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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 <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Sturges intended this to be a much more serious film. Panicked by some inconclusive reviews, Paramount cut it as a traditional Sturges comedy. The director, no longer associated with the studio, asked former friend and studio chief Frank Freeman to entitle the film "Triumph Over Pain," and he wrote and offered to write, direct, and appear in a prologue gratis. Paramount did not want to expend the additional $50,000 this would incur, and they ignored his offer. See more »
For those who have enjoyed the brilliant farce comedies made in the early '40s by writer-director Preston Sturges this movie may come as a bewildering disappointment. It's a strangely downbeat biographical film about an obscure Boston dentist, William Morton, who, according to some historians, discovered the anesthetic use of ether for surgery in the mid-nineteenth century. It's said that Morton was falsely accused of plagiarizing his research, ruined his health defending his reputation, and died young, broke and forgotten. Right off the bat you know you're not in traditional Sturges territory.
In the period before this film was made the unexpected popularity of Warner Brothers' biographical dramas such as The Story of Louis Pasteur and Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet inspired the other Hollywood studios to make similar dramas based on the lives of Thomas Edison, Madame Curie, Alexander Graham Bell, etc., but these tales of medical and scientific advance were also upbeat stories of successful and well rewarded endeavor. Sturges, for some reason, was drawn to a story in which the protagonist was wronged and the bad guys won; he also wanted to experiment with chronology and end the film on a high note by circling back in time to Morton's "great moment" of triumph, before his victory slipped away. The director fought pitched battles with his bosses at Paramount to make the film his way, despite the front office's concerns over what wartime audiences preferred to see (not unlike the battle between Orson Welles and RKO over The Magnificent Ambersons, waged at about the same time). Unfortunately, Paramount won. The movie was shelved for two years, and only released in a heavily-altered form after Sturges had quit the studio. The director's cut of the film no longer exists.
So, the movie known as The Great Moment is not the one Sturges made. For starters, he wanted to title his film after the book from which he derived the story, "Triumph Over Pain," and when the studio didn't like that he came up with "Great Without Glory," but eventually they gave it the nondescript title it now bears. Scenes were cut, and the sequence of events was rearranged to fit a more traditional pattern. Those interested in learning what the author actually intended can read his original screenplay in a published collection called Four More Screenplays by Preston Sturges, and you'll find a better piece of work than what's left on screen, but although it's an interesting read I have my doubts about whether the project could've ever been a satisfying film. Still, Sturges' version would have at least been the coherent expression of his vision, instead of fragments rearranged by studio functionaries. As it stands, what's left of The Great Moment is odd and erratic. Some of its problems are inherent in the concept while others rest in Sturges' curious casting choices, which were not imposed on him.
Dr. Morton, the protagonist, is never established as a dimensional character, and although Joel McCrea is as likable as ever he seems to be struggling to breathe life into his role. His (and Morton's) likability is put to a severe test in the scene when the doctor comes home tipsy late one night and attempts to experiment on his own dog. On the plus side, there's a sharp performance by character actor Julius Tannen as Morton's former professor, while veteran Harry Carey is memorable as a surgeon who comes to believe in Morton in a moving, climactic scene. But by that point the tone of the story has undergone several strange shifts: in the interest of lightening the mood, I suppose, Sturges inserted comic interludes with his familiar stock characters, notably William Demarest, but these scenes are more jarring than funny. Demarest offers a spirited turn as a patient named Eben Frost whom Morton uses as a human guinea pig, but when Frost repeats the anecdote again and again ("it was the night of September 30. I was in excruciating pain . . .") the running gag grows wearisome. The central concern here, after all, is the intense pain people experienced during surgery before anesthetics were introduced, and, for me anyway, contemplating this reality undercuts the attempts at humor.
It was bold of Sturges to tackle this project instead of playing it safe by making another crowd-pleasing comedy, but the battle with Paramount damaged his career and ultimately drove him from Hollywood entirely. The film available today is not the one he intended us to see, so he shouldn't be judged too harshly for The Great Moment, but one wishes that he'd been more self-protective, even allowing the front office to talk him out of making this film-- or at least postponing it --perhaps sustaining his winning streak as a master of eccentric, sophisticated comedy just a little longer.
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