Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library/Internet video on laptop.
In the more than five years I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve had surprisingly few technical problems. Sadly, that was not the case with the 1950 version of Cyrano de Bergerac. Somewhere before the 30 minute mark, the DVD flatly stopped playing. It just wouldn’t get past that point. Thankfully, the film was completely available on YouTube. I think, though, this is one of the only times I’ve been forced to watch a film on multiple formats. It’s all to the good, though. The YouTube video turned out to be of much better quality than the DVD. Then, due to internet connection problems, I had to switch back to the DVD. The things I go through for this blog.
Cyrano de Bergeracis, at least in my mind the quintessential tragic romance. I know the traditional choice is Romeo and Juliet, but Cyrano is a better story in my mind. The bulk of the reason for that is the character of Cyrano himself. Cyrano (Jose Ferrer) is in many ways the perfect tragic hero. He’s everything a hero should be and has a single tragic flaw: his nose. Cyrano is smart, witty, courageous, filled with panache, and is cursed with a nose three or four times larger than that of the average man. That nose is in fact the reason for Cyrano’s courage and flair. Only the bravest or most foolhardy would dare tease him about his nose.
In fact, the only place where Cyrano isn’t the very picture of bravery is in dealing with his distant cousin, Roxanne (Mala Powers). Cyrano has loved Roxanne his whole life, but has been unable to tell her for fear of rejection, a fear made real because of his gigantic nose. And so Cyrano compensates by picking fights, defying authority, and penning poetry and plays that tweak the upper crust and nobility of France roughly around the era of Cardinal Richelieu. Naturally, Cyrano is a solider and possesses the most feared blade in Paris. We get a demonstration early on of both his prowess and his wit when he duels a challenger, composes a poem during the duel, and skewers his foe on the last line.
The plot comes from the love triangle that develops between Cyrano, Roxanne, and Christian de Neuvillette (William Prince). Christian has recently been put into Cyrano’s company and he and Roxanne have traded meaningful glances over a distance. Roxanne, just as Cyrano is about to finally admit his love for her, tells him that she has fallen for the handsome newcomer and wants Cyrano to protect him. Cyrano agrees and discovers that everything about Christian is what he would want in a friend with, again, one tragic exception: Christian is completely tongue-tied around women.
And so the plot thickens, with Cyrano romancing Roxanne for the benefit of Christian. Cyrano pours his heart out in letters to win the woman he loves for a man he considers a friend. It sounds so simple in those two sentences, but it really is so much more.
The strongest case for this version of Cyrano de Bergerac is Jose Ferrer. This was Ferrer’s signature role on stage and also the role that won him an Oscar. Ferrer played Cyrano like Yul Brynner played the King of Siam. As entertaining as Steve Martin is in Roxanne in essentially the same role and as good as Gerard Depardieu is in the 1990 version, Ferrer is the best Cyrano I’ve seen. Ferrer handles the role with a perfect combination of bravado and pain. He’s Don Quixote with a nose instead of a windmill fetish, and it’s a thing of beauty.
The rest of the film is good. Mala Powers is suitably gorgeous and William Prince is a combination of crazy bravery and crippling cowardice. There are moments of very good comedy, and of course romance and tragedy. But this is Ferrer’s story and Ferrer’s film from start to finish.
The end of this version goes on a little too long for me. I have no problem with the running time of this version of the story until we get to the last half hour, which feels about 10 minutes too bloated. It’s a small price to pay, though, for one of the great performances of the 1950s.
Ultimately, I consider Ferrer’s work as Cyrano to be the best of that character, or at least the best that I’ve seen. In terms of the overall movie, though, I really prefer the 1990s version. Part of that is that I think Cyrano de Bergerac loses a little by being translated into English. It’s prettier in French. Part of that is the dragged out ending of this version. And part of that is the set and costume design of the film that starred Depardieu. However, while that film is better, if you are a fan of truly great performances, you’d be remiss to skip this one.
Why to watch Cyrano de Bergerac: Jose Ferrer’s signature role for a reason.
Why not to watch: The end is about 10 minutes too long.