#636) Cyrano de Bergerac (1950)
OR “No Way, José”
Directed by Michael Gordon
Written by Carl Foreman. Based on the play by Edmond Rostand. English translation by Brian Hooker.
Class of 2022
The Plot: José Ferrer is Cyrano de Bergerac, the 17th century Frenchman as famous for his cunning wit and expert swordsmanship as for his unusually large nose. Despite his outwardly confident personality, his nose causes him a lot of self doubt, especially in his desire to woo his cousin, the beautiful Roxane (Mala Powers). When Roxane confides in Cyrano that she has a crush on his fellow cadet, the handsome Christian de Neuvillette (William Prince), Cyrano is secretly devastated but promises to protect him. While Christian is mutally attracted to Roxane, he lacks the poetry of words needed to woo her, and Cyrano begrudgingly agrees to help. As Christian and Roxane fall in love, the cadets are called to fight in the Thirty Years’ War. One of literature’s most famous love triangles is brought to the big screen, with only one side of that triangle truly delivering.
Why It Matters: Although the NFR admits that the film suffers from “appearing too much [like] a stage production”, they praise Ferrer’s “star-making” turn as Cyrano, and give the film’s Oscar stats. The second half of their write-up is a shoutout to UCLA alum Myra Teitelbaum Reinhard, who funded this film’s restoration.
But Does It Really?: Hmmm…I don’t know. The NFR is big on this film’s status as the first English language film adaptation of the Rostand play, as well as José Ferrer’s barrier-breaking Oscar win (more on that later). That being said, I don’t think that’s enough to warrant NFR induction. The film itself lives and dies on Ferrer’s performance. His Cyrano is worth the price of admission, but the rest of the film just sits there, with no other elements rising to Ferrer’s level. I first saw this version of “Cyrano de Bergerac” in my freshman English class, and while I found the film more entertaining on this rewatch, its induction into the NFR is a bit of a head-scratcher.
Title Track: Shout out to the real life Cyrano de Bergerac who, like his fictionalized counterpart, was a playwright and duelist who served in the 1640 Siege of Arras. To the best of my knowledge, he didn’t have any romantic feelings for his cousin, though according to a portrait drawn by his contemporary Zacharie Heince, he did have a larger-than-average nose.
Seriously, Oscars?: Despite mixed reception from critics and audiences, “Cyrano de Bergerac” received one Oscar nomination for José Ferrer’s performance. Facing such competition as William Holden in “Sunset Boulevard“, Spencer Tracy in “Father of the Bride”, and James Stewart in “Harvey”, Ferrer won the prize, becoming the first Hispanic and Puerto-Rican born actor to win the Best Actor Oscar. Ferrer was in the midst of being subpoenaed by HUAC during his Oscar campaigning, something he alludes to in his acceptance speech, calling this win “a vote of confidence and an act of faith”. Shortly after Ferrer’s win, he was cleared of any ties to Communism and avoided the blacklist.
- Upon its debut in Paris in December 1897, Edmond Rostand’s play “Cyrano de Bergerac” was an immediate success and became a staple of theater troupes around the world. In 1923, American actor Walter Hampden commissioned playwright Brian Hooker to pen a new English translation of the play, with their subsequent production still holding the record for the show’s longest Broadway run. The Hooker translation was revived on Broadway in 1946, with José Ferrer playing Cyrano and winning the very first Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play. The film rights to the Hooker adaptation were initially owned by Sir Alexander Korda, who wanted to make a film version with Orson Welles, but at some point Korda sold the rights to producer Stanley Kramer for $40,000. Kramer was unsure of the film’s box office potential, so he purposefully kept the costs down; the script was condensed to run under two hours, and the whole film was shot on a Hollywood soundstage (giving the film its “stagy” aesthetic).
- Shoutout to George Glass: this film’s associate producer, Stanley Kramer’s longtime collaborator, and Jan Brady’s imaginary boyfriend.
- Yeah, this movie belongs to José Ferrer and no one else. His Cyrano has the flourish and panache you would expect on the stage, but Ferrer can reign it in for the camera when the more dramatic scenes call for it. It’s the last stand for the kind of theatrical screen acting that “The Method” would deem extinct within a few years. I also love the cadence of his voice (the superlative “sonorous” crops up in a lot of reviews), and these fun little gesticulations he does with his hands; it’s like Cyrano is conducting the world around him.
- But of course, I can’t praise Ferrer’s performance without acknowledging his prosthetic attribute. Shoutout to makeup creators Gustaf & Josef Norin for their work on The Nose. It’s just large enough to be conspicuous but not enough to be unrealistic. Plus, the blending job holds up on an HD screen! Take that, Nicole Kidman in “The Hours”! Kramer and his company allegedly spent $1500 on the nose, roughly $19,000 today, and it’s worth every penny.
