A worthy try, but my beloved Preston Sturges doesn’t quite hit the mark with this biography.
This is the story of dentist W.T. Morton (Joel McCrea) who first used ether as an anesthetic and sought to popularize it more widely in surgery and dentistry. The story is told in flashback as his wife and a friend reminisce after Morton’s death. As the story begins, Morton boards in the home of Elizabeth (Betty Field) while a medical student at Harvard. His money runs out and he turns to dentistry, eventually marrying Elizabeth.
After starting his practice, Morton becomes obsessed with finding a way to relieve his patients’ pain. One of his friends is beginning to experiment with nitrous oxide but its use on humans proves to be a disaster. Morton approaches one of his medical professors and he suggests ether might be a possibility.
Cautious after the nitrous oxide fiasco, Morton begins a series of experiments with ether, mostly on himself. This is somewhat of a comedy of errors but in the end convinces him of the efficacy of the procedure. The first patient on whom he works is Eben Frost (William Demerest). Things don’t go well at first but after final success, Eben becomes the poster child and chief cheerleader for ether. Later, Morton convinces famous surgeon John C. Warren (Harry Carey) to use ether during an operation.
Although the operation is a brilliant success, Warren is prohibited from using the anesthetic in the future because Morton refuses to reveal its composition. Medical ethics prohibit doctors from prescribing any patent medicine the ingredients of which are unknown. After harsh media criticism, Morton spills the beans. In the end, he is unable to patent the procedure and is sued by several people who claim to have had the idea first.
This movie must have more prat falls than any other dramatic biopic in history. Problem is they don’t work too well in the absence of any snappy banter. This apparently was a labor of love and intended to be a serious tribute to Morton. It looks to me that if Sturges had got his way it could have been very good. But the studio recut it to look more like a typical Sturges comedy (without the comedy). As my faithful readers know, to me Joel McCrea can’t be bad and the film gets an extra star for his performance.