THE GREAT MOMENT has a number of them popping up in its brief 81-minute run, but they don’t add up to a great movie. Interesting, sometimes quite funny, different to be sure, but one so reduced by studio editing and marketing from its auteur writer-director’s original finished work that it flopped miserably on release and ended its creator’s stellar winning streak.
A written prologue states: “It does not seem to be generally understood that before ether there was nothing. The patient was strapped down…that is all. This is the story of W. T. G. Morton of Boston, Mass., before whom in all time surgery was agony, since whom science has control of pain. Of all things in nature great men alone reverse the laws of perspective and grow smaller as one approaches them. Dwarfed by the magnitude of his revelation, reviled, hated by his fellow men, forgotten before he was remembered, Morton seems very small indeed until the incandescent moment he ruined himself for a servant girl and gained immortality.”
In the 1840s, struggling Boston dentist William T.G. Morton (Joel McCrea), disturbed by seeing the agony his terrified patients undergo, seeks a scientific way to ease the pain, and he succeeds, but his oft-times comic struggles, witnessed by his harried wife (Betty Field), and endured by a patient converted to partner (William Demarest), ultimately come at great personal cost. Written & directed by Preston Sturges, this 1944 curiosity is a historical-biography-comedy-drama about a dentist discovering anesthesia. So much for a box-office hook.
FIANCEE: “He’s going to be a dentist!” HER MOTHER: “Oh, and he seemed such a nice young man.”
Filmed in 1942, it displeased the studio (Paramount) and its Executive Producer (Buddy G. DeSylva, who did not cotton to smart upstart Preston S.) so much that they took it from Sturges and reedited it, bollixed the marketing and then delayed release for two years. When it did come out, the combination of oddball subject, opaque title, quick changes of mood and confusing editing (including chronologically clumsy flashbacks) resulted in a piddling $800,000 gross, an abysmal 141st place for the year. Sturges’ meteoric career never regained traction. *
The sloppy beginning and sudden, truncated ending are unfortunate bookends for some fun period material in-between, especially some great farcical segments with a wound-up Demarest. McCrea is fine, Fields borderline annoying, the supporting cast of Sturges regulars up to snuff. Victor Young provides the effective soundtrack. Today, in most cases a visit to the dentist is a relative breeze, but not so long ago—and as far back as you could go, the relief from toothaches was something to dread like a bear mauling.
Helping extract and polish: Harry Carey, Louis Jean Heydt, Julius Tannen, Edwin Maxwell, Franklin Pangborn, Porter Hall (an unflattering U.S. President Franklin Pierce), Grady Sutton and Torben Meyer.
* Buddy G. DeSylva (1895-1950), regarded by Sturges-favoring reviewers—and certainly by the director—as the villain of the impacted-wisdom-tooth-production story, might have blown it with this job (an uncertain verdict), but had a superb track record as an executive producer and was renowned as a prolific songwriter (“Button Up Your Overcoat”, “California Here I Come”, scads more). He co-founded Capitol Records.
** Wishing to go against the nap-inducing grain of Biography Writ Solemn (The Story Of Louis Pasteur, The Life Of Emile Zola, Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet, etc.), Sturges wanted to show Morton more of a regular, flawed Joe than some marble statue that makes speeches, with the riotously daffy elements intended to both balance and make more poignant the irony and tragic aspects. His choice of title and the original prologue was ditched by the nervous Paramount brass. Here it is: “One of the most charming characteristics of Homo sapiens, the wise guy on your right, is the consistency with which he has stoned, crucified, hanged, flayed, boiled in oil and otherwise rid himself of those who consecrated their lives to further his comfort and well-being, so that all his strength and cunning might be preserved for the erection of ever larger monuments, memorial shafts, triumphal arches, pyramids and obelisks to the eternal glory of generals on horseback, tyrants, usurpers, dictators, politicians, and other heroes who led him, from the rear, to dismemberment and death. This is the story of the Boston dentist who gave you ether-before whom in all time surgery was agony, since whom science has control of pain. It should be almost unnecessary then to tell you that this man, whose contribution to human mercy is unparalleled in the history of the world, was ridiculed, reviled, burned in effigy and eventually driven to despair and death by the beneficiaries of his revelation. Paramount Pictures, Incorporated, has the honor of bringing you, at long last, the true story of an American of supreme achievement – W.T.G. Morton of Boston, Massachusetts, in a motion picture called Triumph Over Pain.”