The Great Moment is quite unusual compared to the rest of the films Preston Sturges directed as firstly it’s a biopic based on a man who actually existed, but secondly it’s more of a drama than a comedy. There are just enough funny moments for it to fall within the site’s remit however, plus I’m reviewing everything else he’s created and don’t want to omit this movie which while nothing spectacular is a very solid watch.
I wasn’t expecting it to be a movie I was that fond of either to be honest, as the story it tells is of W.T.G. Morton (Joel McCrea), the man who (sort of) discovered how ether could be used as an anaesthetic for dental patients, though history suggests he may not actually have been the first. He is the most famous though, and his story has a slightly bitter twist to it as though he saved millions from pain by making the user of ether popular for both dentists and medical surgeons, he received no financial gain and spent the last twenty years of his life in a rather bitter place.
The movie largely ignores that however, it does start with his death but then after a dose of praise from loved ones mourning him it flashes back to when he first became a dentist as he ran out of money while studying to be a doctor. There’s a fair few moments where the absolute disdain others have for dentists is quite amusing, especially those in the medical profession, and when the woman he loves discovers his plans she bursts in to tears upon confessing to her mother, something which I’m sure still happens to this day.
Given the amount of misery and suffering they cause the scenes where we watch Morton and his fellow dental specialists are surprisingly quite funny, and a highlight is a part where a patient starts screaming before Morton has touched him, leading him to shout “Open your mouth and keep your trap shut” in a very angry fashion. Morton wasn’t the only one who was trying to work out a way to make dental work pain free either and there’s some fun to be had watching what happened when they tried out nitrous oxide in front of a group of Harvard students, with a riot almost breaking out when it failed. When Morton tries out “Ethyl chloride” he manages to knock himself out a couple of times, his wife presumes he’s drunk and is very frustrated by his denial, and the best scene sees Sturges regular William Demarest as a patient who has a very strange reaction to some poor quality ether and ends up jumping out of the window before running off like a maniac.
On the more dramatic side we get to see what happens when it goes wrong with a dentist called Wells almost killing his patient, and it becomes a more serious film in the final third as Morton is desperate to be taken seriously and have others take on his discovery, all the while being accused by others of either ripping off their idea or not sharing enough credit for it. When it is deemed successful there’s many a man who wants to make sure they don’t have to pay him any money at all, and though it doesn’t end on a downbeat note and allows Morton a heroic finale, while it may have been a happy ending for his patients it wasn’t for him or his wife.
It’s quite the departure for Sturges and though there’s glimpses of screwball comedy and the odd moment of fast paced banter if you told me that Sturges actually didn’t have anything to do with the filming of it I’d easily believe you. It is an amiable watch however, McCrea is far more likeable here than he was in Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story, and even if like all sane people you have a passionate hatred of dentists this is a film which will very likely entertain, even if it doesn’t change your opinion about the profession.