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Cyrano de Bergerac is a swashbuckler unto itself. Since it first saw the light of night on a Parisian stage in 1897, it never goes long unperformed in some form or other. Kevin Kline and Jennifer Garner are reviving Edmond Rostand's plumed, caped evergreen on Broadway. In Michigan, a new operatic version by David Di Chiera is being unveiled. Nor has it been ignored on film. Christian Coquelin, who originated the role, recorded a soliloquy in one of the first attempts at recorded sound on film. Gerard Depardieu starred in a 1990 version resplendent with idiomatic rightness and France's collective affection for it as a cultural treasure. Steve Martin's Roxanne (1987) remains a sweet contemporary reimagining. But the one everyone refers to, the one against which the rest are invariably measured, is the 1950 Cyrano de Bergerac starring Jose Ferrer.
Starring? He's the whole movie, filling it with bravura flair, making it dynamic, witty, ardent, playful. The others are dim satellites orbiting him at quite a remove. Not that it matters. Rostand's extravagantly glorified reinvention of the real-life 17th century guardsman, freethinker, writer and swordsman, abundantly endowed with everything a hero needs, and over-abundantly endowed with a super-sized nose that at once becomes his despair and his motivation to overcompensate spectacularly, is the kind of role that gets actors drooling. For a while there was back-and-forth involving Laurence Olivier and his wife, Vivien Leigh, as Cyrano and Roxanne, the beautiful cousin he loves, but dares not approach for fear she'll laugh at his "poor big devil of a nose." Olivier's love of stage noses was well-known, and likely was a lure. But an Olivier Cyrano was not to be.
Orson Welles, whose appetite for extravagant gesture was even greater than Olivier's was for plasticene, tried for a decade to get financing for a Cyrano film. He even hired his friend, the great Paris-based designer Alexandre Trauner, to design the production. Some of Trauner's designs made it into the eventual film. But Welles didn't. Instead, producer Stanley Kramer, who emerged with the rights, settled on Ferrer. Like his fellow Princeton alum, Jimmy Stewart, the Puerto Rican-born, New York-raised, and Swiss-schooled Ferrer, came to film by way of the Princeton Triangle Club (a private recording featuring Ferrer and Stewart is one of the holy grails of record-collecting!) and Broadway. Although he had only made his Hollywood debut two years before in 1948, snagging an Oscar® nomination in the epic Joan of Arc alongside Ingrid Bergman, Ferrer had starred in Cyrano on Broadway since 1946, and won a Tony for the performance that also was to win him a Best Actor Oscar®.
Thus he was no stranger to the swordplay, the buckles, the capes, the boots and the white plume of freedom with which the fiercely proud Cyrano topped his plain hat. That's part of Cyrano's appeal. With sword and wit far nimbler than those of the nobles he mocked, the functional plainness of his dress, devoid of ribbons and lace, is in itself a statement of his rugged individualism. But Rostand and Ferrer take the sting out of Cyrano's swagger by making sure to provide a more than compensating internal grace and nobility of soul. That's the core of Cyrano, and Ferrer uses the close-ups to make sure we're never unaware of the suffering concealed by his panache. In a brilliant stroke of dramatic irony, Rostand not only keeps him from the thing he wants most the love of his beautiful cousin, Roxanne but turns him into his own worst enemy on the romance front when he's pressed into service as the protector and worse mouthpiece for Christian, the handsome, noble, but hopelessly wooden and dim comrade Roxanne adores. You wonder how Rostand and Cyrano can possibly top their brilliant opening set piece, where before a scandalized, then titillated, audience in a theater, he banishes a hammy actor from the stage and pretends to nonchalantly fight a duel to the death after picking a fight with a condescending noble after another dared seem to notice Cyrano's nose.
