Can the beauty of the soul overcome external ugliness?

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BY PATRICE GREANVILLE

CINEMA REVIEWS || A CLASSIC REMEMBERED

Cyrano de Bergerac (1950)

Starring: Jose Ferrer (Cyrano) & Mala Powers (Roxane), with William Prince, as Christian.

Produced by: Stanley Kramer
Music by: Dimitri Tiomkin
Original story by: Edmond Rostand (1897)
Directed by: Michael Gordon
Screenplay by: Carl Foreman

IF THERE’S ONE THING THAT HAS ME MIFFED, it’s those ridiculous academic critiques of this play about the legendary swordsman-poet. Yes, it’s unrealistic, yes, it’s energetic to the point of disbelief, yes, the character of Cyrano is particularly vulnerable to the amateur Freudian analyses that so many Lit. professors seem to have a weakness for. But the essence of this work, what makes it breathe, are the very qualities so mocked by elitists and those who simply miss the point: its color, its flamboyance, and above all its wonderfully unapologetic idealism.

First of all, the original libretto, by Rostand, is entertaining reading at its best: a combination of witty repartee and laugh-out-loud humor, balanced with emotional depth that is subtle yet wrenching in its intensity. With just a few strokes the scenes come alive, with characters whose brash gallantry is reminiscent of Dumas’ Musketeers, and Hugo’s quieter moral contemplations.

All this virtuoso treatment finds a focal point in the character of Cyrano, played in the Kramer production magisterially by Ferrer, in one of the great performances of all time, and for which he richly deserved his 1950 Oscar. As most of our readers probably know, Cyrano de Bergerac is one of the greatest love stories ever told. Cyrano himself is a passionate man whose great and consuming desire, symbolized by his immaculate white plume, his panache, is to make himself —sometimes pugnaciously—in all things admirable and free. The plume, its unsullied whiteness contrasted by the plainness of his hat, remains throughout the play (and movie versions) a statement about his uncompromising nature in the face of venality and hypocrisy. No doubt an obvious over-compensation, the sophisto audiences would sniff, disapprovingly. Perhaps. But for many others Cyrano’s single-minded purity of purpose and unyielding honour remind our more prosaic generation, one literally starving for real heroes, that, perhaps, there once was a time when people were judged by more than the weight of their gold purse.

Perhaps that’s what Ferrer captured in his bravura performance against which all others—prior and subsequent—have to be measured: Cyrano realizes early in life that, for him, the only path to beauty resides in the beauty of his actions. Over that, he does have some control. Ferrer’s Cyrano is therefore at once comic and tragic: his biting wit provides a facade for a soul in torment, for his sensitivity to beauty makes his own exaggerated ugliness that much more painful. Yet there is so much fire and pride in Cyrano that never once does he beg for our pity, and endures the pain of thwarted love with the same bravery with which he hurls himself into battle. The contradiction between Cyrano as he is inside–a veritable furnace of eloquent but orphaned passion–and his markedly ugly exterior, is his tragedy. Through the artifice of this simple contradiction Edmond Rostand explored the whimsical nature of romantic love, and its terminal judgments, particularly how much of such choice is dependent upon exteriors, and he did it using a symbol that just about everyone would recognize.

Given that construction, Cyrano de Bergerac is a play that rarely fails to stir even the hardest of hearts for it embodies the Quixotic ideal of struggling against impossible odds. Dealing with love, passion, anger, freedom, the painful limitations that fate assigns, and pride, this story captures the essence of what it is to be human, and to feel.

The movie is quite loyal to the stage version, but, as Bosley Crowther of the Times pointed out in his 1950 review, this is indeed one of its strengths,

Since Cyrano is quite as familiar as Hamlet or Huckleberry Finn in the minds and affections of millions, any cheapening of the character or the play would probably result in the scalping of any actor or producer who dared. Obviously Mr. Kramer and his associates were respectful of this peril, and Mr. Ferrer was taking no chances on losing the hair he has.

For their film follows almost to the letter the English translation of the play which was made by Brian Hooker for Walter Hampden some thirty years ago and which is, of course, the translation familiar to Americans. Except for the dropping of some characters which are wholly extraneous to the plot and some cuts for the sake of economy, this is the “Cyrano” of the stage.

With what is probably a puny budget by today’s blockbuster extravaganzas, director Michael Gordon delivered, largely thanks to Ferrer’ inspired incarnation of the tragic hero, a classic likely to stand the test of time for many years to come. In this reviewer’s opinion it certainly had no trouble besting the lavish French remake (1990) with Gerard Depardieu in the lead, never one to be underestimated despite overuse in the French cinema, proof that Hollywood didn’t lack for artistic talent, only the integrity to put such asset consistently ahead of the bottom line.

Patrice Greanville is Cyrano’s Journal’s editor in chief.

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