We gave it a C-
No one, living or dead, has ever been quite like Preston Sturges. No filmmaker has had his knack for combining literate, witty dialogue with outrageous pratfalls or his magical ability to balance the comic with the dramatic, the sentimental with the cynical, the naive with the knowing.
Nothing about Sturges or his films could have been predicted from his early life — he had been a stage manager, an Air Force flier, a songwriter, the manager of a cosmetics firm, and the creator of a kiss-proof lipstick. After a decade penning film scripts, he broke new ground as a writer-director at a time when the industry required that you be one or the other. The Great McGinty, his 1940 directorial debut, won him an Oscar for Best Screenplay and began a remarkable burst of seven brilliant comedies produced between 1940 and 1944.
Yet from 1945 until his death in 1959, he shot only four more pictures — every one a box-office disappointment. He died unable to pay his hotel bill, scribbling away at a memoir he wanted to call The Events Leading Up to My Death (recently released as Preston Sturges by Preston Sturges). His life could have been a story out of one of his films.
Sturges’ movies were remarkable for wartime Hollywood because they mercilessly mocked a host of sacred cows: marriage, the military, the advertising industry. Hail the Conquering Hero, finally released on videotape after being unavailable even to revival theater patrons, is one of the writer-director’s best. It deals with a poor schnook named Woodrow Truesmith (Eddie Bracken), who is bullied into posing as a decorated Marine and then finds himself caught in a web of ever-increasing deceptions with nightmarish repercussions. Bracken is wonderfully manic, sputtering, stuttering, and yet strangely appealing. He is well supported — and almost overshadowed — by Sturges’ brilliant stock company, including William Demarest as Sergeant Heffelfinger, a seasoned soldier with a slightly warped but practical view of life, and Al Bridge as an utterly cynical political boss.
They are a marvelous group of characters — and character is what makes Sturges’ films so delightful, even when he doesn’t quite hit the mark. That’s the case with The Great Moment, in which the master of cynicism and slapstick goes sentimental. A longtime pet project, the film is Sturges’ account of 19th-century dentist W.T.G. Morton’s advocacy of anesthesia.
Much of the film is given over to pedantic speeches about serving humanity (”It won’t hurt anymore, now or ever again!”). Joel McCrea, one of Sturges’ favorite leading men, who died last month, is the virtuous Morton, battling conservative doctor types who’d rather see people suffer than try something new. You’d think that the man who savagely skewered hero worship in Hail the Conquering Hero would have had a field day with pompous doctors, but Sturges seems too taken by his protagonist to see clearly. As Morton, McCrea is priggish, self-righteous, and humorless — which is probably a good way to describe much of the movie as well. Hero: A+; Moment: C-