The Man in the White Suit is perhaps the most cynical, and certainly the most complex, of the Ealing comedies. It was Alexander Mackendrick's second film as director, following the surprise success of Whisky Galore! (1949), and the first of two films with Alec Guinness.
Guinness plays Sidney Stratton, mild-mannered but single-minded inventor, whose discovery - an unbreakable, dirt-repelling fabric - threatens an entire industry with ruin. It is arguably the best of Guinness's string of fine performances for the studio.
As Sidney's only real ally, the industrialist's daughter Daphne, Joan Greenwood is, as she was in Kind Hearts and Coronets (d. Robert Hamer, 1949) and Whisky Galore!, a very untypical Ealing woman: clever, sexy, and manipulative.
The film started life as a stage play, by Roger MacDougall, Mackendrick's cousin. Mackendrick was attracted to the play's premise, that the invention of the fabric causes managers and unions to find common cause in overcoming the threat to their interests. Like his later Ealing films, The Man in the White Suit explores a Britain in which progress is stifled by conservatism and the iron grip of the past. As Mackendrick put it,
"Each character in the story was intended as a caricature of a separate political attitude, covering the entire range from Communist, through official Trades Unionism, Romantic Individualism, Liberalism, Enlightened and Unenlightened Capitalism to Strong-arm Reaction. Even the central character was intended as a comic picture of Disinterested Science."
More than one critic has suggested that Sidney is a stand-in for Mackendrick himself, the free-thinking genius whose vision is held back by the conservatism of the studio hierarchy under Ealing head Michael Balcon. The film does have something of Ealing in its characterisations: Mackendrick reportedly guided Cecil Parker, in his portrayal of the pompous factory boss Birnley, to "model yourself on Mick [Balcon]".
But Sidney's unworldly innocence disguises his disregard for the real social consequences of his actions. The film's most poignant moment comes near the end, when Sidney, pursued by an angry mob, runs into his aged landlady, Mrs Watson (Edie Martin), carrying a basket of laundry. Sidney pleads with her for something to hide his suit, but she rejects him, asking, "Why can't you scientists leave things alone? What about my bit of washing, when there's no washing to do?" Her plea gives Sidney pause but, at the end, he is back to his selfish dreaming.