- Cyrano’s introduction by disrupting a stage performance is proof that theater audiences have always been the worst. But hey, at least he’s not singing along to “The Bodyguard”. Side Note: The vendor that offers Cyrano food in this scene is Elena Verdugo, about 20 years away from her memorable work as Consuelo Lopez on “Marcus Welby, M.D.”.
- Oh right, Roxane is Cyrano’s cousin, although later on he backpedals a bit and says she’s a “distant” cousin. Today on “Weird Things I Research for this Blog”, I learned that relationships between first cousins are still acceptable throughout Europe. In fact, the USA is the one of the few countries with laws that prohibit cousins from marrying, and even then that’s on a state-by-state basis. You can still marry your cousin in 26 states including…California? Really? Yikes, maybe we’re too liberal out here.
- Clearly Cyrano and his friends all live in the French province of Sans Accent Francais.
- I’m sorry but…this movie does not have a lot going for it, at least not as much as I expect from an NFR movie. If they only preserved Ferrer’s first few monologues, maybe I would understand the inclusion, but on the whole this movie is a slog. If you’re going to adapt a very text-heavy play to film, you have to have strong visuals and/or compelling actors, and outside of Ferrer this film is lacking on both fronts. No offense to Mala Powers, one of your standard ’50s ingenues, but her Roxane is not something to write home about. Hell, Roxanne from “A Goofy Movie” had more personality.
- And here we get the second most famous balcony scene in all of world literature, with Cyrano feeding Christian lines to say as he woos Roxane. I always forget that Cyrano takes over at one point, which makes Roxane look really dumb for not noticing the switch. He doesn’t even try to change his voice!
- William Prince kinda looks like Robert Vaughn if you squint a little. Also, as you can imagine, trying to do an internet search for “William Prince” can be a bit challenging if you’re looking for the actor and not any infinitely more famous royalty with the inverted name.
- [Spoilers] Wow, I really don’t have a lot to say about this movie. If you can get past the whole cousin thing I guess it’s kinda romantic, but even José Ferrer can’t save this thing. Though Cyrano does quite literally die trying.
- “Cyrano de Bergerac” opened in New York and Los Angeles in late 1950 to qualify for the Oscars, receiving a wider release after Ferrer won Best Actor. Stanley Kramer’s initial concerns proved correct, as “Cyrano” failed to make a profit at the box office. The film has continued to stick around in part due to lapsing into the public domain in the mid-1980s, therefore making it easier for video and streaming services to release the film.
- Although Ferrer survived the blacklist, he still found difficulty working in Hollywood. After another Oscar-nominated turn in John Huston’s “Moulin Rouge”, Ferrer returned to the New York stage, at one point having four of his directing efforts playing on Broadway at the same time in May 1952!
- Several other members of the “Cyrano” team ended up getting blacklisted, notably screenwriter Carl Foreman, director Michael Gordon, and actor Morris Carnovsky. Thankfully these three all lived long enough to survive the blacklist and continued to find work. Michael Gordon has one of his post-blacklist films on the NFR: 1959’s “Pillow Talk“.
- Ferrer returned to the role of Cyrano a few more times, including a TV adaptation in 1955 (earning an Emmy nomination), the 1964 action mash-up “Cyrano and d’Artagnan”, and a 1974 animated “ABC Afterschool Specials” episode. His best remembered non-Cyrano work includes his pivotal cameo in “Lawrence of Arabia“, and playing the Emperor of the Universe in David Lynch’s “Dune”.
- Other notable film Cyranos include a 1990 French version with Gerard Depardieu (also getting an Oscar nod for his performance), Steve Martin’s 1987 update “Roxanne”, and most recently a musical adaptation starring Peter Dinklage.
- Fun Fact: Director Michael Gordon is the grandfather of actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt! Equally Fun Fact: José is the father of actor Miguel Ferrer and the uncle of George Clooney (via his marriage to George’s Aunt Rosemary).
Bonus Clip: Because I love it so much, here’s Steve Martin’s version of the Nose monologue from “Roxanne”.
Listen to This: José Ferrer pops up on the National Recording Registry thanks to a recording of the 1943 Broadway production of “Othello”, playing Iago to Paul Robeson’s Othello, with Ferrer’s then-wife Uta Hagen as Desdemona. Apparently Cary O’Dell had the day off, because Lindsay R. Swindell Ph.D. has the honor of writing the NRR’s “Othello” essay.
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