However, there were problems. The studio didn't like the dental biopic. Reportedly, Sturges meant the film to be serious. Preview audiences were confused. A studio exec had it re-edited so it could be pitched as a comedy. THE GREAT MOMENT was released in 1944 after the 1943 classic Sturges comedy, THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN'S CREEK.
When you read accounts of Paramount execs being dissatisfied with the dramatic dental story highlighting rivalry between two fields of the health profession -- dental and medical -- it seems as though Preston Sturges himself was like the successful young Hollywood producer in SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS. The studio wants "Sully" (Joel McCrea) to make another comedy. But he wants to make an adaptation of the severe, social issues novel called O, BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?
I can see how audiences would've been confused. THE GREAT MOMENT features the Preston Sturges stock company supporting players, the recognizable faces you see in his screwball comedies. The movie opens and the first two familiar faces seen are on Joel McCrea and William Demarest. Esther Howard, seen as the wife of The Wienie King in THE PALM BEACH STORY, is all gussied up in 1846 Boston attire and walks into the dental office sad-faced and saying "I'm in terrible pain, dearie." Porter Hall, seen as one of Sullivan's Hollywood studio staff members in SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS, plays U.S. President Franklin Pierce. In the Massachusetts General Hospital scenes, there's fussbudget Franklin Pangborn sporting muttonchops as a hospital executive.
To me, THE GREAT MOMENT works viewed as a parody of those assembly-line biopics that came out of Warner Bros. in the 1930s. Think of those biographical dramas that took themselves so seriously, like the ones starring Paul Muni as Louis Pasteur, Emile Zola and Benito Juarez. One of the first elements to give me that parody feeling is Betty Field as Dr. Morton's loving and fluttery wife. Field makes Lizzie a funny Preston Sturges supporting character.
Then we jump ahead 20 years. William Demarest's character sees a prize medal in a pawn shop and buys it. He tells the clerk he knows the man who hocked it … "only he's dead now." He visits and returns the medal to Dr. Morton's widow. 20 years later and the only thing that's changed about her is her hairdo. She has the same small waist and the same attractive bustline. There's not one age wrinkle on her face as she sits in a form-fitting dress and launches into a melancholy monologue about her late husband, a man who was "forgotten before he was remembered."
Morton's wife, Lizzie, tells of when he was a simple farmer with their three little kids. He loved that farm and his animals. Lizzie smiles tenderly as she recalls that he won a prize for "Best Sow." Her grown daughter enters the room to announce that dinner's ready. Lizzie invites Eben (Demarest) to stay for dinner. The daughter made pie. Lizzie says wistfully, "My, how your father loved pie."
I love that line. I don't see how any Sturges fan could've taken this film to be a drama.
The drama, the conflict, comes when Dr. Morton tries to coax the medical field to utilize his anesthesia when performing surgery. He wanted people to be free of pain. The men in the medical field wanted profit, they were jealous of his discovery, and they regarded dentistry as a lower-class profession. That corporate greed, if you will, drained Dr. Morton of the wealth acquired from his discovery and he was overlooked in medical history. That is some high drama. But when you have Franklin Pangborn in muttonchops arguing with Joel McCrea as William Demarest pipes in with "It was the night of September 30th. I was in excruciating pain," you can't help but giggle if you're a fan of the Sturges classics.