By Carter B. Horsley
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Ealing Studios
in England produced an impressive group of classic, delightful
and wry comedies that made great fun of English pomposity and
By and large, they were rather unpretentious
and a far cry from the great slapstick comedies of the Silent
Era and a far cry from the contemporary "Carry Onů."
The Ealing Studios comedies stand out for their
timing and direction and ensemble acting, but most of all for
the incredible performances of Alec Guinness, one of England's
greatest actors, and "The Man in The White Suit" is
the best because it combines Guinness's great mirthful character
with a sensational plot that transcended comedy and bore into
the heart of capitalism and politics, to say nothing of the morality
Guinness would star in such wonderful films
as "Kind Hearts and Coronets," "Great Expectations,"
"The Ladykillers," "The Lavender Hill Mob"
and "Oliver" within just a few years, demonstrating
a range of acting skills perhaps unparalleled in film history.
Later in his long and illustrious career, he would win plaudits
for "Tunes of Glory," "The Bridge Over The River
Kwai" and "Star Wars." His only true challenger
for the role of greatest British actor of the 20th Century was
Laurence Olivier and Olivier's brilliant career ranged from heroic
roles in "Wuthering Heights," "Hamlet," "Henry
V," and "Richard III," to his later great character
roles in "Marathon Man," "The Entertainer,"
and "The Boys from Brazil." Olivier was a leading man
who became a great character actor, but he never had great comic
skills. The other giants of English acting, of course, were Ralph
Richardson, John Gielgud and John Mills, leaving aside for the
moment the not unimpressive action-hero skills of Sean Connery,
Roger Moore, Michael Caine and Robert Shaw. Richardson and Gielgud
were the embodiment of nobility and pomp and slyness, but their
characters generally remained the same. Mills, on the other hand,
could combine impishness, irascibility and heroism and had a long
and interesting career highlighted by "Great Expectations,"
"The Wrong Box," and "Tunes of Glory," but
his range was fairly limited. The depth of stalwart quality among
English actors is astounding when one also remembers James Mason,
Edward Fox, Ian Bannen, and Harry Andrews.
Peter Sellers is often cited as the other great
pre-Monty Python comic, and while his slapstick work in the "Pink
Panther" series and "Dr. Strangelove" was immensely
popular, his best film work was as a doctor with an affection
for cats in a short segment of "The Wrong Box."
Guinness, however, possessed the widest range
of acting skills and is at his most charming, lovable and irrepressible
self in "The Man in the White Suit." "Great Expectations"
rates a bit lower, 17, in my list of the 500
Best Sound Films but not because of the roles played by John
Mills and Alec Guinness, both of whom are excellent, of course,
nor the extraordinary performances of Finlay Currie and Jean Simmons
and nor because of David Lean's near-perfect rendering of the
great Dickens novel, a story that combines adventure, love, horror,
ambition, tradition and honor as few others ever have, but because
it was only a superb adaptation of a great classic novel.
"The Man in the White Suit" is both
a hilarious comedy and a brilliant, political attack on capitalism.
Guinness portrays an inventor who creates an indestructable fabric
that never gets dirty or wears old who secures the aid of the
textile mill's owner's daughter, played with delicious sensuality
and feminine wiles by Joan Greenwood, whose low-register, raspy
voice is among the most seductive in film history. Guinness's
invention at first unleashes her father's ambitions for profits
until his competitors convince him that it will quickly put them
all out of business, a notion that soon also turns all of the
inventor's friends in the labor unions against him as well.
At the film's end, he is pursued in a wild
chase wearing his virtually incandescent suit in this black-and-white
film by both the mill owners and the workers and suddenly his
suit disintegrates to the delight of his attackers and his surprise.
Although the world then appears safe for capitalism once again,
Guinness has another "brainstorm" on how to solve the
disintegration problem and rushes off, no doubt to once again
start his elaborate and hilarious laboratory apparatus whose gurgling
sounds forever evoke smiles and laughter from all viewers.
Innocence and bluster, avarice and ambition,
comradery and capitalism, joy and consternation, all alternate
at a pell-mell rush in this classic tale of caution and comedy.
Despite Guinness's brilliant performance and Greenwood's radiance,
the film is "stolen" by Ernest Thesiger, who plays the
ancient owner of a competing mill who goes into apoplexy over
Guinness's inventions in a preposterous, heavy-handed scene of
corporate skullduggery that is gloriously silly and gloriously
on very direct political target.