Cyrano de Bergerac (1950)

Dir. Michael Gordon. Starring Jose Ferrer, Ralph Clanton, Mala Parsons

Cyrano de Bergerac is a really tricky play to adapt, more or less as is, from stage to screen. The 1950 edition is sad proof of that difficulty. The play itself is filled with monologues and excessively verbose language as well as a setting which, to most American viewers then as now, is completely arcane. (The reign of Louis XIII is not discussed with much fervor in the average high school world history course.) The hero is renowned for his swordplay but is given much more room in the play to use his words as a weapon of war or of love. Roxane and Christian, his beloved cousin and his romantic ally and rival, respectively, are not interesting people. They are like reflecting pools for Cyrano, who lives to imprint himself on everyone he meets in one way or another. The plot itself turns, a little surprisingly, on a war between the French and Spanish, and then ends in another short act fifteen years after the first scene at the theater. In other words, straight adaptation is tough, and there’s a reason the Steve Martin vehicle Roxanne is such a delight where Cyrano de Bergerac can be sort of a slog. (I love Cyrano. It is one of my favorite plays. Something about it does not translate well to film, which puts it in pretty good company: Death of a Salesman, The Glass Menagerie, Les Miserables, Equus, etc.)

Ferrer certainly does his best to alleviate the slushy mess. Ferrer, like Laurence Olivier, was a man of the theater much more than a screen actor. His acting is dramatic – we might say “histrionic” now – and for Cyrano, a role he had played before and would later direct himself in on stage, that’s perfect. He is a superlative Cyrano, someone who is so fascinating and endearing that we start to forget about the nose after a while. Cyrano is a renaissance man, whose pen might be mightier than his sword, but on the other hand not so fast. His nose is an objective correlative for his pride, which is also in-your-face and a little off-putting in practice. One wishes that he would, for example, not go out of his way to antagonize people; on the other hand, watching him struggle to stand up as he fights off Death with his sword is far more powerful than that description gives it credit for.

In an age where any artist or poet or playwright has a patron who pays him for the price of altering little things here and there, Cyrano lives entirely off his salary as a soldier. Cyrano is noted for ardent words no matter what the topic, but of all the deliveries Ferrer packages in this film, I think I prefer his response to Le Bret (Morris Carnovsky), his best friend and most frequently ignored guardian angel. Should I eat a toad every day? Cyrano asks him? Should I prefer a visit to a courtier to a poem? Should I crawl on my belly for these people? “No, thank you!” he says, “No, I thank you! And again, I thank you!” The Comte de Guiche (Clanton), nephew to a nameless cardinal with a suspicious resemblance to Richelieu, is the type of insufferable, spineless, and privileged man who Cyrano would presumably be eating toads for. It’s hard not to sympathize with Cyrano, who is so aggressively his own man in an age where everyone is very publicly owned by someone else. Perhaps we wish that he’d take Le Bret’s help when it’s offered, as when the baker Ragueneau (Lloyd Corrigan) gets himself in trouble with de Guiche, is threatened by a dozen armed men, and comes to Cyrano for assistance. On the whole Cyrano’s risk-taking is exciting, and it’s part of what makes him exciting to watch. The film takes care to show us Cyrano’s prowess as a swordsman and brawler, adding in some sword fights where the play restricts itself to a modest curtain; these are meant to be exciting, one imagines, although even in 1950 one has seen a hundred filmic duels. Ferrer does not shine in these moments, although there’s some question in my mind if that’s actually Ferrer fighting off the men on Ragueneau’s behalf. His vocal risk-taking, as in the endlessly reiterated scene where he speaks to Roxane (Parsons) as Christian (William Prince) from beneath her balcony, is more enjoyable. Chances for improvisation are what draw us in.

Ferrer, alas, is not given much to work off in this movie. As de Guiche, Clanton strikes a fine enough pose here and there, but is inevitably more foppish than threatening. While Ferrer is doing his man-in-the-moon bit, which doesn’t rouse me like “No, thank you!” but never fails to make me laugh, Clanton doesn’t even follow him around in a way to amplify the humor in the scene. In his first scene with Ferrer, Prince does a solid job of dropping as many nose-related interruptions as he can into Cyrano’s story, but throughout the rest of the movie fails to even seem incompetent enough to play an incompetent. Carnovsky and Corrigan are forgettable, although their roles are not so important. Parsons, in my view, has the trickiest role in the film, and she’s not up to it. She is as pretty as a china doll in the movie and about as expressive. Roxane is difficult for the best actress. She must be intelligent enough to inspire Cyrano’s affection and dumb enough not to realize that she’s being wooed by two men in tandem. She must be forbidding enough to make Cyrano fear to tell her of his love in the first place, but kind enough to be sweet to just about everyone, Cyrano included, during the play. She must be likable for the audience, who have to weigh that quality against her swift dismissal of Christian when he proves to be something of a dunderhead outside of print. Certainly part of the flaw is in the role itself; I’ve heard men say (and thought myself) several of the things which Cyrano and his men-friends say during the course of the film, but I’ve never known a woman to be quite as suggestible as Roxane. Parsons is not up to this bundle of contradictions; she’s no worse than Prince or Clanton in their roles, but they aren’t asked to be nearly as interesting as she is.

Cyrano de Bergerac, like one imagines is true for most plays turned to films, suffers mightily when its actors aren’t on point, and aside from Ferrer, everyone is less than enthralling. (One is tempted to say that Ferrer is so much better than his peers that it probably helped him win Best Actor, which is now a hypothesis I’m going to spend the next six hours extrapolating to the history of the Oscars across all four acting categories to see if it holds up.) Michael Gordon, for reasons that are mostly not his fault (McCarthyism, blacklisting…), does not have a storied career as a movie director. Pillow Talk is probably his best known movie. But there are some flourishes of Gordon’s that I think are effective, such as the shot above. He does not always emphasize Cyrano’s nose, although at the beginning of the movie that’s part and parcel of what we’re paying for. At this point, though, once Cyrano has met Christian, we’ve become accustomed to the man and his schnozz. In any head-on shot of our hero, his nose is merely bulbous as opposed to enormous; birds would have a difficult time perching on it in this frame. As he and Christian consider their separate Roxane-related predicaments, we are given a chance to imagine, with some proof, how things might be different if he cut a more conventional figure. Part of the romance of the story, of course, is that Cyrano cannot reveal his love for Roxane, and certainly not after Christian died in battle. He abdicates any chance at a romantic life with her, even marriage, because of his inflated honor. But I do like that for a minute we get to see, as Cyrano can only imagine, how he might look without that punishing proboscis.

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