The Man in The White Suit Film Analysis Mr. Balcon’s Academy for Young Gentlemen: Ealing & The Historical Context
The Man in the White Suit Film Analysis:
How does Alexander Mackendrick’s use of satire in The Man in the White Suit (1951) question and subvert industrial, political and economic practice? And to what extent has this critique remained relevant?
“The Man in the White Suit, one of the few British films to deal with British industry, focuses on the impossibility of reconciling capitalism and progress. It shows unions and management combining to suppress the invention of an indestructible fabric and demonstrates the inability of a sclerotic industrial structure to deal with discovery, change and innovation. If we can see Whisky Galore!, and to a lesser extent The Maggie, as anti-imperialist parables, The Man in the White Suit [is] a critique of the capitalist industrial structure.”
(Jeffrey Richards, “Cul-de-Sac England” in Best of British)
Mr. Balcon’s Academy for Young Gentlemen:
Ealing & the Historical Context
Susan Hayward identifies that “Ealing films have been most persistent in the popular conception of late 1940s and early 1950s Britishness, particularly in America” and true as this may be I would like to investigate the roots of The Man in the White Suit within the Ealing family, comedy canon and the context of the era whilst attempting to separate it from this view in isolation, and see if there is any indication from its place in Alexander Mackendrick’s filmography and its British historical context that exemplifies it as a film to be viewed in an international context. Whilst Michael Balcon claims that the Ealing manifesto was guided by his “ruling passion” – “My ruling passion has always been the building up of a native [film] industry with its roots firmly planted in the soil of this country” – this film in particular negates the mantra of the studios output, seemingly the “Small is Beautiful; Old Is Good” and “The Studio with team spirit” slogans do not apply to the plight of Sidney Stratton as the old regimes conspire to suppress the possible hero of the piece, although perhaps this perception depends on your persuasion of course. If the unions and bosses are the victorious heroes then old may be good, and team spirit seems present, if a little strained, but their joint perpetuation of industry practices cannot be described as “small” or “beautiful” thus highlighting the murky ambiguity of what is acceptable in governance, industry and the human psyche – ideas ever present in the work of Alexander Mackendrick.
Mackendrick wasn’t a lone voice of dissent within the Ealing family; or “Mr Balcon’s Academy for Young Gentlemen” as it was known. There was difference in the Ealing comedies “more aberrant films directed by Alexander Mackendrick and Robert Hamer” Of the traditional view of the Ealing comedies Jeffrey Richards notes “that some of the Ealing comedies conform to this image cannot be denied. But it is too sweeping and incomplete a definition of the studio’s entire comedy output and it takes no account of, for instance, the wickedly elegant Kind Hearts and Coronets, which is by any reckoning one of the most distinguished Ealing comedies.” Whilst Charles Barr believes that Mackendrick and Hamer’s films cannot be separated from the “tensions they display with all that Ealing represents” and it is true that the studio’s outsiders Robert Hamer, the educated Francophile and Alexander Mackendrick, the American born Scot, “deliberately subverted the essential cosiness of the Ealing archetype,” Barr suggests that Alexander Mackendrick’s Ealing films can be ascribed to the auteur theory in that they were a “continuing ‘dialogue’ with the way things were going” in the country, at the studios and throughout the world. It has been suggested that The Man in the White Suit is an allegory of Ealing Studios itself, and some say the country as a whole has been represented in The Man in the White Suit and The Ladykillers, but they much further exemplify humanity than to be bound by a studio or a nation in their construction and deconstruction, as Philip Kemp notes “some Ealing Comedies are just about as simple as that, but not Mackendrick’s and certainly not The Man in the White Suit”. Dave Rolinson believes that Mackendrick uses the film to “subvert the circularity of the studio’s comedies with an imitation of stasis and stagnancy, of a system seizing up under the dead weight of tradition.”
