There are a handful of “Sturges moments” in The Great Moment. I suppose I’d define those moments as the ones where the predictable or familiar filmic device transcends artifice (even if it’s as artificial as the text a character is reading appearing on the screen for the viewer to read as well) and becomes… ideal. Sturges’s understanding of how to make a comedic scene work is amazing. His pacing is perfect, the editing, everything. But The Great Moment isn’t a comedy. It’s the rather depressing story of the discoverer of anesthesia, played by Joel McCrea.
Sturges is visibly passionate about the story (the film’s thesis being the discoverer got a raw deal), but he allows that passion to blind him from his strengths. So, even while there are those good Sturges moments and the film’s generally well-written, there’s a lot of problems. First, Sturges frames it as a flashback with, presumably, bookends. But he quickly discards the framing. Second, the end… once it becomes clear the story’s got a terribly depressing conclusion… Sturges has a serious problem (there’s no, for example, great moment in the film for McCrea–I kept waiting for it, no less). It reminds me a little of Mason & Dixon. Both Sturges and Pynchon are stuck with some sense of historical reality, but Sturges didn’t find… damn it… any great moment.
But the biggest problem is with McCrea and wife Betty Field. They barely have a relationship (though they do have mostly invisible, off-screen children) and it only gets worse near the end, when Field’s become a nouveau riche would-be society woman. The film’s focus is on McCrea’s discovery and both he and Sturges do a good job chronicling the various experiments and developments. But Sturges doesn’t have a story to do it in… he’s lionizing the man, certainly not examining him, but not even acknowledging his surroundings (which is why the film has a terrible ending–Sturges didn’t see outside his strict constraints).
The film’s got some masterfully done scenes, McCrea’s performance is solid as can be (though even he can’t pull off Sturges’s all too contrived ending), and the supporting cast is excellent. Harry Carey and William Demarest (who might look a little too much alike) are both quite good, as is Julius Tannen. But Field’s most present in those framing scenes, so there’s a major hole.
I’m not sure I’d say it was a good attempt, but it’s one with a lot of integrity… another reason Sturges couldn’t pull it off–he was way too invested in it. Biopics belong to the subject, regardless of liberties taken, never to the storyteller.