Class-Conscious Comedic Consequences

April 2, 2011

The Man in the White Suit (1951) is another Alec Guiness/Ealing Studio gem of a comedy.  Small in scale, understated, but with a vein of wicked satire, the pure pleasure of viewing it is all in the characters and the dialog, the little touches.  Guiness plays Sidney Stratton, a misfit chemistry genius who finally perfects his process for creating an indestructible fiber.  It doesn’t wear out, wrinkle, or get dirty.  Here, Miss Birnsby, the daughter of the mill owner that finally sponsors his work tells him that he is a knight in shining armor, relieving the world’s masses of the drudgery of doing laundry or working for money to buy clothes.  The shot captures the naive idealism of the characters, the irony of the film, and the wonderful, uncertainly proud character that Guiness projects.

A fiber that never wears out…that’s not good for business!  The aged, no-nonsense textile king, Sir John comes in to set Birnsby straight, and the assembled magnates decide to suppress the invention.  Stratton runs out – “How can we stop him?” shouts the wimpy Birnsby.  “Force!” retorts Sir John.  He’s a real capitalist!  They capture Stratton and hold him locked in the attic.  They nab him when he backs into a wall and knocks down a plaque showing Labor and Capital reconciled.  “Is he all right?”  “Yes, I think so…”  “Pity.” says Sir John.

Stratton doesn’t care for money, so they decide to use sex to get him to sign off on suppressing his find.  The textile magnates engage in some hard bargaining with Miss Birnsby who demands 5,000 pounds to seduce Stratton.   They agree reluctantly:  her father has some moral qualms, but for the others, only her high price is painful.  Sir John looks like he might be the model for The Simpsons’ Mr. Burns.

Miss Birnsby loves Stratton,  and she goes through the motions of seducing him only to hear him say that, no, he will not do it.  Just as she thought!  She’s elated, and helps him escape.

He escapes into the lower town where the workers live, only to get a rude reception there.  They want the invention suppressed because it will mean the end of their jobs.  They lock him up too.  While he’s struggling to get out, a worker’s delegation meets the magnates in Birnsby’s mansion.  One clever fellow points out that they, Labor and Capital, are in the same boat, they need each other…as always.  The scene is the most delicious send-up of class politics I’ve ever seen.

I suppose you could analyze the (middle class) politics of this film to death, but the point of satire is to demonstrate with humor the foibles of the human race, and here we see naked and short-sighted self-interest on hilarious display.  Just before the denouement, Stratton encounters his old landlady, a wrinkled little old woman who makes  some money on the side by doing laundry:  “What will I do when nobody needs my washing, Mr. Stratton?  Why can’t you scientists leave things alone?”  Stratton is abashed – unintended consequences he never foresaw in his single-minded pursuit.