Robert Hamer and Alexander Mackendrick’s works do not fit snugly into the Ealing archetype or the popular British cinema of the time, as in the decade of The Man in the White Suit and The Ladykillers British cinema “meanwhile was reliving the epic deeds of World War II with such popular recreations of British gallantry as The Dam Busters and The Battle of River Plate.” Michael Balcon interviewed by John Ellis in 1974 stated that “we were middle-class people brought up with middle-class backgrounds … we did not want to tear down institutions … this was our mild revolution … the comedies were a mild process” Alexander Mackendrick’s background was the furthest removed from the likes of Charles Crichton and Henry Cornelius, an international character amongst figures such as Alexander Korda and Emeric Pressburger, yet Mackendrick brings a well travelled artistic vision and disillusionment with advertising and marketing where he gained great skill and craftsmanship that is shown in the framing and pace of his films. Thus creating a rich palette of characters, story arcs and situations lacking from some of the other comedies, all conveyed in a manner far from workmanlike but meticulously crafted so to give the impression of realism, believability and an ambiguity so integral to life in Britain and abroad. Moral ambiguity, deception and the themes present in The Man in the White Suit are realistic traits worldwide and so neatly presented by Mackendrick time and again through Whisky Galore to The Sweet Smell of Success.
George Perry also points to Ealing as “basically a middle-class institution of a mildly radical disposition.” Reflecting post-war Britain Ealing adopted the vision of “small -scale enterprise” and the mandate of the Labour party, Michael Balcon and most Ealing workers and directors were moderate supporters of the Labour party; as it has been put, they were enacting their “mild revolution.” It can be noted that “given the admitted Labour allegiance of the Ealing film-makers, it is arguable that the early Ealing films (1947-1951) constitute a programmatic attack on the evils Labour wished to eradicate” including “monopoly capitalism (The Man in the White Suit).” Alexander Mackendrick’s film goes further perhaps than any of the other comedies questioning the entire system of industry within the UK and throughout the world: the monopoly capitalist industrialism that breeds planned obsolescence and diverse factions peddling and perpetuating the status quo. As Susan Hayward concurs, “while it adheres to Ealing’s general realist style and the theme of an individual battling against institutions, it unpicks complex facets of contemporary life from which mainstream comedies shied away.”
Sue Harper suggests the film is “preoccupied with consumerism” and Sidney Stratton’s invention puts a stop to the cycle of consumption decay and replacement.” The film she continues “takes a very pessimistic view of consumption, but also of the reforming powers of creativity,” something of a convention in Ealing comedies as she puts it where “the burden of saving the old order is laid on.” John Hill finds that with the possible exception of The Man in the White Suit, the Ealing comedies reinforce the cosy view of the British middle classes and empowered citizens. Nevertheless, the comedy films recognised the importance of community, social responsibility and putting aside individual differences to engage in collective action against the forces of greed or bureaucratic indifference. The Man in the White Suit however is of particular importance as it brings this consensus into question.
The cycle of Ealing Comedies fall in a fascinating chapter of British history considering the changing face of government and the coronation of a new Queen. The films reflect upon a transforming set of values amongst a British public wishing to see off the rationing days of Clement Atlee’s welfare state shaking Labour government and the reinstatement of the war time Prime Minister Winston Churchill and re-embracing of Conservative opine. “times change, and if the early Ealing comedies can be seen as an affirmation of Labour’s programme, the later ones can be seen as a retreat from it.” Change from Whisky Galore! to The Maggie and Kind Hearts and Coronets to The Ladykillers. The Man in the White Suit falling as it does in 1951 is perhaps thee watershed year. George VI’s health was in decline, Churchill returned to parliament in October that year. Mackendrick encapsulates a time in this film as in The Ladykillers, where it has been postulated that the individual characters represented Attlee’s Labour Party crumbling in a crooked British Tory society that lives in denial,  the late comedies, Ladykillers included, to Charles Barr seemed to represent a crumbling within the ranks of Ealing too. Mismanagement, mottled opinions and the stifled ambitions of stars and talent such as Alec Guinness, Mackendrick and Robert Hamer split the tight nuclear family of Ealing from within. The Man in the White Suit it seems to me represents the politics of proposed deliberate stagnation, a return to conservatism and a public blinded by the economical sciences of the free market and free market capitalism perpetuating a way of life that Britain in particular had grown accustom. The boom and bust cycle of Keynesian economics has remained a mainstay of the financial and economical health of this country for the best part of the twentieth century and even now, as reflected in business, trade and the film industry. The pattern is the very similar, London Films, Ealing and Goldcrest all feeling the brunt of the boom and of the bust in differing periods. That “critics have seen the period of 1951–1958 as a period when British film industry ran out of steam just as the Labour party had” as pointed out by Jeffrey Richards and Anthony Aldgate, hints at the idea of using Ealing Studios and their films as a barometer for the national political discourse. This is a simple hypothesis when you consider the patterns in history through the Second World War and into the 1950s, but what is striking is that the patterns remain ever similar and, when you consider Mackendrick’s pictures in particular, they seem to strike a chord with any period of history.
