PRESTON STURGES’ WATERLOO: ‘THE GREAT MOMENT’


You may have overlooked Kino Lorber’s February Blu-ray release of The Great Moment (1944), starring Joel McCrea and Betty Field. It’s not an especially well-known title from the Paramount library, but it inspired Constantine Nasr, who produces bonus content for many studios, to volunteer to add two features that would place the film in historical context. You see, this artistic and commercial failure torpedoed the career of Preston Sturges. It was a resounding flop, artistically and commercially.

The filmmaker’s son, Tom Sturges, and the late Peter Bogdanovich join Nasr in a zoom conversation about the film as we see it and what might have been if Paramount had released the picture as Sturges intended it to be seen.  Nasr also offers an interesting lecture about the film’s troubled history.

On the surface, it would seem as if the hyper-talented writer-director was riding high. Having written some great screenplays (The Good Fairy, Easy Living, Remember the Night) he put his reputation on the line in order to get the chance to direct one of his scripts. The Great McGinty (1940) was a sleeper that didn’t cost Paramount very much to make and set the stage for him to write and direct an unprecedented string of terrific comedies: Christmas in July, The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels, The Palm Beach Story, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, and Hail the Conquering Hero—all between 1940 and 1943.

Today these films are rightly hailed as classics; their brilliance is matched only by their originality. They offered plum leading roles to actors like Joel McCrea (who said that every script he read had been turned down first by Gary Cooper) and Eddie Bracken (who never again had an opportunity this rich). They also spotlighted a coterie of character players whom Sturges adored and rewarded with the juiciest roles of their lives: William Demarest, Porter Hall, Jimmy Conlin, Al Bridge, Torben Meyer, Robert Greig, Julius Tannen, Frank Moran, and Franklin Pangborn, among others.

What’s more, Sturges made great copy, so the Paramount publicity team loved him. He was always good for a column item and had no hesitation about posing for pictures. A story in the pressbook for Christmas in July is typical. It appears under the headline “How Sturges Does It—Surrounded by Actors, Props, Costumes, He Whips Up Great Films” and follows an unnamed reporter who drops in at the filmmaker’s office. “Sturges, seemingly, dotes on confusion. His black hair bushes riotously from a high brow. His gestures are expansive. He talks hurriedly. He bobs up and down out of his chair.” The reporter describes a careless array of coffee tins, utilized for atmosphere on the film in production, as well as books, candies, nuts, and a refrigerator full of soft drinks. A man from wardrobe arrives along with leading lady Ellen Drew and costar William Demarest. The director runs some lines with his actress.

“It sounds like a lot of confusion, but Sturges knows what he is doing. He is quick, decisive, and never seems to lose track of anything. He keeps three or four conversations on different subjects going at once.”

The question remains: how could the man who showed such brilliance go so wrong, making a biographical drama about the dentist who invented anesthesia? That is the topic of The Great Moment, with Joel McCrea in the leading role of William Thomas Green Morton. Brian Henderson calls it “the only uncharted star in the Sturges constellation, if not, indeed, its black hole.”

Some of the answers are explored in the conversation on Kino’s Blu-ray release. Still more can be found in James Curtis’ excellent 1982 biography Between Flops: A Biography of Preston Sturges. I read the book when it was new but had completely forgotten that Sturges made two of his greatest comedies (The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero) after completing The Great Moment, which was mired in the studio editing department. It was a hot potato for which no one at Paramount had any enthusiasm.

Yet the more Paramount pleaded with Sturges to alter (or abandon) his pet project, the deeper he dug in his heels. It was a matter of principle. It also sparked a flame out of the simmering dislike he and production chief Buddy De Sylva had for one another. 

The Great Moment was based on a book called Triumph Over Pain by Hungarian author Rene Fullop-Miller that Paramount had optioned in the late 1930s as a vehicle for Gary Cooper. The book stirred a fair amount of controversy by crediting Morton alone for a discovery that many experts felt he didn’t fully deserve.

Sturges with Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck on the set of The Lady Eve (1941)

An outsider! That may have been the ingredient that tantalized Sturges and drove him to pen an adaptation of the book. He envisioned telling Morton’s story in a series of flashbacks, as he had in his screenplay for The Power and the Glory, the 1933 movie that is considered a forerunner to Citizen Kane in its use of nonlinear storytelling.

