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The Great Moment Review: Preston Sturges' Anesthesia Drama

Think The Social Network circa 1840's where Facebook is Anesthesia and Mark Zuckerberg is William T.G. Morton.  We drill into the dramatic anomaly that ended comedic director Preston Sturges’ film career within the Hollywood studio system and what it means in his filmography.  



Written by: John Matsuya

Art by: Ben Matsuya

by Ben Matsuya

by Ben Matsuya

Spoilers For The Great Moment

Make ‘Em Laugh

A Harvard student pioneers a world-changing discovery regarding how people feel, only to face legal action over the proprietary technology from his former colleagues. Sounds like David Fincher’s The Social Network?  Drill back sixty-six years and it also describes a strange Preston Sturges drama called The Great Moment, about the first use of anesthesia for medicine.  

If that sounds weird to you, it is. Preston Sturges is a director known for revolutionizing comedies in the early forties.  His films like The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels, and The Palm Beach Story were not only witty, physical, screwball comedies, but also carried a progressive commentary on the relationship between men and women which addressed social issues about class and wealth.  Like the best comedies, you did not notice the affect they had on you (and the time), cause you were too busy laughing. Imagine going through comedy after comedy in a director’s filmography only to stop and find a synopsis for a movie about the dentist who discovered anesthesia.  

The first use of ether in dental surgery, 1846. Ernest Board; oil painting. 

The first use of ether in dental surgery, 1846. Ernest Board; oil painting. 

I couldn’t wait.  When you think about it, it actually seems like a perfect fit for Sturges.  It only makes sense that a director who concentrated so much on laughter and pleasure would seek to make a movie about the numbing of pain. 

What follows is a bizzaro world version of The Social Network, complete with non-linear, multiple perspectives (19th century versions of the wronged Eduardo Saverin and the resentful Winklevii), and even bookended by depositions.  When The Social Network was first announced, detractors derided “The Facebook movie”; they could not see past the elevator pitch to the inherent drama of pioneering an innovation and the toll that the creative process takes. The Social Network is one of the defining movies of the 2000's in that it takes an age old story of ambition and contextualizes it within the i-Era.  Similarly, The Great Moment tells us up front that Morton is a victim of his own enterprise and that there will be no glory (the original proposed title was the clunky "Great Without Glory"); the discovery of anesthesia is not to be merely a historical -  Sturges wanted to explore the experience of an innovator from creation to credit.  

Doctor William Thomas Green Morton (Joel McCrea), pioneer of the application of ether for anesthesia, is embittered and embattled.  The opening scenes shows a great ticker tape parade for “The Conquerer of Pain”, but quickly give way to reveal a broken man.  While credited with synthesizing anesthesia for use in surgery, Morton has not profited from his discovery.  Morton petitions President Millard Fillmore (in what has to be the only dramatic representation of Fillmore ever on film), but is soundly rejected of any compensation for his discovery.  He dies forgotten and in poverty.  And that’s the first 15 minutes of the movie.

“If you guys were the inventors of anesthesia, you’d have invented anesthesia.” - via Paramount Pictures

“If you guys were the inventors of anesthesia, you’d have invented anesthesia.” - via Paramount Pictures

Morton develops painless extraction initially because his patients holler in pain and flee his practice. He is not a sadist, he becomes obsessed with the idea of relieving people of pain. Sturges’ signature comedic touch comes into play here: a frightened patient resists a Looney Tunes like drill.  Sturges standby William Demarest plays his role as Morton’s first successful patient with a cartoon gusto. But contrasted with the film's setup, The Great Moment’s tone is uneven.  Sturges’ typical meticulous comic timing has set the standard so high that this "dram-edy" experiment never quite feels seamless. 

Morton solicits advice from a professor and a fellow student.  It is their follies, trials, and errors which ultimately leads to the practical synthesis of anesthetic.  Sturges depicts Morton’s collaborators as a drunk and a hack who make nominal contributions in the idea process.  The scenes of Morton’s experimentations are actually quite compelling and the suspense of the trials are some of the film’s strongest sequences.  There is drama in these primitive medical procedures: the imprecise use of nitrous oxide nearly leads to death by laughing.  Hallucinogenic ethers put not just reputations, but lives at stake.  Sturges mines these situations for broader laughs instead of the more subtle ironies we've grown to expect from him.   

But the titular “great moment” isn’t the successful discovery of anesthesia.  When the medical bureaucracy demands that he disclose his methods, Morton refuses.  The struggling dentist is happy to allow use of anesthesia for surgery, but seeks to also use it in his own private practice.  The medical board will not allow use of anesthesia unless he forfeits his claim to a patent.  Struggling with his conscience, Morton renounces his quest for a patent and discloses the distillation of his findings for the painless surgery of a young girl.  Morton’s “triumph” is exaggerated and messianic: angelic trumpets blare and the doors to the surgery room seem to swing open of their own will. Morton comes to his humanistic conclusion to put the welfare of humanity over his own luxury.  

But something isn’t right.  

The Social Network will have us believe that Zuckerberg’s pyrrhic victory came at the cost of what he wanted most - human connection; but Eisenberg’s Zuckerberg will still go on to reap the rewards of his business.  Morton is rendered penniless and pathetic in fighting for compensation of his discovery.  If we are to read the film linearly, it would be easy to read "the great moment" (forsaking the patent in favor of the patient) as a temporary lapse in judgment.  Is the title cruelly ironic?  Preston Sturges bemoaned the difficulty of making the film's structure make sense when faced with the facts of Morton's life. The film's finale has a tone-deafness reflected by Morton's actions. 

The advancement of humanity without gain is undoubtedly the most noble of endeavors. Notably, Jonas Salk did not patent his polio vaccine. It sits uneasy that Morton was such an unhappy martyr so full of self-pity and regret for his selflessness.  The shift in tone and sentimental finale underscores a rather cynical perspective that Morton made the wrong decision in forfeiting profit for human advancement. 

The So-So Moment?

Even more than what to make of Morton's decision is what to make of Sturges' decision in making The Great Moment.  One can only speculate, but Sturges' prime filmmaking career coincides with America's involvement in World War II - more specifically, his most notable output is between 1940 to 1944.  Sturges was not only an artist, but a craftsman. An amateur inventor, he employed many innovative filmmaking techniques that Orson Welles flirted with for Citizen Kane.  Sturges, most definitely a thoughtful and complex man, saw the horrors of World War II and the virtues of his "comedic entertainment" - a topic explored in Sullivan's Travels.  To direct a film outside his usual genre must have been a tremendous effort, and when he delivered a final edit that was not the "typical Sturges", the studio took the film and made drastic recuts. It would take two years for the film to finally see release. A messy film got even messier.

Sturges may have related to Morton's impulse to "numb the pain" and provide a salve for a traumatized nation, but also to Morton's quest for artistic recognition.  Even today, comedies are regarded on a lower tier than drama (mainly manifested by the Academy's nominations). And while in Sullivan's Travels, Sturges clearly laid out the case for comedy as balm and utility, The Great Moment feels like Sturges missing the mark in proving comedy as art.  In a way, the ambitious film that is considered his biggest failure seems to be the one that most defines his psychology as a filmmaker.  

via Paramount Pictures

via Paramount Pictures

Vital Statistics

The Great Moment (1944)

  • Director: Preston Sturges
  • Writer: Preston Sturges
  • Starring: Joel McCrea, Betty Field, William Demarest, Harry Carey
  • Producer: Buddy G. DeSylva
  • Music by: Victor Young
    • Cinematography: Victor Milner