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In the winter of 1868, Eben Frost goes to a Boston pawnshop and redeems a silver medal, inscribed to "Dr. W.T.G. Morton, the Benefactor of Mankind, with the Gratitude of Humanity." Frost drives to a country farmhouse and gives the medal to Morton's widow, Elizabeth Morton who explains to her daughter, Betty, that Frost was the first person given anesthesia by her father, Boston dentist Dr. W.T.G. Morton. The story flashes back 20 years to find Morton being wildly acclaimed by medical students as the man whose discovery of "letheon" had forever ended pain as, before that day, even amputations were performed with the patient fully conscious. "Letheron", unknown to everybody but Morton and Elizabeth, is simply highly rectified sulfuric ether - cleaning fluid - easily obtainable at a pharmacy. By keeping the secret, Dr. Morton could be rich, but he had rather be poor than see a girl strapped to an operating table under the knife of Dr. Warren, and he reveals his secret to a group of ... Written by
Les Adams <email@example.com>
This film is notorious for having been butchered by the studio and shelved for two years (the trailer awkwardly tries to pass it off as another Sturges comedy); atypically for him, it’s a medical biopic on the lines of Warner Bros,’ similar films of a few years earlier – and, therefore, more serious than usual (in fact, the few comedy elements here seem like a distraction to the unfolding drama).
I own a volume of Sturges’ scripts – including the original version of this one, called TRIUMPH OVER PAIN (the book from which it derived also inspired the latter-day Boris Karloff vehicle CORRIDORS OF BLOOD !), which is certainly his most ambitious project; I had read it some years ago and recall it being quite complexly structured: what remains of the film is pretty straightforward, other than adopting a flashback framework (to which it doesn’t even return at the end!). Still, as it stands, it’s hardly a disaster (if undeniably choppy and rushed): fascinating as much for its plot about the inception of anesthesia by a forgotten small-town doctor, W.T.G. Morton, which many a fellow doctor tried to claim as their own invention, as for its handsome and meticulous recreation of an era (recalling Orson Welles’ equally compromised THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS ).
The cast includes a few of Sturges’ renowned stock company: star Joel McCrea (in their third consecutive collaboration) is well-cast in the lead; William Demarest appears as his comic sidekick (the doctor’s first painless client – repeatedly, he starts to recount his experience but each time succeeding in going no further than the first couple of phrases!); Porter Hall (as the somewhat patronizing American President); Franklin Pangborn (in a brief role as secretary to an esteemed doctor whom McCrea wants to test his formula); Jimmy Conlin (the chemist who sells McCrea the ‘miraculous’ ether); Torben Meyer (an irascible doctor who is urgently called in to treat a patient administered an overdose of laughing gas – more on this later).
The remaining actors include: Betty Field as Morton’s long-suffering wife (whose limited role is often relegated to the sidelines, at least in this version); Harry Carey (dignified as the surgeon who regrets the barbaric methods he’s forced to use while operating on his patients); Louis Jean Heydt (as an arrogant young student who uses laughing gas for desensitization, but whose experiment goes comically awry); Grady Sutton (this W.C. Fields regular appears in one of only two overtly slapsticky scenes as the recipient of the laughing gas – the other involves McCrea’s first attempt to extract Demarest’s tooth, which renders him temporarily crazed and sends him crashing through the window into the street below!); Edwin Maxwell (the usual authoritarian role, in this case a colleague of Carey’s who indirectly stoops to blackmail in order to force McCrea to reveal the secret ingredient of his formula – which the latter was concealing, as a means of protection, only so long as the “Letheon” invention was officially patented).
Sturges, obviously, is all for the hero who has to face up to a general wave of both ignorance and prejudice, not to mention centuries of savage medical tradition; in fact, as depicted in the film, the students seem to treat daily grueling operations almost as another form of entertainment! The film rises to a number of good dramatic moments (usually seeing McCrea in confrontation with someone or other) – especially powerful, however, are Carey’s first successful operation with an anesthetized patient (and his surprised but enthusiastic approval of the procedure) and the ending, complete with moody lighting and religious music, as Morton compassionately approaches the next ‘victim’ of established science…when the doors of reason, as it were, are suddenly flung open and the painless method is accepted into its fold.
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