Anyone who is seriously interested in comparing Sturges’s screenplay to the film Paramount grudgingly released in 1944 should consult Four More Screenplays by Preston Sturges (University of California Press, now out of print). Editor/annotator Brian Henderson ventures deep into the weeds to examine every scene, each alteration from script to screen; his observations are invaluable if somewhat exhausting to read.

Having seen the film years ago and again just now I can’t envision a way that it would play successfully, leaving narrative cohesion aside. William Demarest is cast as Morton’s first successful patient and plays it as farce, in scenes that throw the viewer way off-course. These were part of Sturges’s plan, not something the studio imposed on him.

He was dead-set against any pretentiousness creeping into this historical saga. “Sturges clearly felt that one of the great pitfalls of biography is to attribute to the protagonists our knowledge of them, whether of the later events of their lives or of posterity’s understanding of them,” Brian Henderson writes.

Having completed the film, still clinging to its original title, Triumph Over Pain, Sturges put up with the studio’s repeated suggestions for changes and reshot some scenes. Great Without Glory was just one proposed title. Imagine having a film you believe in sitting in purgatory while shooting two new comedies on the same studio lot. The strain must have been enormous.

He left Paramount before Hail the Conquering Hero was released, rescuing it from a studio recut at the eleventh hour. His contract expired and it was time to go. Still, it was a melancholy parting. In a letter he wrote in 1950 he referred to Paramount as his home.

The Paramount insert poster is deliberately misleading, trading on Sturges’ reputation as the man who made The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero.

Once again, the marketing team counted on its filmmaker’s reputation to buttress a talented but less-than-stellar cast. The one-sheet poster for Hail the Conquering Hero reads, “When Preston Sturges makes a hit/Everybody goes to it/To those who know, the reason’s clear/The longest laughs in town are here.”

In the years following his departure, Sturges partnered with the mercurial Howard Hughes and silent-film star Harold Lloyd on The Sin of Harold Diddlebock. Hughes characteristically let the movie languish for three years before giving a truncated version a desultory release under the title Mad Wednesday. [UCLA Film and Television Archive has restored the original, never-released version.] No one could have foreseen this dead end for the man who had just been Paramount’s hit-maker supreme.

He fared somewhat better at 20th Century Fox, where he became the third highest paid man in America and made the brilliant Unfaithfully Yours, with Rex Harrison as an imperious orchestra conductor with murder on his mind. He was less successful steering the studio’s number-one box-office star Betty Grable through The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend.

So it was that on July 14, 1950 that Preston Sturges composed a cordial but carefully worded letter to his former boss, Y. Frank Freeman at Paramount essentially asking him if they might work together again. He begins by reminiscing about their relationship and the good times they shared. He recounts several battles they fought. But “If you believe that I have enough intelligence not to fall in the same hole twice, enough awareness to realize the necessity for economy in these perilous times, enough ingenuity to have found a method to combat high costs if I say I have, and enough honor to be believed when I say that I will abide cheerfully and to the letter by your decision in whatever difference of opinion might arise, I would like to come back to work for you…the terms can be easily arranged…because I am busting with ideas. I would also like to have an occasional coca-cola with you as I used to.” It is signed “affectionately yours.”

There is no record of Freeman’s response, if any. Two full years went by before Paramount beckoned him back to work with Betty Hutton (his leading lady in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek), writing and possibly directing an adaptation of the Broadway musical Look, Ma, I’m Dancin’ that never came to fruition. Then William Wyler asked his friend (who wrote one of Wyler’s earliest successes, The Good Fairy) to do a rewrite/polish on Roman Holiday, for which he received no credit. He sought refuge and employment overseas and made his final feature in France, The French They Are a Funny Race (1955). He lived another four years, but the man who had the Midas touch for comedy just a few years earlier never worked again for a Hollywood studio.

Many careers have been described as meteoric, but in the case of Preston Sturges the adjective truly fits. It burned brightly—so brightly one could scarcely believe his run of success. (Billy Wilder once called him “a man for too many seasons.”) Then, inevitably, it burnt out. One dictionary defines “meteoric” as having “transient brilliance.” That would appear to describe Sturges, but not his work. The films he made during that spectacular run in the 1940s are still great, worthy of praise and study. Perhaps that’s why he remains a source of endless fascination and speculation.

Thanks to Constantine Nasr, James Curtis, and Rocky Lang, whose book Letters from Hollywood (co-authored with Barbara Hall) contains that revealing missive from the filmmaker to Y. Frank Freeman.