Dedicated to the Study and Appreciation
of the Movies and Personalities of the Golden Age of Hollywood

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Could-Have-Been-Greater Moment

The Great Moment is the movie Preston Sturges' admirers don't like to talk about -- the crackpot uncle at the family feast who makes everyone squirm in their seats, politely trying to ignore him and casting about for opportunities to change the subject. (Hey, how 'bout that Palm Beach Story?)

I've always kind of liked The Great Moment myself. I think it comes of having seen it on TV at an early age -- must be fifty years ago now, maybe more -- before I even knew who Preston Sturges was, and I could get wrapped up in the story without comparing it to the rest of the man's output. Harry Carey's exultant "Gentlemen, this is no humbug!" really stayed with me; so did the final scene between Joel McCrea and the young girl on her way into surgery. It would be years, decades before I even refreshed my memory on the title of the picture, much less learned who made it, and when I did I was taken aback. The Great McGinty, The Miracle of Morgan's Creek -- that Preston Sturges??

It's common for critics and historians to regard The Great Moment as the beginning of Sturges' precipitous decline after his amazing track record at Paramount in the early 1940s, when it seemed he couldn't put a foot wrong. In this view, The Great Moment is when the master begins to lose control of his craft -- or at least when it begins to show. After this stumble it's an unseemly plummet downhill, like a slapstick scene in one of his own movies: Sturges' pictures become fewer, farther between, and weaker, until he ends his days in the Algonquin Hotel, unemployable, finally keeling over of a heart attack in the midst of writing his autobiography. It fits the legend of the meteoric genius flashing across the Hollywood firmament, then quickly and predictably burning out. It makes a comfortably dramatic story arc.

The facts are messier and less clear-cut. For one thing, Unfaithfully Yours (1948) may have flopped at the box office, but Sturges' craft was as strong as ever, and the picture can stand now beside The Lady Eve and Sullivan's Travels without blushing. But that's a subject for another post; more to our present point, let's not read too much into The Great Moment's eventual release date -- September 9, 1944, on the heels of the giddy peaks of The Miracle of Morgan's Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero. That skews the chronology. In fact, Sturges began writing The Great Moment (under his own title, Triumph over Pain) in 1939, even before he became a director of his own scripts. And he shot it from April to June 1942, between The Palm Beach Story and The Miracle of Morgan's Creek. In other words, he started work on the picture while he was still on the rise, and shot and edited it (to his own satisfaction, if not Paramount's) while he was at his absolute peak.

Actually, it gets even messier than that. I think I'd better back way up and start at the beginning.

The Great Moment is one of two Sturges scripts to deal with 
a historical personage (the other was Diamond Jim [1935]). 
The subject here is William Thomas Green Morton (1819-68), 
a Boston dentist who in 1846 stumbled upon the use of ether 
as an anesthetic for the extraction of teeth. At first he had 
great success with his painless dentistry, disguising his simple
discovery with the patent name Letheon. When he offered the
use of Letheon in more serious surgery, he was forced to
disclose its ingredients -- or rather, sole ingredient. Almost
immediately he was besieged with accusations that he
had pirated the work of others, specifically fellow
dentist Horace Wells and physician Charles T. Jackson,
both of whom were personally acquainted with Morton,
and Dr. Crawford W. Long of Georgia, who was not. Morton
embarked upon an ill-advised lawsuit against the U.S. military
for infringement of his Letheon patent, which only resulted
in bad publicity for him; his patent was ultimately ruled
invalid, and by 1850 the use ofether in surgery was
virtually universal.

Morton spent the rest of his life in a futile effort to gain some kind
of financial reward for his discovery, interrupted by honorable
Civil War service as a volunteer surgeon with the Army of the
Potomac. His efforts were forever frustrated by the grandiose
claims of Jackson (who had a penchant for such things; he also
claimed to have invented the telegraph), and by the fact that Wells
committed suicide in 1848 -- there were rumors (false) that Morton
had driven him to it. Finally, in 1868, on his way to Washington
to pursue yet another claim, Morton collapsed and died in New
York City, three weeks short of his forty-ninth birthday. How much
credit Morton really deserves for the discovery of anesthesia, and
whether he ever deserved any money for it, remains a matter of
controversy to this day.

Morton's life was the subject of a book by French author Rene Fulop-Miller, which appeared in translation in the U.S. under the title Triumph over Pain in 1938. Paramount Pictures bought the screen rights to Fulop-Miller's book before publication; Warners' The Story of Louis Pasteur was hot just then, and was the beginning of a vogue for scientist biopics that would stretch well into the '40s.

