Film Intro

The Man in the White Suit

by Alexander Mackendrick

GB, 1951


Dryden Theatre

George Eastman House

Rochester, NY

June 27, 2012

Ealing studios, located in West London, stood for a classic kind of whimsical British comedy.

Michael Balcon the studio head who ran the studios until they were sold to the BBC in 1955, had a plaque made that read: “Here, during a quarter of a century, many films were made projecting Britain and British character.” Balcon, the son of Jewish refugees, ran the studios with unflagging authority. In director Alexander Mackendrick’s words:” Balcon was Ealing and Ealing was Balcon.”

It is noteworthy though, that among the most famous films of Ealing studios some were decidedly “un-Ealing” in their sometimes scathing portrayal of the lower depths of the British soul. Michael Balcon, reportedly, could never quite make peace with the biting satire of The Man In the White Suit. Here, a young Alec Guinness plays Sidney Stratton an inventor determined to produce an indestructible fabric, almost destroying the factory in the process with his lab experiments. When his superiors finally realize what they are bankrolling, Stratton turns from protégé to enemy. A very cleverly staged farce, the film manages to deliver a stinging portrayal of post-war Britain by supplying a microcosm of British society. Soon, the textile capitalists feel as threatened as the common laborers by Stratton’s invention and while hunting him down, labor and capital have to declare an uneasy truce.

But Mackendrick’s biographer Phillip Kemp has also pointed out that the company Sidney works for has been modeled after the Ealing studios themselves – Birnly, Stratton’s boss, has traits that are very distinctly inspired by Balcon himself. These multifaceted aspects of the story befit Mackendrick who Kemp called one of the “maverick” directors of Ealing.

Mackendrick followed in the footsteps of Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) director Robert Hamer who also veered more on the side of decidedly black comedy and who eventually left Ealing because of irreconcilable differences. The difference between a classical Ealing comedy and the subversion that a highly talented director like Mackendrick could add to his films can be seen in comparing the rather tame Ealing comedy The Lavender Hill Mob by Charles Crichton to The Man in the White Suit. Mackendrick not only directed but also adapted the screenplay from a play by Roger MacDougall and made radical changes such as turning the minor character Stratton into the prickly and often oblivious antihero.

The Man in the White Suit is only the director’s second film but it shows a gift for storytelling, clear mastery of cinematic space and great skill at directing actors. As an example, watch the scene where Stratton’s first lab contraption is discovered and how gradually every possible culprit is summoned, except Stratton. The scene is a masterpiece of fluid camera and exposition. As a comedy, the film combines Chaplinesque slapstick with witty dialogue. As so many Ealing comedies, this film is also an ensemble piece, drawing from a pool of actors at the studio. It is rare to see a comedy so well cast down to even the smallest roles. The last film produced at Ealing studios before its sale was The Ladykillers in which Mackendrick would demonstrate once again his ability to pick and direct an ensemble of actors. Working again with the endlessly malleable Guiness, the film exemplifies Mackendrick’s definition:“To be frivolous about things that are in someway deadly serious that is genuine comedy.”

After Ealing, Mackendrick went on to Hollywood to make one more undisputed masterpiece: Sweet Smell of Success with Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis in 1957. He only directed three more films after his first Hollywood success. Creatively, the director prospered in the sheltered atmosphere of Ealing, of his nine feature films, five were made at the British studios. As his biographer noted:” Were it not for Ealing, it’s possible he would never have directed films at all…”

In 1969, thoroughly discouraged by Hollywood, Mackendrick accepted to become the Dean of the newly formed film school at Cal Arts outside of Los Angeles. He continued to teach until his death in 1993, becoming a highly revered and admired educator.


Johannes Bockwoldt