It is only within the genre of comedy and satire that Mackendrick, the public and Ealing can comfortably digest such ideas and overarching satirical comment, Alexander Mackendrick himself conveyed that “personally I was always very attracted by comedy, because I believe that it alone can say certain things. It allows you to do things that are too dangerous or that a certain audience cannot accept.” It is worth dissecting The Man in the White Suit as a whole to discover where the comment lies, what can be applied to the context of the 1950s and what is consistent with the present day. I will consider the post-war Ealing era first and then attempt to determine what legacy the film has, or what can be considered by reviewing the film.
 Hayward, Susan, British National Cinema, London, Routledge, 1997, p.69.
 Balcon, Michael, A Lifetime of Films, London, Hutchinson, 1969, p.48.
 Barr, Charles, Ealing Studios 2nd Edition, London, Studio Vista, 1993, p.145.
 Hayward, Susan, British National Cinema, London, Routledge, 1997, p.67.
 Aldgate, Anthony and Jeffrey Richards, Best of British: Cinema and Society from 1930 to the present, London, I.B. Tauris, 1999, p.151.
 Barr, Charles, Ealing Studios 2nd Edition, London, Studio Vista, 1993, p.132.
 Aldgate, Anthony and Jeffrey Richards, Best of British: Cinema and Society from 1930 to the present, London, I.B. Tauris, 1999, p.158.
 Barr, Charles, Ealing Studios 2nd Edition, London, Studio Vista, 1993, p.131.
 Kemp, Philip, Lethal Innocence: The Cinema of Alexander Mackendrick, London, Methuen, 1991, p.50.
 Rolinson, Dave, “’If they want culture, they pay’: consumerism and alienation in 1950s comedies” in Ian MacKillop and Neil Sinyard (Eds.) British cinema of the 1950s: a celebration, Manchester University Press, 2003, p.92.
 Aldgate, Anthony and Jeffrey Richards, Best of British: Cinema and Society from 1930 to the present, London, I.B. Tauris, 1999, p.153.
 Ellis, John, “Made in Ealing”, Screen, 16, spring 1975, p.119.
 Perry, George, Forever Ealing, London, Pavilion Books, 1981, p.111.
 Aldgate, Anthony and Jeffrey Richards, Best of British: Cinema and Society from 1930 to the present, London, I.B. Tauris, 1999, p.155.
 Hayward, Susan, British National Cinema, London, Routledge, 1997, p.69.
 Harper, Sue, Women in British Cinema: Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know, London, Continuum, p. 91.
 Hill, John, Sex, Class, and Realism: British Cinema 1956-1963, London, BFI, 1986.
 Aldgate, Anthony and Jeffrey Richards, Best of British: Cinema and Society from 1930 to the present, London, I.B. Tauris, 1999, p.157.
 Kemp, Philip, Lethal Innocence: The Cinema of Alexander Mackendrick, London, Methuen, 1991, pp.110-136.
 Aldgate, Anthony and Jeffrey Richards, Best of British: Cinema and Society from 1930 to the present, London, I.B. Tauris, 1999, pp. 149-165.
 Barr, Charles, Ealing Studios 2nd Edition, London, Studio Vista, 1993, pp. 159-173.
 Positif, 92, February 1968, p.41.