What happened to Triumph over Pain once it passed through the Paramount gate is a little foggy, which could often be the case when a property bought on spec bounced around a studio full of producers and writers trying to wrestle it into a screen treatment and, eventually, a script. In his detailed introduction in Four More Screenplays by Preston Sturges, Brian Henderson (citing Sturges biographer James Curtis) says there was first an extended treatment (perhaps even a script) by Samuel Hoffenstein. Over at Turner Classic Movies, on the other hand, their notes on The Great Moment cite the Paramount Collection at the Motion Picture Academy Library in stating that the original 1939 script was written by Sturges, Irwin Shaw, W.L. "Les" River, Charles Brackett and Waldo Twitchell; the notes don't say whether any of them worked in collaboration or simply took turns at the script as it moved from one writer to the next. Another Web site, giving no source for its information, further asserts that Ernst Laemmle (one of "Uncle" Carl Laemmle's extended family, in fact his literal nephew) also had a hand in things somewhere. In any case, all the sources agree that the original (possibly vague) idea was for Triumph over Pain to serve as a vehicle for Gary Cooper as Morton, to be directed by Henry Hathaway.

Making matters even more confusing, Hathaway himself had a distinctly different recollection in 1973. According to him, Sturges had written Morton's story as a comedy, whereas he (Hathaway) thought the story too important for that. So he convinced producer Arthur Hornblow Jr. to assign the property to Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, then contract writers at Paramount, who turned out a "marvelous" dramatic script. "We were ready to do it," said Hathaway, "and the war broke out. They didn't want anything to do with misery, with pain, with operations." The project was tabled, Hathaway left Paramount, and Sturges later went back to his original script when the picture finally got underway. Hathaway's story doesn't really hold up. For one thing, the timeline is wrong: both he and Cooper had left Paramount well before America entered World War II; for another, he refers to the picture as The Great Moment, a title that didn't come along until after it had been finished and taken out of Sturges' hands. Before that, and certainly when Hathaway and Cooper would have been involved, the title had been Triumph over Pain. Hathaway's memory no doubt played him false here, perhaps because Paramount's original plans for Triumph as a Cooper-Hathaway picture never really got off the ground.

In fact, Triumph over Pain (Sturges' title in 1939 and ever after) almost never got off the ground at all. Brian Henderson's introduction to the published script concentrates on Sturges' efforts to the exclusion of any other writers -- whatever Hoffenstein, Shaw, Brackett, Wilder or anybody else may have done from the sidelines -- and Henderson is pretty thorough about it. He says Sturges made his first notes on Triumph over Pain on March 15, 1939, just as he was finishing up the script for Remember the Night, and by the end of '39 had cranked out three complete drafts. By that time, Sturges had finally badgered William LeBaron, Paramount's head of production, into letting him direct, and was already shooting his first picture, The Great McGinty.

For the next couple of years, Preston Sturges was one of the busiest men on the Paramount lot. He eventually won an Oscar for his McGinty script, by which time he'd finished two more pictures -- Christmas in July and The Lady Eve, both top-to-bottom rewrites of scripts he had written years earlier. Next came Sullivan's Travels and The Palm Beach Story, brand new projects that he wrote, shot, and had ready for release each within six months of day one. For his next project, Henderson speculates that Sturges hoped to avoid the stress and pressure of beginning a whole new script from scratch. If that was the case, then he had only one unproduced script left in his files: Triumph over Pain.

In the meantime, something else had happened: William LeBaron (shown here with Mae West) left Paramount in late 1941, to be replaced as head of production by Buddy De Sylva (at right). Sturges had a relationship of mutual trust and respect with LeBaron, but with De Sylva it proved to be another matter, and in time it poisoned the well for Sturges. The story is that DeSylva resented the autonomy Sturges enjoyed over his pictures. Any newspaper or magazine writer can tell you tales of editors who just have to tinker with even the best and cleanest copy, if only to justify their own existence and remind the writer who's really in charge; De Sylva may have been one of those. The fact that Sturges' movies made money would be an incentive rather than a deterrent: stick your oar in and when the picture hits you can claim a share of the credit. Besides, it was a power thing. 

It may have been a power thing for Sturges, too; there are always two sides to every story, and maybe Sturges, being the artist in the equation, gets less blame in the history books than he should. In his unfinished autobiography Events Leading Up to My Death (published in 1990 as Preston Sturges by Preston Sturges), the writer-director spoke with almost wistful regret about his former bete noire: "I remember the dreadful hours with Buddy once the break, urged by his sycophants, had occurred; the reasonable and depressing talks we had later, both fond of each other, when it was too late to mend the break."

