Saturday, November 17, 2012

Stubs – Cyrano de Bergerac (1950)

Cyrano de Bergerac (1950) Starring: José Ferrer, Mala Powers, William Prince. Directed by Michael Gordon. Screenplay by Carl Formen, Based on the play by Edmond Rostand and the translation by Brian Hooker. Music by Dimitri Tiomkin. Produced by Stanley Kramer. Run Time: 112 minutes. U.S. B&W Drama, Comedy, Romance

Something I didn’t know until researching for this review is that Cyrano de Bergerac was a real person, and like his fictional counterpoint, a French dramatist and duelist. And according to some portraits, the real Cyrano had a large nose, but nothing like the proboscis José Ferrer wears in this film.

But that’s maybe where fiction and reality part ways. The 1950 feature is the first English-language film based on Rostand’s play. And while there are some adaptation changes, such as the combination of some characters, the story remains pretty much intact.

The film starts with a play, but one which Cyrano (José Ferrer) disrupts. Cyrano does not like the actor Montfleury’s (Arthur Blake) bombastic style and wants the actor to vacate the stage, going so far as to threaten his life if he doesn’t. Montfleury doesn’t give way until Cyrano counts down to three. But Cyrano’s disruption is not appreciated by everyone. The Viscomte de Valvert (Albert Cavens) challenges Cyrano to a duel by insulting Cyrano’s nose.

But before Cyrano dispatches with the Viscomte, he mocks his lack of wit and gives him several other ways he could have referred to the nose. Then during the swordfight, Cyrano composes a ballad, the final line of which he punctuates by stabbing his rival.

After the duel, Le Bret (Morris Carnovsky), Cyrano’s friend and the Captain of the Gascony guards, warns him the he is making enemies of the victim’s friends. But Le Bret gets Cyrano to admit to why he truly hates Montfleury, which is jealousy over his beautiful cousin Roxanne (Mala Powers) being smiled at by the actor. Cyrano admits to Le Bret that he’s in love with Roxanne, but because of his nose feels that his love would not be returned. But when an invitation comes to meet Roxanne the next morning at Ragueneau’s (Lloyd Corrigan) bakery, Cyrano decides to act.

But outside the theater, Ragueneau, who like Cyrano is a poet, has been threatened by the man his verses mock, the Comte De Guiche (Ralph Canton), Cyrano escorts him home. On the way, he kills eight of the ruffians De Guiche has hired and chases off the rest.

The next morning, before Cyrano can tell Roxanne his feelings, she confesses to him that she has fallen in love with a young and handsome guardsman Christian de Neuvillette (William Prince), though she has not even spoken to him. Cyrano, who is crushed to hear this, agrees to help her.

Cyrano befriends Christian, who admits that he’s also infatuated by Roxanne, but is too inept to actually speak to her. Cyrano decides to help him by composing Christian’s love letters to Roxanne. And while she falls in love with the letters, Christian decides he wants to go on his own. But when he speaks to Roxanne his verse is plain and she is turned off. Again, with Cyrano’s help, Christian speaks to her under her balcony. Cyrano even takes over, when Christian falters, speaking from his heart but imitating Christian’s voice. So eloquent are his words, that Christian wins a kiss from fair Roxanne.

But Christian is not Roxanne’s only suitor. The Comte De Guiche is also trying to woo her, going so far as to send a priest to her house to marry them. But when Roxanne reads the note, she changes it to suit her desire to marry Christian. She implores Cyrano to keep De Guiche at bay until she and Christian can be married. And even though they are married, De Guiche is furious and, as Christian’s commander, orders him to join his unit for the war with Spain. This denies the couple from spending their wedding night together.

Cyrano joins Christian and helps De Guiche win respect from his men in battle. Every day, Cyrano also writes to Roxanne on Christian’s behalf. On the eve of battle, Roxanne visits her husband at the front and tells him that based on his words she would love him even if he was ugly. Christian knows that Roxanne really loves Cyrano and offers to step aside. He wants Cyrano to tell Roxanne the truth and let her decide between them. However, before Cyrano can speak to Roxanne, Christian volunteers for a dangerous mission that would have normally gone to Cyrano. But Christian is not as skilled as his friend and is mortally wounded.

Silenced by Christian’s death, Cyrano nevertheless continues to visit Roxanne, who enters a convent in mourning. De Guiche, who is still in love with her, warns Cyrano one night that there is a plot afoot by the nobility his poems mock to kill him. One night Cyrano is run down by a carriage. Even though he is mortally wounded, Cyrano keeps his appointment with Roxanne one last time. His love for Roxanne is finally revealed when Cyrano recites from memory one of the love letters that she loves. But Cyrano falls into delirium and dies.

Not the happy ending one unfamiliar with the story would have hoped for. Perhaps no better and sadder story about unrequited love has ever been told than this one, including the play and the subsequent film versions made of it. The film is filled with both wit and pathos which must be in the original work as well. Some of the lines are very funny and very clever and remind one of Shakespearean wordplay.

The film, however, has a low-budget, stagy feel to it. You never forget that you are watching a filmed play. The saving grace is José Ferrer’s performance as Cyrano. He won every major acting award of his day, including the Academy Award for Best Actor. The film is worth watching for his performance alone. While many have played the part, it is hard to imagine anyone could better Ferrer’s portrayal.

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