The Man in the White Suit (1951)

When it’s on: Saturday, 26 April (7.20 am)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

Alexander Mackendrick’s The Man in the White Suit is almost the quintessential Ealing film. It’s very funny. The film was Oscar nominated for its screenplay, which is a supreme example of packing welters of story and characterisation into a script that allows a running time of less than ninety minutes. And it runs breathlessly, introducing its people and mining their nuances for comic effect, which more often than not works. But it’s also a satire, and beneath the fun rather an acerbic one, telling how capitalism pulls rank when faced with the possibility of progress that could halt its drip-feed of money.

Alec Guinness plays Sidney Stratton, a labourer in various textile mills around Greater Manchester who also happens to be a brilliant research chemist. His dream is to create an everlasting fibre, but with each job he ends up being sacked because of the materials bills he runs up. While working at Birnley Mill, he manages to land himself a research role (a dream for him, though he blithely ignores the fact it’s an unpaid position) along with the friendship of the propreitor’s daughter Daphne (Joan Greenwood). It’s she who persuades her father (Cecil Parker) to fund his research, and after several failed attempts – which result in explosions – he hits success. The fibre he invents is not only virtually indestructible, it can also repel any dirt that comes into contact with it.

Sidney, now hailed as a genius and a revolutionary for the textiles industry, has a brilliant white suit tailored especially for him from the fibre. Due to radioactive elements in the material, it has a luminous quality. But then the trouble begins. Other mill owners get wind of what’s happened and work out the obvious – that Sidney’s invention will spell the end of their industry. Over time, the suppressed workers of the mills realise this too can only have an adverse impact on their jobs. As a result they all try to stifle Sidney, first aiming to persuade him to sell his invention and ultimately resorting to keeping him locked up him before he can reach Manchester’s press offices and turn the miraculous fabric into public reality.

The film keeps its narrative light. Its first half covers Sidney’s determined efforts to continue his research, his tendency to fade into the background so that can avoid detection for as long as possible. When he’s funded, put out fellow researchers are herded into tiny, cramped rooms while he carries on, his experiments blowing up so that he can only activate them while hiding behind sandbags and wearing a Home Guard helmet. Later, as he’s kept under lock and key while the mill owners figure out what to do with them, he escapes and sparks a madcap chase through the working class streets, the night time offering no help to him as his suit glows irrepressibly in the dark. As is traditional with Ealing’s material, nobody ever gets hurt and the conclusion, while bittersweet, contains notes of optimism because it’s made clear the story doesn’t necessarily end here.

Despite that, The Man in the White Suit is a tale of complicated morality and the duplicity of big business. Sidney is portrayed largely as an innocent, devoid of any material ambitions, even to be paid for his work, because his goal is the loftier scientific ideal, and so he clashes irrevocably with the industrialists’ capitalist outlook. For their part he’s a threat, in particular when he makes it clear that he can’t be bought. Mr Birnley is the most beneficient of the mill owners, though to an extent that’s because he sees his company as owning Sidney’s contract. Also involved is Michael Gough, Daphne’s fiance and owner of a rival mill. The industrialists are led by Sir John Kierlaw, a decrepit but ghoulish figure played, in a delight of casting, by none other than Ernest Thesiger. It’s Sir John who outlines perhaps the owners’ darkest scheme, to pay Daphne £5,000 in order to make her seduce Sidney and get him to give up his secret formula. It’s a moment that’s subtly outlined in the film and no one says explicitly what they expect Daphne to do, but the underlying message is clear enough. Daphne plays along but is naturally appalled, not least with her fiance who joins the throng in asking her to go with it, putting his business interests ahead of their relationship. And of course it comes to naught. Sidney is unmoved and Daphne, relieved by his force of will, offers to help him escape.

Joan Greenwood could play morally dubious characters as she demonstrated in Ealing’s Kind Hearts and Coronets, but she’s largely straight edged here, though the glamour and especially the silky voice are present and correct. She easily outdoes the labourer, Bertha (Vida Hope), who through the smoke of Trade Union rhetoric and resentment is just as fascinated by Sidney as Daphne is. As for Guinness, in a standout role he remains single-minded throughout the story, as true to his work as he is to making it public, at no point thinking of himself but about the scientific achievement and its benefits. In some ways he’s the classic ‘little man’ battling forces much larger than himself, but Guinness wasn’t interested in playing Sidney as a straightforward hero, and added layers of nuance to his character. That’s why he can almost hide in plain sight, because he’s isn’t too conventionally good looking and – before wearing the suit – never draws attention to himself. And besides, Sidney comes across as a not altogether nice guy. He gives little back to both Daphne and Bertha, despite their interest in him, and his determination comes at the expense of any thought to others. His conscience is only pricked late in the film when Edie Martin, whose living is made from the banality of washing clothes, challenges him about where his invention will leave people like her.

