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GREAT MOMENT, THE(director/writer: Preston Sturges; screenwriter: based on the book Triumph over Pain by Rene Fulop-Miller; cinematographer: Victor Milner; editor: Victor Milner; 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), Grady Sutton (Homer Quimby), Donivee Lee (Betty Morton), Julius Tannen (Dr. Jackson), Louis Jean Heydt (Dr. Horace Wells); Runtime: 87; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Preston Sturges; MCA Universal; 1944)
“A very agreeable biopic that is both delightfully comical and insightfully touching.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

An irreverent satirical biopic based on the Boston dentist William T.G. Morton (Joel McCrea) and his accidental discovery in 1846 of the use of ether as an anesthetic for surgery during dental and medical procedures, which he immediately shared with the world and as a result of his poor business judgment gained neither fame nor fortune as a reward for this great service to humanity. It veers between sober seriousness and slapstick farce, while always remaining smartly filmed.

Preston Sturges (“The Lady Eve”/”Sullivan’s Travels”/”The Palm Beach Story”) directs and turns in the screenplay, and it works out well even though it’s filmed in an odd way you usually wouldn’t associate with a Sturges film (it’s set in the past and has a far more serious subject matter). Once again Sturges makes good use of his regular stock company actors (William Demarest, Porter Hall, Franklin Pangborn and Grady Sutton). The film was badly recut by the Paramount suits to give it a happy ending, which damaged the film greatly and made many think this was a rare Sturges failure. But from this critic’s viewpoint, recuts and all, it still is a very agreeable biopic that is both delightfully comical and insight-fully touching. This was the last of Sturges’s pictures for Paramount to be released, as their longtime relationship soured over artistic differences caused by this pic; it was filmed in 1942 but only released in 1944 after the studio recut it. After leaving Paramount, Sturges’ career never returned to his past greatness.

The Great Moment is based on the book Triumph over Pain by Rene Fulop-Miller.

It opens with Eben Frost (William Demarest) buying back a pawned silver medal and giving it to the widow Elizabeth Morton (Betty Field). The film goes into flashback as she recalls how her hubby William learned that Congress passed a bill granting him $100,000 only to have a mean-spirited President Pierce refuse to sign the bill unless Morton will sue a Navy surgeon. As a result the impoverished Morton is perceived as a greedy pig in the newspapers and is denied a patent by a court ruling. This ruling forced him to give up his claim of being the first inventor of a painless treatment for surgery procedures and he ended up dying in poverty and obscurity.

The flashback picks up when a young William leaves Harvard medical school to be a dentist and weds a young Elizabeth. Concerned that he’s losing patients because of the pain, he consults with Dr. Charles Jackson (Julius Tannen) and is told to try ethyl chloride. But that makes him drunk when he tests it on himself. Dr. Horace Wells (Louis Jean Heydt) uses nitrous oxide, but abandons it because patients go into laughing spells. William gets his friend Eben Frost (William Demarest) to be a guinea pig for pay, but the first test result is a failure as Eben feels the excruciating pain and goes amok only to be arrested and charged as a drunk. Morton goes to Jackson for further help and is advised to use a purer ether. Jackson is promised ten percent in the new discovery, even though he would rather receive a small amount of cash now. Morton successfully pulls Eben’s tooth on September 30, 1846 and becomes recognized as the painless dentist. Then the jealous Jackson demands 25% and the ungrateful Dr. Wells accuses Morton of stealing his discovery. Morton calls his discovery letheon and asks for no money only that it be used by others without knowledge of his ingredients until he gets his patent. Morton’s discovery shows that operations no longer have to be painful.

The biopic is compelling; McCrea and Field give touching performances; and there’s a certain dignity to this yarn that can’t be underestimated.

REVIEWED ON 10/21/2007 GRADE: A-

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”