Take Two on the Movies:
Mad Science: The Man in the White Suit
by Daniel M. Kimmel
In the introduction to my collection of essays on science fiction films, Jar Jar Binks Must Die, I refer to science fiction as “the forbidden genre.” Unlike, say, the western or the romantic comedy, it was a genre that received little respect from academics or film critics, who carefully redefined movies such as “Metropolis” and “Frankenstein” as “not really science fiction.” However, as science fiction (and its cousins, fantasy and horror) have taken over a big part of the popular culture, it has become harder and harder to be in denial.
Consider the career of the great British actor Alec Guinness (1914 – 2000), whose career includes movies like “The Bridge on the River Kwai” and television adaptations of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and “Smiley’s People.” Ask a knowledgeable moviegoer or critic about the actor’s science fiction roles and there’ll be a quick look of recognition. Of course, will be the answer, he was Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original “Star Wars” trilogy. That is correct, but incomplete. He has the lead in one other science fiction movie, although some might insist that it’s “really” satire, since there are no robots or rocket ships.
Yet “The Man in the White Suit” (1951) is unquestionably science fiction, as the website Screenprism.com is willing to acknowledge. In a 2016 essay, contributor Jeff Saporito notes:
While it is doubtful the original filmmakers would have thought the film as science fiction, the classic Asimovian definition of the term (in short, human failures showcased via advances in technology) proves it qualifies. The catalyst for every event within the film's plot is a technological advancement…
As such, it is a classic British comedy that is well worth a look for SF fans whose knowledge of the actor’s career may be limited to his “Star Wars” portrayal. It is part of a cycle of movies – a number of them with Guinness – that came out of the Ealing Studios in the late 1940s and 1950s. While they produced a variety of films, it is their comedies that endure, such as “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” “The Ladykillers” and “The Lavender Hill Mob.” The films remain worth seeing, but what distinguished “The Man in the White Suit” for our purposes is its premise.
Sidney Stratton (Guinness, bearing an uncanny resemblance to comic actor Stan Laurel), has gone through a series of jobs in the research labs of several textile mills. When Alan Birnley (Cecil Parker) is visiting Michael Corland’s factory – Corland, who is engaged to Birnley’s daughter Daphne (Joan Greenwood), wants his future father-in-law’s investment – he questions an elaborate and somewhat noisy experiment that no one seems to know anything about. It turns out to be the work of Stratton, who has surreptitiously been spending a lot of money trying to create a new synthetic fiber. Stratton ends up working for Birnley, who backs him despite the fact that his experiments are not only expensive, but also have a tendency to explode.
Stratton finally gets a non-combustible result. He’s comes up with a fiber that is so strong that the only way to cut it is with an acetylene torch, which causes a chemical change in the material allowing the molecules to break apart. Short of that, the material is virtually indestructible. The radioactive material (which added to the expense) also gives the cloth a mild static charge which repels not only stains, but any attempt to dye it. When a suit is made for Stratton, it not only stands out for being all white, but also for glowing in the dark.
At first Birnley is ecstatic, as he has exclusive control of the release of this new material, which will completely change clothing manufacture. As word gets out, though, the other mill owners convince Birnley that he can’t put it on the market. Clothing that never wears out and never gets dirty means that they would soon put themselves out of business.
The movie dives deep into the issue of the impact of technological changes. Not only are the mill owners adamant that Stratton’s discovery must be suppressed, but so are the leaders of the union representing the mill workers. If this indestructible material puts the manufacturers out of business, it means the loss of their jobs as well. One of the workers notes that big business has to suppress such items as razors that stay sharp or cars than can run on water in order to preserve their profitable status quo. Stratton’s discovery will disrupt, if not destroy, the textile industry. What starts as a confrontation between capital and labor turns into a united front against science.
Guinness plays Stratton as a naïf, so focused on his research that the ramifications of his work are beside the point. He’s offered a quarter of a million pounds for the rights to the process, but knowing that the businessmen intended to suppress it, he refuses. This leads to a moment where Sir John Kierlaw (Ernest Thesiger, who played Dr. Pretorius in “Bride of Frankenstein”) arranges for Daphne to try other means to persuade Stratton. It’s an odd moment, with her fiancé encouraging her to seduce Stratton since the entire British textile industry is at stake, but she’s much more sympathetic to the scientist than to her father or boyfriend and helps Stratton escape from the clutches of the mill owners.
The climax of the film covers a lot of ground quickly but has three notable moments. First, as both the businessmen and workers are chasing Stratton through nighttime streets (where they get distracted by a bakery worker, also all in white), he encounters a washerwoman. She asks him why scientists can’t leave well enough alone, since clothing that never needs to be washed will put her out of business as well. He has no answer for her, That some people will suffer as a result of his invention is beyond his ability to compute.
Then, Stratton’s assistant discovers that the material is unstable and starts to fall apart. A confrontation that threatens to turn into a lynch mob is instead reduced to laughter as his suit comes apart in their hands. It might seem that the movie is taking a Luddite view of modern science, focusing on its negative impact and revealing it to be no solution at all.
This leads to the final moments where Stratton, once again unemployed, walks along contemplating his misadventures when suddenly he perks up. Apparently, the instability of his invention – like the earlier explosions – is merely another obstacle to be overcome. With the musical sounds of his experimental apparatus on the soundtrack, he picks up his pace, presumably ready to seek out another business foolish enough to let him loose in their labs.
An indestructible fiber may not have the impact of a cyborg from the future or a faster-than-light drive, but the concerns of “The Man in the White Suit” are much the same. How will the introduction of this scientific breakthrough change the world? Almost 70 years later, the issue of our technology being ahead of our readiness to adapt to such inventions very much remains an issue. Consider the changes many of us have weathered in our own lifetimes, such as the opening of the internet or the introduction of smart phones, and how ill-prepared we were to consider how it would change our lives.
Imagine if newspapers and television news organizations had been able to prevent the online sources that would render them obsolete, or businesses related to taking and developing photographs were able to hold off the digital revolution. Grappling with the impact of the introduction of such changes is the very stuff of science fiction. Much of SF cinema wants us to see the wonder of the future (e.g., flying cars, space travel) and assumes humanity will accept and adapt to such things without a problem. Yet the reality is that while scientific progress cannot be turned back, there are often both winners and losers.
“The Man in the White Suit” isn’t against such changes but asks us to have our eyes open to what the costs will be with the introduction of some new marvel. The breakthrough might be a cure for polio, or it might be launching the opioid epidemic. Our smartphones give us the world’s knowledge in our pocket, but if you’re texting while crossing the street you risk getting hit by a car. Indeed, as the driverless car is becoming a reality, what level of fatalities will we deem “acceptable” as a price for the convenience?
This quirky science-fiction comedy has a lot to say in its brief (85 minute) running time and remains as relevant today as when it was originally released.
About the author: Daniel M. Kimmel is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award, given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He was a finalist for a Hugo Award for Jar Jar Binks Must Die… and other observations about science fiction movies and for the Compton Crook Award for best first novel for Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood, and the Bartender’s Guide. In addition to short stories, he is the author of Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel and Father of the Bride of Frankenstein.
Copyright © 2019 by Daniel M. Kimmel