1 December 2000 | critic-2
A very good film with one of the greatest performances of the American theatre
Jose Ferrer first performed "Cyrano de Bergerac" on Broadway in 1946, where it achieved a very successful run (for a revival). Ferrer was highly acclaimed in the role and won a Tony for his performance. His success in the role enabled him to be the first actor to bring "Cyrano" to the big screen in English. This was in 1950, in a Stanley Kramer-produced film for which Ferrer won the Best Actor Oscar, beating out such actors as James Stewart in "Harvey", William Holden in "Sunset Blvd.", and Spencer Tracy in the original "Father of the Bride".
Until the 1990 Gerard Depardieu Technicolor spectacular in French, Ferrer's version of "Cyrano" was considered the one to see. But now, Depardieu's film has unfairly thrown this 1950 version into neglect. Part of the reason, perhaps, is the budget involved in this film. Cowardly studio executives who were afraid that a film in blank verse would fail at the box office refused to give this film the kind of budget that Laurence Olivier had enjoyed in his 1940's Shakespeare films, or the kind of budget that was used in films like the 1936 M-G-M version of "Romeo and Juliet" and the 1935 "A Midsummer Night's Dream".
And so, this "Cyrano" looks more like a cheap B-movie than a worthy film version of a classic play. There are no huge sets or spectacular camera shots--just the play, performed (with only a couple of added scenes in ordinary prose rather than the English translation's blank verse) on obvious Hollywood sound stages.
But, this film boasts what is certainly one of the greatest performances in the history of film--and especially American film. José Ferrer, an often maligned actor accused of hamminess and overemphasis, gives the performance of his life as Cyrano. His portrayal is in every way the equal of Depardieu's, and as far as I am concerned, even better. Depardieu relies on sincerity and subtle facial expressions. Ferrer also has these, but he has in addition one of the most beautiful, rich voices ever to come out of the theatre,and magnificent enunciation as well. Unlike Depardieu, who speaks the beautiful French verse as rapidly as if he were firing a machine gun (as do the others in the French film), Ferrer allows us to appreciate the rich poetry in Brian Hooker's translation, long considered the greatest verse translation of a play into English. His portrayal is more flamboyant than Depardieu, and he shows a heartbreaking sense of tragedy as he realizes that the beautiful Roxane will probably never be his. The "big moment" in the final scene is shattering in Ferrer's hands.
As for the rest of the cast, this is where the Depardieu and Ferrer versions differ. Depardieu's supporting cast was excellent, but here Mala Powers is disappointingly ordinary and one-note, though beautiful, as Roxane, and William Prince is quite good as Christian, but Ralph Clanton as De Guiche is rather cartoonish, an ordinary hissable villain until the last half-hour or so. The usually reliable Morris Carnovsky, though, is an excellent LeBret. The role of Ligniere, the drunk, has been eliminated,and his lines given to Rageauneau, the pastry cook (competently played by Lloyd Corrigan).
There are a few cuts in this version, as compared to Depardieu's, but Brian Hooker's English translation is given its due prominence. Michael Gordon's direction is excellent, and the duel at the theatre, while not allowed to roam all over the location, as in Depardieu's version, is well done and more faithful in staging to author Edmond Rostand's intentions.
This "Cyrano", however, definitely should not be allowed to fade away in obscurity, relegated to late-night TV, where it is now often mutilated for commercial breaks. It should be restored and brought back to cable to be fully appreciated.