When screenwriter Preston Sturges sold his script for The Great McGinty (1940) to Paramount Pictures for a whopping price of $10, few could have guessed he was about to break new ground in Hollywood. The film’s success – coupled with a Best Oscar win for Best Original Screenplay – effectively established Sturges as Hollywood’s first successful screenwriter-turned-director and quickly followed up with The Lady Eve (1941), Sullivan’s Travels (also 1941) and The Palm Beach Story (1942). Following on the heels of the latter, Sturges began work on his most ambitious film during his years at Paramount, The Great Moment. Originally released on DVD as part of The Preston Sturges Collection by Universal (the current rights holder), Kino has licensed the movie for its Blu-ray debut.
The Production: 3.5/5
In 1840’s Boston, Dr. William T. G. Morton (Joel McCrea) is a dentist looking to be successful in his field while dealing with fearful patients. He finds a way – on accident – by discovering an inhalable general anesthetic from sulphuric ether vapors while following up on a suggestion from his former professor Charles T. Jackson (Julius Tannen). With his wife Lizzie (Betty Field) by his side, Dr. Morton soon capitalizes on his new discovery (called “Letheon”) and soon starts thinking about expanding its usage beyond the field of dentistry. However, this soon brings him at a crossroads on whether to continue profiting off of his medicinal marvel or whether to sacrifice the personal financial gain of his discovery for the greater good of humanity.
The journey to the big screen for The Great Moment began in 1939, when Preston Sturges developed a script – along with four other writers, including Irwin Shaw and Charles Brackett – that was to be directed by Henry Hathaway and starring Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan in the Morton and Eben Frost roles, respectively. When those plans didn’t pan out, Paramount put the project on the shelf, but Sturges wasn’t deterred by the setback; when his movies became successful at the box office, the head brass relented and gave Sturges the green light to tackle the subject matter. When filming was completed in 1942 – right after The Palm Beach Story and before both The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero, in case you were wondering – Paramount didn’t rush the movie out to theaters, as they were baffled and disapproving of the structure in which Sturges chose to frame the narrative; after two years of tinkering – largely under the supervision of studio executive producer Buddy DeSylva, who not only resented the control Sturges had over his movie projects up to this movie, but also never fully trusted him on a personal level – the movie landed in theaters in 1944, to a resounding thud with both critics and audiences. The resulting failure effectively marked the end of the most fruitful period of Sturges’ career, and he never again tasted the same success he had with Paramount as a director for the rest of his life and career following his departure from the studio.
However, even in its studio mandated edit, there’s still plenty to appreciate in The Great Moment. First of all, Sturges’ unique look at the Hollywood biopic makes it a refreshing tonic to some of the more overblown and very overtly sentimental films in this field at this time. Also, a combination of a strong visual sense coupled with the writer-director’s signature style of satire helps to make the cinematic medicine go down. Yet, these positive attributes can only go so far in covering up the flaws brought about by the studio interference; due to the re-edits, the film’s narrative – while traditionally linear while also deployed a clever use of flashbacks – is a little more incoherent, making the meld of dramatic and comedic moments never quite come together as a whole. Despite this major problem, The Great Moment is still a nice and valiant effort by Preston Sturges to explore new ideas in the biopic genre and play with the traditions of said genre; it may not reach the heights it aspires to, but there’s too much of Sturges’ touch present for it to be dismissed overall.
As William T. G. Morton, Joel McCrea is decent in the leading role; he previously collaborated with Sturges as the leading man on Sullivan’s Travels and The Palm Beach Story. As Morton’s wife, Betty Field is a pleasing and stabilizing presence; she’s better known for her dramatic performances in Of Mice and Men (1939) and Kings Row (1942). Harry Carey is solid as the esteemed surgeon John Collins Warren while Sturges regular William Demarest has one of his best performances as Eben Frost. Rounding out the cast are Louis Jean Heydt as Dr. Horace Wells (who experimented with nitrous oxide with mixed results), another Sturges regular Julius Tannen as Morton’s former professor Dr. Charles T. Jackson (who first suggested the idea of ether as an anesthetic), Porter Hall as President Franklin Pierce, Thurston Hall as Senator Solon Borland, Edwin Maxwell as the Vice President of the Medical Society, and members of Preston Sturges’ unofficial stock company of actors in a number of roles both credited and uncredited: George Anderson, Alan Bridge, Georgia Caine, Chester Conklin, Jimmy Conlin (the pharmacist who introduces Morton to the sulphuric ether), Robert Dudley, Byron Foulger, Robert Grieg, Harry Hayden (the judge who rules against Morton’s patent claim), Esther Howard (Dr. Wells’ patient who nearly dies from the nitrous oxide), Arthur Hoyt, J. Farrell MacDonald (the priest at the end of the film), Torben Meyer (a fellow dentist), Frank Moran, Franklin Pangborn (another fellow dentist), Emory Parnell, Victor Potel (Morton’s first dental patient), Dewey Robinson, Harry Rosenthal and Max Wagner (Costello’s bartender); because of the studio interference, some of the actors listed may not be in the final version of the movie, but due to the fact that Sturges’ original cut of the movie is unavailable, there’s no certain way to conclusively determine who’s left out of which version.
3D Rating: NA
The film is presented in its original 1:37:1 aspect ratio for this release. Film grain is organically presented with a faithful representation of gray scale and fine details; there are some minor instances of scratches, tears and dirt present as well. Overall, this transfer is likely the best the movie will look on home video, albeit a slight improvement over the film’s previous DVD release; while certainly not one of their better HD transfers as of late, Kino certainly did their best with what they had.
The film’s original mono soundtrack is presented on a DTS-HD Master Audio track for this release. Dialogue, along with the sound mix and Victor Young score, are all presented with clarity and strength with minimal cases of distortion, crackling, popping or hissing present here. This release is likely the best the movie will ever sound on home video and is an improvement over previous DVD releases.
Special Features: 3.5/5
Great Without Glory (14:03) – Although listed as an introduction, this is really an audio essay by Constantine Nasr about the film’s convoluted history and its status in Sturges’ work.
Triumph Over Pain (38:26) – In this newly filmed conversation, Tom Sturges (the director’s son), filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich and Nasr talk not just about the film and its troubles, but the greater career of Preston Sturges.
Theatrical Trailer (1:55)
Although not a success with either critics or audiences upon first release, The Great Moment still bears several of the signature traits that made Preston Sturges one of the most preeminent filmmakers in the first half of 1940’s Hollywood. Kino has done another decent job here with a solid HD transfer and a pair of informative special features (an alternate cut of the movie wasn’t available). Highly recommended and worth upgrading from the previous DVD release.
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