Friday, May 11, 2018

The Man in the White Suit

The Man in the White Suit (Alexander Mackendrick, 1951) My favorite of the Ealing Studios British comedies of Alec Guinness is this genre-crossing sci-fi/fantasy/corporate satire about the financial efficacy of building a better movie-trap. The canard is that the world will beat a path to your door, but the reality is that the mouse-trap industry (no doubt led by the appropriately-named "Victor®"—a division of Woodstream Corp.) will probably suppress it, buy the patent, or, in some other way, bury the innovation to protect their own short-term (dare I say "fiscal") interests, even if it might (indeed) revolutionize the industry. Sure, it might be the greatest thing since sliced bread, but that's only because the knife industry allowed it (talk about "the cutting edge!).

The Man in the White Suit tells the story of researcher Sidney Stratton (Guinness), who, through chemistry and some minor combustion (which gets him fired from his original job at Corland Mills, run by Michael Corland (Michael Gough), he is snapped up by the rival Birnley Mills, where his attempts finally succeed in concocting an innovative thread, a polymer that repels everything, making an indestructible, water-proof, stain-resistant weave—it even resists dyes, thus making it a permanent glow-in-the-dark white color.
It's seen as something of a revolutionary break-through, a boon to the consumer. And Stratton sees it as a revolution of sorts: who wouldn't want an indestructible suit or dress that would never wear out and never need to be replaced?
Clothiers, for one big example. The garment industry. With clothing that can never rip, fray, stain, or shrink, who would want to buy other clothing ever again? So, after the initial flush of excitement over the innovation, the corporation Stratton works for, Birnley Mills, looks down the fiscal road and sees consumers with no need to further buy replacement clothing. And so the corporate board acts to repress Stratton's invention, trying to buy out the rights in order to do it, but Stratton, with an inventor's righteous zeal, refuses.
And lest anyone think this is a liberal screed about corporate greed, it casts equal shade at the trade unions who also want to stop progress, as the fabric is seen as a threat to industry that will cost workers' jobs, should it ever see the business end of a coat hanger. Despite being offered a million dollar deal to sell out, Stratton resists, and is held captive as long as he holds out, but he has the sympathy from the daughter (Joan Greenwood) of the mills' head (Cecil Parker), if only because the board tries to recruit her to turn Stratton's mind around.

Stratton ensures that he will always be the brightest guy in the room.
It's a great story and a great movie, and over the years I've seen it reflected—rarely—in other films. For example, Disney's The Absent-Minded Professor can be seen as an American version of the same story, with the military over-zealously pursuing Professor Brainard's version of "Flubber." A true-story equivalent is Francis Ford Coppola's Tucker: The Man and His Dream, about inventor Preston Tucker and his intent on creating a safe, stylish and efficient "car of the future"—and the auto industry's successful attempt to hinder the production of any of the innovative cars to just 50.
There's another aspect to The Man in the White Suit that endears it to me, but it's purely personal—it's the charmingly goofy lab sounds that emanate from Stratton's efforts that create a sort of obsessive fandango as he pursues his efforts. I came across the track (created by sound editor Mary Habberfield) in a BBC sound effects library, and, when I worked on a certain kids' science show, I had the intention of using the track on a proposed second season episode about "Psuedo-science." Budget considerations pushed the subject to the third season and, by that time, I had moved on to other things. Still would have loved to have had that little private joke realized, though.

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