A filmmaking genius leaves Paramount on a sad, confusing note.
Director Preston Sturges was one of the most accomplished and successful of filmmakers of his generation, and few others contributed to American cinema the way he did. The director of Sullivan’s Travels and Hail the Conquering Hero, among many others, shined a light on the country in ways that forced moviegoers to examine themselves. At the same time, Sturges knew how to entertain audiences, allowing them to escape with comic tales of supposed froth and frivolity which were actually keen observations on men and women.
It’s therefore a little shocking that someone like Sturges should have a flop like The Great Moment, his woebegone 1944 drama. Perhaps the travesty is not so much that the movie flopped (even someone as great as Sturges is not immune to box office failure), but that such a great filmmaker should be subjected to as much studio interference as he encountered, eventually leaving behind a patchy film whose large ambitions were never realized.
In The Great Moment, Dr. W.T. Morgan (Joel McCrea) is a Boston dentist whose practice is going nowhere thanks to the fear his potential patients have of teeth pulling. When a series of events leads Morgan to the discovery and invention of anesthesia, life changes for him and his wife Elizabeth (Betty Field). However, with this new discovery comes several challenges and choices that Morgan could never have foreseen and which he must overcome.
A student of Sturges could go back and forth determining the cause of The Great Moment’s downfall. Was it the less than favorable audience previews, or the studio’s nervous reaction to them which prompted a series of edits, none of which were sanctioned by Sturges? Either way, it’s hard to ignore the sad fate that befell the film. While a movie can survive tampering at the hands of studios, the choices made here are obvious and cloying, with far too many disjointed scenes strung together that either don’t work on their own or seem to belong to an entirely different film.
The biggest problem is the way the studio amped up the comedy. Even though Sturges had intended for some moments of levity, Morgan’s story was ultimately a serious one. Looking at the final product, the earnest real-life tale of this medical pioneer is littered with too many awkward moments of forced comedy, almost none of which work. In a way, it wouldn’t matter if they did, since The Great Moment’s architecture is all over the place, going from subplot to subplot for a story that barely feels connected or cohesive.
Every time I watch a disc I was sent to review, I question whether or not it has a place on my shelf. I must admit that I was torn about what I was going to do with The Great Moment. For all its glaring flaws, which are impossible to ignore, there were enough moments that reminded me that I was indeed watching a Sturges film. The studio may have mangled it, but Sturges’s passion and talent still can’t help but come through in several scenes. One of the film’s more honest scenes includes Morton sitting in the audience of an operation where he silently proclaims: “It won’t hurt anymore. Doctors will be able to do things they never thought possible. People will have operations willingly instead of waiting until it’s too late.” And no tampering could take away the beauty of the victorious moment when the demonstration of ether proves successful after Morton’s many failed attempts. Ultimately, the true story of the man and his relentless spirit helps to carry The Great Moment to the finish line. Watching how one of the most important scientific discoveries came to be, along with its creator’s steadfast determination and unwavering belief, couldn’t be anything but compelling, no matter its form.
I’ve already cited The Great Moment’s hopeless architecture as one of the many components that only serve to hinder the true film Sturges was trying to make. If the opening sequence, which shows Elizabeth still mourning her husband’s death while hinting at his fate, is a questionable way to start the narrative, the abrupt ending in which we see Morgan decide to share his invention with the world makes things unbearable. There’s no circling back to the present day, no resolution, and no clue about what happened to Morgan after his invention changed modern medicine forever.
After finishing The Great Moment, a quote from a Robert Altman movie came to mind in which a character states: “There will be great lapses in taste, but there will also be dazzling moments of rare beauty.” I can’t think of a better way to describe The Great Moment, a film that was almost killed by its studio yet still managed glimpses of that unmistakable Sturges touch. It’s enough to make any cinephile weep for what should have been another incredible entry in such a prolific career.
The Great Moment is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.