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,The Great Moment

The Great Moment

In the early 1940s, Preston Sturges created some of the greatest comedies of the American cinema. Within the short span of five years, he made The Great McGinty (1940), The Lady Eve (1941), Sullivan's Travels (1942), The Palm Beach Story (1942), The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944), and others. He generally wrote, directed, and produced all of his work, making him not only a true auteur but one of Paramount studios' hottest properties. Prior to that, he had been an in-demand writer, turning out scripts for such directors as Mitchell Leisen, James Whale, and William Wyler and stars like Margaret Sullavan, Barbara Stanwyck, Spencer Tracy, and Fredric March. It was one of the most remarkable runs in film history. The Great Moment (1944), Sturges' one movie of the period that wasn't an all-out comedy, changed all that.

The film tells the true story of W.T.G. Morton, the Boston dentist generally credited with initiating the use of anesthetic in surgery. Sturges crafted the screenplay along the lines of his most prestigious script of the 1930s, The Power and the Glory (1933), starting in 1868, after Morton's death, then flashing back through various periods of his life. The story follows (not in strict chronological order) Morton's early struggle, his first use of Letheon (actually the common cleaning fluid ether), and the great acclamation that followed. Then in 1848, he reveals the true nature of Letheon in order to save a young girl from a very painful operation; with his secret out, Morton has sacrificed a potential fortune. His life in ruins, he retires to a small farm with his not-so-sympathetic wife. There he gets the news that Congress has awarded him a long-overdue $100,000, if he will defend his patent in court against an Army surgeon making claims on it. But the press accuses him of profiteering, and his patent is disallowed. Sturges based his script on Rene Fulop-Miller's book Triumph over Pain, which caused a storm of controversy when it was first published. Many disputed its claims that Morton was the first or sole discoverer of ether as an anesthetic. The film version, originally titled Great Without Glory, proved to be as much of an undoing for Sturges.

Although his movies were for the most part critically well received at the time and have since been recognized for their outstanding achievement, Sturges' reputation at the studio rested largely on his one runaway hit, The Lady Eve. Paramount production executive Buddy DeSilva didn't much trust Sturges, particularly resenting the control the director had over his projects, and found the whole story of The Great Moment repulsive and unsuitable for mainstream audiences. He also did not want Joel McCrea in the lead and objected to a foreword in which Sturges had written about the hardships suffered by those who "consecrated their lives to (man's) further comfort and well-being so that all his strength and cunning might be preserved for the erection of ever-larger monuments to the eternal glory of generals on horseback, politicians and other heroes who led him, usually from the rear, to dismemberment and death." Not a great sentiment, studio bigwigs reasoned, for a country in the midst of a world war. Paramount also had a problem with the comic tone of some of the picture - including bumbling accidents and slapstick - which was carried primarily by Sturges' "stock company" actor William Demarest in one of his strongest and most important roles. DeSilva pulled the picture from Sturges' control, retitled it, and attempted to redit it (making it confusing for audiences). Even though it had been brought in on budget and a day under schedule, the movie flopped, making it the only Sturges film at Paramount to fail to turn a profit. It was held back from release for two years. By then, Sturges had left the studio and begun his sad decline.

Nevertheless, The Great Moment is well worth seeing for a number of reasons. In an era when Hollywood bio-pics tended to be over-inflated and sentimental, Sturges' irreverent approach and subtle satire is refreshing. The flashback style, for which the director was so vilified by the studio, makes an interesting comparison to both The Power and the Glory and Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941), whose script was said to be heavily influenced by Sturges' work on the earlier film. It's also interesting to watch Sturges' stock company of comic character actors (Demarest, Franklin Pangborn, Grady Sutton, and others) in more serious period roles. And there is also McCrea, one of the most underrated performers of his time. The actor once told Sturges, who was writing Sullivan's Travels especially for him, that he only got good roles when Gary Cooper wasn't available (and this project was originally purchased with Cooper in mind). But he was one of Sturges' favorites and did some of his finest work in the director's movies; in addition to Sullivan's Travels and this film, he was in The Palm Beach Story.

Producer/Director: Preston Sturges
Screenplay: Preston Sturges, based on the book Triumph over Pain by Rene Fulop-Miller
Cinematography: Victor Milner
Editing: Stuart Gilmore
Production Design: Hans Dreier
Original Music: Victor Young
Cast: Joel McCrea (W.T.G. Morton), Betty Field (Elizabeth Morton), William Demarest (Eben Frost), Harry Carey (Professor Warren), Porter Hall (President Pierce), Franklin Pangborn (Dr. Heywood).

by Rob Nixon



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