Whatever the cause, by the end of 1943, Sturges and De Sylva found themselves unable to agree on the terms under which Sturges would remain working at Paramount, and he departed to enter a production agreement with (of all people) Howard Hughes. If anything, I'd say that was the undoing of Preston Sturges, and maybe someday I'll post on those miserable two years. (Did anyone ever have dealings with Howard Hughes that didn't dissolve into fiasco and bad feelings sooner or later? With Sturges it came sooner.) When Sturges walked out the gate at the end of his contract (December 10, 1943), he left three pictures behind him awaiting release: The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, Hail the Conquering Hero and the picture formerly known as Triumph over Pain.

"Formerly" because it had already run into trouble, even before Sturges left Paramount, and the title was only the beginning. Even in the middle of shooting, with Joel McCrea playing Morton, De Sylva had begun referring to the picture as Great Without Glory, pointedly signaling that Sturges' (and Rene Fulop-Miller's) title wasn't going to fly with the higher-ups. Sturges declined to take the hint and went over De Sylva's head -- which Brian Henderson calls a "tactical error" -- to Paramount vice president Y. Frank Freeman. Freeman took it to the board, who considered "all title suggestions" (Henderson doesn't say what the suggestions included, but other sources mention Immortal Secret and Morton the Magnficent) and settled on Great Without Glory. De Sylva 1, Sturges 0.

The fact is, according to Henderson, Sturges seems not to have fully appreciated that Paramount, and Buddy De Sylva in particular, had been lukewarm at best about the picture from the very beginning; they indulged Sturges, even on his first script back in 1939, because they wanted to continue tapping his talent for comedy. (The ultimate fate of The Great Moment lends force to the idea that the studio regarded Sturges as a maker of comedies only, and couldn't think outside that box.) Henderson suggests, and it makes sense to me, that Sturges squandered political capital in his fight to retain Triumph over Pain as his title, capital that might have been better deployed defending the picture itself. As if to confirm De Sylva and his minions in their belief that he was being hardheaded and obstinate, Sturges also picked another pointless hill to die on.

Sturges had written an acerbic introduction to Triumph over Pain, to be spoken in voice-over even before the opening credits. The passage stated -- overstated -- the picture's central theme: that the greatest benefactors of mankind are often denounced and reviled in their own time. Fair enough, and W.T.G. Morton's life, as recounted by Rene Fulop-Miller and Preston Sturges, was a fit text for preaching that sermon. But Sturges laid it on with a trowel:
One of the most charming characteristics of Homo Sapiens, the wise guy on your right, is the consistency with which he has stoned, crucified, burned at the stake, and otherwise rid himself of those who consecrated their lives to his further comfort and well-being so that all his strength and cunning might be preserved for the erection of ever larger monuments, memorial shafts, triumphal arches, pyramids and obelisks to the eternal glory of generals on horseback, tyrants, usurpers, dictators, politicians and other heroes who led him, usually from the rear, to dismemberment and death...
Well, subtlety never was part of Preston Sturges' charm. But what the hell was he thinking? Never mind that, at the very moment he was committing these words to film, the United States was trudging through the bleakest days of World War II with no assurance of how it would turn out. Even aside from the morale-busting words -- which would never have made it past the Office of War Information -- there's a sour tone to the intro that would put the most cheerful moviegoer into a foul and unreceptive mood. Sturges clung to this intro like a terrier to a rat; when De Sylva urged him to revise it, he doubled down: he changed "wise guy" to "talking gorilla." By the time he finally agreed to this:

 was too little, too late.

In fact, by that time, the picture had been whittled and rearranged into more or less the form that has come down to us. Previews on August 13 and 27, 1942 of the picture as Sturges made it (but with the title Great Without Glory) had gotten a mixed response, whereas Sturges' previous pictures had garnered raves. De Sylva was more convinced than ever that major surgery was called for, and that's what the picture got -- probably between September and December '42 while Sturges was busy shooting The Miracle of Morgan's Creek.

Of the three pictures Sturges left behind at Paramount, only The Miracle of Morgan's Creek was left as he made it; the other two got major overhauls from De Sylva and his editors. Miracle opened in January 19, 1944 and was an immediate smash hit. De Sylva's cut of Hail the Conquering Hero was previewed the next month and was a disaster. Sturges offered to come back to Paramount without pay and re-edit and reshoot Hero and Great Without Glory "to everyone's satisfaction." He was allowed to doctor (and save) Hail the Conquering Hero -- after all, that was a comedy, Sturges' specialty. But on Great Without Glory (now The Great Moment) De Sylva put his foot down; that, he figured, was a waste of time and money.

