Friday, March 23, 2018

The Great Moment

 The Great Moment (Preston Sturges, 1943) I'm sure there were many dust-ups in the relationship between movie-maker Preston Sturges and the studio financing his films, Paramount Pictures, but this is the one that soured the deal. Not really a comedy (but not a straight historical film, either) The Great Moment tells the story of Dr. W.T.G. Morton (Joel McCrea) the dentist who is credited (amongst a great many dis-creditors) of perfecting painless surgery, or what we now refer to as the practice of anesthesiology, at the time an accomplishment as fanciful as breaking the sound barrier, much less powered flight.

It provided another exercise for Sturges to explore non-linear story-telling, and, indeed, Sturges jumps all over the place in the story, starting first* with Morton in triumph over the Main Titles, then moving to the end of the story with the doctor dead, unheralded and even vilified, and his widow recalling the struggles that the dentist went through, after the discovery and the challenges to his claims, including an ill-advised patent pursuit (done at the urging of President Franklin Pierce who passed the matter onto Morton to create a federal test-case). Only after an explanation of the down-fall, does Sturges then tell the tale of the days before the discovery, with the dentist's work and struggles, the comedic failures and the life-threatening ones, ending with the acknowledgement of the scientific community of his discovery and methods. "Here, everything changes" are the last words of the movie.
They might just as well have been "No good deed goes unpunished."

Seeking a patent for the method, Morton is forced to reveal his secret in order to save a life and it is then appropriated by the military during the Civil War. With the cat out of the medicine bag, Morton pursues the unresolved patent question, and is castigated in the Press for his selfishness and anti-humanitarianism. It would hardly be an inspiring story in chronological order, and would influence anybody to walk out of a theater muttering "Guess I'd better stop messing around with that cold fusion idea."

For Sturges, it was a challenge to make a popular entertainment out of what is a downer story in a straight chronological timeline and, instead, taking the audience to a more satisfying conclusion, going from tragedy to triumph (even if he has to bend time to do it). But, its flashback structure irked the Paramount brass, and they withheld the film for two years (during which Sturges would make The Miracle of Morgan's Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero to much acclaim), finally releasing it after Sturges' contract had run out and he'd moved on to potentially sunnier pastures. In those two years, the film had been re-edited, re-titled, and comedic elements added—I detect a clumsily inserted women's scream (and the same one) inserted three times in the film for use in both horrific and comedy situations.
How much of what we now know as The Great Moment is actually part of Sturges' plan and how much is studio interference is readily apparent from a reading of Sturges' original screenplay.** It was Sturges' intention to tell the story in an intricate flashback structure, while, simultaneously making Morton's work relatable to modern audiences.  It still resonates to this day, with the privatization of medical breakthroughs through the study of cell and DNA research; should an entity, corporate or individual, profit from work that could benefit mankind, or even save a life?
In the meantime, there is this film, slightly disjointed by design or by malice,*** the last of Sturges' Paramount films to be released, and the only film Sturges made for the studio that did not make a profit (although it was brought in ahead of schedule and below its budget). Its reputation, like the Morton patent lawsuit, would hang over its extraordinary creator for the rest of his career, which never achieved the same heights as it once had. 

No good deed goes unpunished.


Dr. Morton and Preston Sturges



* Well, not so much.  You can't trust anything in the Paramount botched version of Sturges' film, which he intended to call "Triumph Over Pain."  Sturges' screenplay starts in modern times as a young boy is about to go into surgery.



** The screenplay has been published and can be found here. 

*** Paramount can be counted on to completely botch a film from time to time.  I remember going to the Seattle International Film Festival, specifically, to see Sergio Leone's long-in-the-preparation gangster film Once Upon a Time in America and was horrified to find a disjointed, flawed film that seemed to go on forever.  What was presented there was a re-edited Paramount Pictures version, cut in chronological order, completely destroying Leone's intentions to present it in a complicated flashback structure—that managed to give away a central mystery, and robbed the film, which would prove to be Leone's last, of almost all of its resonance and power.  Years later, I went to see it at a repertory theater—mostly because the show-times indicated a longer cut—and was amazed to see a version that retained the flashback structure, and, although it was an hour longer than the SIFF presentation, seemed to be a much shorter film experience. OUATIA is still a flawed film, but Leone's amazing work as a film-maker was never more apparent.

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