Whether this is Mackendrick’s best film is tougher to answer. As with much of his disappointingly slim list of directorial credits, there’s a lot going on in The Man in the White Suit, yet it’s possible to enjoy it for its dry wit and the affection it has for its richly drawn characters without worrying overly about the darker elements dancing beneath the surface. While Mackendrick was ever at odds with Ealing Studios, especially as its fortunes faded in the mid-1950s, there’s something innately appealing about the work he did for them, the teasing at humanity, even if it’s shown in glimpses. Many argue that his masterpiece was his one significant Hollywood credit, Sweet Smell of Success, and though I’m certainly a big fan of it I think overall I might prefer the delicate balancing act between cynicism and optimism in the kindness of people that he portrayed in his five Ealing films.

And if all that isn’t enough, then consider that The Man in the White Suit was one big nose poke at the venerable Studio itself. Parker, playing Mr Birnley, was made to look like Ealing head, Michael Balcon, and asked to copy his mannerisms and even use some of his pet phrases.

The Man in the White Suit: *****

The Admirable Crichton (1957)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 13 January (1.10 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

The study of class difference has always fascinated UK cinema, in particular looking back at a past in which the gulf between patrician and plebeian members was brought into sharper focus within single households. The success of TV shows like Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey prove that the interest has not waned, especially the status of the serving classes jarring with their wealthy employers. It’s little wonder that stately homes now open to the public attract millions of visitors. The glimpse into the kind of world that no longer exists, massive buildings housing single families and with labyrinthine quarters for the servants, is an almost surreal experience in the twenty-first century.

The Admirable Crichton was adapted from J M Barrie’s play, a comedy that was written and first performed in 1902 to enormous success. The first film version appeared in 1918, and since then it has been adapted for the radio and television, though this version from 1957 remains the best known. It was filmed in colour, with much of the action taking place on Bermuda to replicate the sun-kissed paradise in which our misfit heroes find themselves. Lewis Gilbert directed, and Director of Photography Wilkie Cooper’s eye for composition excelled in showing the attraction of the characters’ island home over its hardships. It really does look like a ravishing location on which to be stranded.

The eponymous Crichton (Kenneth More) is butler to Lord Loam (Cecil Parker), senior politician and owner of the vast Loam Hall. A practising Liberal, Lord Loam believes that his three daughters should acquaint themselves with a future in which all people are treated equally, and arranges gloriously awkward sessions in which the family and servants mix, to everyone’s bemusement. It’s the era of Suffragism, but Crichton cares little for the equalising of society, nor his master’s efforts to simulate this within the home. He’s the perfect butler, managing the staff with a firm but fair hand and believing strongly in the prolonging of tradition. One of the daughters is arrested for being involved in a heated Suffragette rally, and to avoid scandal Crichton suggests the family take a voyage to the South Seas. All goes wrong when the cruise runs into stormy waters, the boat sinks and the survivors find themselves on a beautiful but entirely uninhabited island. Along with Crichton and Lord Loam are the three daughters, two young male aristocrat friends, and Cockney girl Eliza (Diane Cilento), the maid known as ‘Tweeny’ because her serving role sees her move between roles.

Whilst the strandees aren’t in any real danger, it’s clear they have no idea how to cope with their new environment – Crichton asks the noblemen to tie their rowing boat to a rock, but they wrap the rope around a turtle instead, which duly ambles off into the sea and their vessel floats away. It turns out only Crichton has any practical knowledge and, after some initial tension, he emerges as the group’s leader. Two years pass. The roles reverse, Lord Loam serving Crichton in menial duties and being renamed ‘Daddy’, whilst the Butler now goes by ‘Guvnor’ and has used his skills to build houses, source food from the sea and create a reasonably comfortable life for them all. The men all love Tweeny, but she loves her Guvnor, a problem exacerbated as Crichton falls for Daddy’s eldest daughter, Mary (Sally Ann Howes). This culminates in a wedding ceremony between them, yet before the nuptials can be completed the spy a passing boat. Do they light the beacon and get rescued, returning to civilisation, or will they stay where they have found a semblance of happiness and equality?

Renamed Paradise Lagoon for the American market, the film was made as a vehicle for More, a genuine British box office draw in the 1950s and at his best in roles that emphasised his stolid masculinity. More was initially reticent about taking the part, but comes into his own when the action moves to the island and his practical skills and natural charisma come to the fore. He’s supported by a fine cast, veteran Parker nearly stealing the picture as the befuddled Lord who engages enthusiastically in becoming the servant once his circumstances change. Cilento has the film’s heart as the adorable Tweeny and, for this viewer, was a far better match for Crichton than Mary, a British alternative to Grace Kelly whose aloof persona never really cracked.

The Admirable Crichton is a perfectly enjoyable comedy-drama, strangely unthreatening to modern audiences who have the more visceral survival tale of something like Cast Away with which to compare it, yet entirely likeable. Furthermore, it’s a delight to me to come across a movie in which so much takes place and it’s all over in just over ninety minutes, points made succinctly, characters suitably developed; economic film making it its finest.

The Admirable Crichton: ***