It's the famous Twenty Ways to Insult a Nose speech Cyrano delivers, one-upping the cloddish aristocrat by telling him how he could have insulted Cyrano's nose with wit and style, instead of mere rudeness. Moments later, as he completes a ballad he improvises during the duel, he skewers an even more condescending high-born wretch. Swordplay spiced by class warfare? Not since Mercutio has a duel so sparkled. Where can he possibly go from there, but down, you wonder, until he takes over-the-topness to a new place by dueling 100 sword-wielding would-be assassins in a dark street, exhilarated by the emotions unleashed after Roxanne invites him to a meeting the next morning. "I am a storm," he shouts. "I'll fight 100 armies. I have 10 hearts. I have 100 arms. Bring me giants!" And he's just the man to take them on. Until Roxanne, oblivious to his love for her, deflates him by asking him to babysit the earnest but inexperienced and far less worthy Christian.
Stoically, Cyrano resigns himself to lovelessness. Not only that. Because Christian is so wooden, tongue-tied and fundamentally non-verbal, he becomes Christian's mouthpiece, using his words and eloquence to win for another the woman he loves in a deft parody of Shakespeare's balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet. Until then, Rostand had been parodying Dumas' Three Musketeers, upping the ante by rolling all three into one. Not that Ferrer is a mindless Romantic superhero with a nose that makes Pinocchio's seem a pencil stub. His performance is more subtle and complex than it first might appear. During the sword fighting, the alertness in his eyes tells us he's taking it seriously, never overconfident, as calculating as he is impulsive. Ferrer uses his baritone voice to advantage, too using it to bring a somber undertone to many of the pronouncements of this cavalier, with his passionate heart doomed to remain on the outskirts of love.
Rostand was too knowing a sophisticate not to layer Cyrano with more than heroics, including heroic renunciation. One reason the play clicked with audiences at the time was that it played to France's fin de siecle view of the mid-17th century as France's Golden Age. Its romanticism in a romantic era didn't hurt, either. Yet even here, Rostand seems to be satirizing the idea of romantic love in his ironic portrait of the idealized Roxanne as a callow baggage, played by Mala Powers as a beauty of extremely limited vision, taken by the external beauty of the pretty boy Christian, oblivious to the internal beauty, depth, grandeur and generosity of Cyrano. William Prince's Christian is essentially consigned to male bimbo status. Perhaps relenting, Rostand allows him the biggest laugh. When he tells Cyrano he feels he ought to speak for himself, and Cyrano lets him, he almost ruins it for himself with Roxanne. When he looks longingly at her and says, "I love you," she replies, expectantly, "Yes, and?" He gulps and says, "I love you...very much." She can hardly hide her disappointment. Of course, Cyrano steps back in, hidden in the shadows, to save the day with his verbal inventiveness.
Shadows count for a lot here. This black and white film, when it finally got made, was a low-budget affair. Producers Kramer and Carl Foreman made it work for them. It has a boxy look and a stagy feel. Certainly this must have aided Ferrer's performance, shaped, as it was, by the stage production. Deliberately, the film begins with the opening of a fleur de lys-festooned curtain, embracing the artifice. Better this approach, you feel as the film proceeds, than panoramic realism. Cyrano de Bergerac is, above all, a construct. Brian Hooker's deft translation reminds us that Cyrano is more about its couplets than its couples. Far from being hindered by its flavor of artifice, riding Ferrer's grand gestures and sonorous cadences, it's reinforced.
Producer: George Glass, Stanley Kramer
Director: Michael Gordon
Screenplay: Carl Foreman, Brian Hooker, Edmond Rostand (play)
Cinematography: Franz Planer
Film Editing: Harry W. Gerstad
Art Direction: Rudolph Sternad
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Cast: Jose Ferrer (Cyrano de Bergerac), Mala Powers (Roxane), William Prince (Christian de Neuvillette), Morris Carnovsky (Le Bret), Ralph Clanton (Antoine Comte de Guiche), Lloyd Corrigan (Ragueneau).
by Jay Carr
Cyrano de Bergerac, play by Edmond Rostand
The Man Who Was Cyrano: A Life of Edmond Rostand, by Susan C. Lloyd
Citizen Welles: A Biography of Orson Welles, by Frank Brady
Orson Welles: Volumes 1 and 2, by Simon Callow
Rosebud, by David Thomson
Girl Singer, by Rosemary Clooney and Joan Barthel