Sturges tried the same tactical error that had failed before. He appealed to Y. Frank Freeman, saying there was still time "to save 'The Great Moment' from the mediocre and shameful career it is going to have in its present form and under its present title." As it was, he said, the picture was "a guaranteed, gild-edged disaster"; a little time and money ("less than fifty thousand dollars") could result in "a picture of dignity and merit." But Paramount was indisposed to be accommodating; Freeman did not reply.

And so Preston Sturges' Triumph over Pain remained The Great Moment as we know it today, shoved out into release in September '44, nearly two-and-a-half years after shooting was complete. If it looks like the beginning of the end, a glaring "uh-oh," to us now, it wasn't quite that obvious to everyone at the time. Sturges still had his partisans, and some of them were better disposed to the picture than historians have been since. "[A]t least," said Bosley Crowther in the New York Times, "Mr. Sturges has triumphed over stiffness in screen biography." Likewise The New Yorker's John Lardner: "...shows clearly that film biographies need not wear stuffing in their shirts." In Variety, "Sten" called the story "compelling" and predicted it "should prove to be a good grosser." But Sten was wrong. Other critics were less kind, and financially The Great Moment turned out every bit the disaster Sturges had glumly predicted.

I first planned this post with the idea of doing a compare-and-contrast between Sturges' published script and the finished film. But that way lies madness; Buddy De Sylva and his crew made such a total hash of things that trying to follow The Great Moment with script in hand is like being backstage prompter for an actor who never learned his lines and keeps hopping around from scene to scene at random.

In fashioning a screenplay from Triumph over Pain, Sturges' original problem was simple, and not easily solved: Morton's life consisted of an early brilliant success followed almost at once by scandal and twenty years of frustration, disappointment, increasing opprobrium and deepening poverty -- a long and dispiriting anticlimax.

Sturges' solution was to build up to the triumph 
rather than begin with it. He opened Triumph over 
Pain with a prologue depicting a modern-day operation,
as a frightened little boy is assured by his parents
that his impending surgery won't hurt at all. As the
boy descends into anesthesia, Sturges dissolved to a
reunion between Morton's widow Elizabeth (Betty Field)
and his friend Eben Frost (William Demarest) after
Morton's death. Then, in a series of flashbacks, Sturges
worked more or less backward through Morton's career,
in scenes that became more lighthearted as Elizabeth's
reminiscences grew less and less bitter. In this way, Sturges
constructed his script so that the comedy in the story came
gradually to the fore and was a relief from what had gone
before -- that is, what for Morton and Elizabeth had come
afterward. The idea was that the audience could share in
Morton's triumph knowing what he doesn't: the
disappointment that was to come.

Buddy De Sylva's ordered changes in The Great Moment -- carried out by editor Stuart Gilmore with suggestions from Chas. P. West of the Paramount editing department -- threw all of that right out the window. Sturges later complained, "The studio decided that the picture should be cut for comedy. As a result, the unpleasant part was cut to a minimum, the story was not told, and the balance of the picture was upset." Comparing his script with the picture as released, it's plain that Sturges was exactly right. In the rush to get to the funny stuff ("The amazing, amusing romance of the hero of the roaring 1840s! Hilarious as a whiff of laughing gas!" bellowed the preview trailer), Paramount sacrificed much of the movie's drama and may have even made the funny stuff less funny, because there was no longer the sense of relief that would make it welcome.

It's not easy to say how much actual running time was sacrificed from Sturges' cut of Triumph over Pain. A calculated guess suggests to me that the script as written would run about 100 min., and the DVD of The Great Moment runs precisely 80 min. 30 sec. Many of the comic antics in the movie seem odd and unduly raucous. (Sturges had a penchant for slapstick but no great knack for it; physical comedy was not where the pleasures of his movies lay.) How much the comedy could have been balanced and muted by the missing footage, we'll never know. 

Even as it stands, truncated and vandalized by a clueless studio that had given up on it even before the cameras rolled (and would soon give up on Preston Sturges himself), The Great Moment is worth seeing. There are elements -- like the persuasive period detail in the sets and costumes, and even in the typeface of posters and newspapers -- that no editor could cut out, and which attest to how seriously Sturges took his story. Above all, there's the simple dignity of Joel McCrea's performance, and those of Betty Field, William Demarest and Harry Carey as the surgeon who believes in Morton. At the very least, as Bosley Crowther and John Lardner noted, the picture offers an interesting contrast to the standard reverent "marble man" portrayal so common in Hollywood's treatment of important figures in science and medicine.

Preston Sturges' fall from grace may have been inevitable, and when it came it was probably his own doing as much as anybody else's. But it didn't begin with The Great Moment, and the picture can't be blamed for it. Uneven it may be, but Sturges conceived, wrote and filmed it at the height of his powers. What happened to it after that wasn't entirely his fault.

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