Out of the Ealing Studio comedies I’ve seen, this is probably my favorite. There’s always a gentle undercurrent of satire to them, but this is the one with the sharpest edge, all while still packaged as a zany mid-century British comedy full of gentle humor. It’s a delightful mix that manages to cast a wonderfully satirical light on the split between capital and labor.
Sidney Stratton is a malcontent genius scientist who has an idea but no funds, so he goes from job to job at different textile mills, subverting the accounting systems to get his own private lab up and running right in the middle of things. When he gets fired from one, he moves on to the next, picking up where he left off with new equipment. When he gets himself a menial labor job at Birnley, he is tasked with delivering an electron microscope to the lab where, because he knows so much about the microscope, he gets confused for a representative of the manufacturer and is granted a space for him to begin anew. What he’s trying to accomplish is a new synthetic thread with complex molecules of infinite length, creating an impervious new material for clothes. It’s a genius idea, and when the daughter of the textile mill’s owner, Birnley, convinces her father that Sidney is worth the risk, he hires Sidney, swallowing the increasingly massive costs as Sidney fine tunes his idea for a larger scale.
There’s fun comedy through the movie up to this point. It’s nice in that genteel British way as people wear full suits beneath overalls to work, and everyone is very polite to each other (reminding me of Hitchcock’s Young and Innocent to a certain extent). However it’s when Sidney actually accomplishes his mission and Birnley decided to move forward that the movie really gains its edge.
Up until that moment, there have been slight murmurings of the typical spats between labor and management through the character Bertha, a worker in Birnley’s mill that befriends Sidney. She’s concerned about his taking the tea time that the union fought for and, when he takes up his new position in the lab that he conned his way into, she wants to make sure that he’s paid right, even though he’s not actually employed by Birnley at all by that point. When Sidney creates his thread, gets it turned into a suit, and begins parading around in it is when Birnley and Bertha begin to see the same way. Sidney’s invention will be the ruin of them all. People will buy a single suit and never need another one again. Now, I don’t believe that’s how it would actually happen, but the point is that they believe it means the complete destruction of their industry after a brief and explosive moment of growth. They all turn against Sidney.
The only one who doesn’t is Daphne, Birnley’s daughter. Played with the deeply feminine voice of Joan Greenwood, Daphne is essentially the straight man in this whole thing, the one the audience is supposed to latch onto as a grounding into the narrative. She’s the one who speaks the most sense throughout, and yet her pleas for treating Sidney fall on deaf ears. Everyone tries to get at Sidney so that he won’t reveal his formula to anyone ever again. Their solution comes to them when they reach him and his suit simply starts falling apart in their hands. Something has happened to the material that keeps it from holding together for too long, and the threat is over. Sidney gets dismissed from his employment before holding up his notebook with a smile as he thinks he’s figured it out.
The movie is pleasant in the first half and gains that real bite in the second. It’s the second half that works best in my mind. A mixture of physical comedy, wordplay, and satire, the back end of the film highlights how quickly a defining divide between two classes of people in society can be bridged when something larger comes along to threaten it, bringing out the worst in both of them.
Alec Guinness is wonderful as Sidney, playing the mad scientist with just enough of an edge to make him different but without taking him too far. The rest of the cast, especially Cecil Parker as Birnley, has fun inhabiting their roles as they react to this insane man with a vision they can’t really understand and end up rebelling against.
It’s a delightful example of the Ealing Studio ethos, as presented by director Alexander Mackendrick. It’s really tight at a grand 85 minutes, is filled with economical storytelling, and never really feels as cheap as it probably was to make.