and embarrassed at their earlier actions against Sidney. However, the director does not let this comedic film end on a sad note though. The end scene consists of Sidney looking over his notes, having a eureka moment where he sees how to correct his prior mistake, and leaving Birnley’s textile factory full of confidence. Birnley looks on with a terrified look.
The Man in the White Suit is a beloved movie for many reasons. This film keeps its audience in a constant sense of suspense that it relieves with comedic effects. These effects are amplified with sound and camera angles. Sidney’s quirky and innocent character makes the audience root for his success, and he, along with his suit, becomes a symbol for all that is honest and good in the film.
The Man in the White Suit shows the challenges that arise with an idea and why opposing views to those ideas matter. This film shows that sometimes a lack of support for your ideas does not mean the idea is without merit, but that it is not the right time for that idea to be implemented. The white suit is made to symbolize Sidney’s progress and purity among a world full of people in the now, instead of later. A contrast is drawn between new and old ways of thinking and the benefits of each. Sidney’s suit would be a great invention in the long run, but countless people would lose their jobs and the current economy would suffer. This film provides an interesting plot with character development and insight into the effects of capitalism at the time of the film.
In the end, the hero is forward-thinking because he takes a long view towards progress: Sidney is beyond the ‘here and now’ mindset of so many in the movie, which is the ethos and underlying philosophy of the film. This matters more than a new fiber.