THE BOOTLEG FILES: “CYRANO DE BERGERAC” Image

BOOTLEG FILES 186: “Cyrano de Bergerac” (1950 film version of the classic Rostand play).

LAST SEEN: The entire film is online at LikeTelevision.com

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Only in public domain dupes.

REASON FOR DISAPPEARANCE: An orphan film that no one wants to reclaim and restore.

CHANCES OF SEEING A DVD RELEASE: It is doomed to public domain hell.

During my childhood years, I was informed (on too many occasions) by both friends and detractors that I had a big nose. I didn’t need to be reminded of this fact, of course, but children are natural sadists and thus the nasty kiddies around me made sure I was aware of this.

Perhaps this unfortunate aspect of my childhood makes me all the more appreciative of the 1950 film version of “Cyrano de Bergerac.” After all, the hero of that work is a 17th century swashbuckling cavalier-poet of great wit, charm and daring – and the owner of an oversized honker. (For those of us with large noses, movie idols are limited to “Cyrano de Bergerac,” Jimmy Durante and Barbra Streisand.)

“Cyrano de Bergerac” is a strange movie. No one wants to acknowledge it as a great production and, indeed, it never truly achieved classic status. Yet it is blessed with a single memorable performance that is so overwhelming in its depth and scope that it genuinely obliterates the film’s significant shortcomings.

The performance, of course, belongs to Jose Ferrer as Cyrano. The Puerto Rico-born Ferrer, through force of personality and an astonishing cultivated voice, established himself as a Broadway star in the 1940s, most notably playing Iago to Paul Robeson’s Othello. But he lacked the traditional good looks to make the leap to the big screen. Indeed, Billy Wilder wanted Ferrer to star in “The Lost Weekend,” but Paramount Pictures did not feel Ferrer had the celluloid charisma (let alone the looks) to warrant a leading role and insisted on casting contract player Ray Milland instead. (That wasn’t such a bad idea – Milland’s performance showed a hitherto unknown quality to his acting and earned him a much-deserved Academy Award).

Ferrer came to Hollywood for a small role as the Dauphin in the 1948 epic “Joan of Arc.” The film was a flop, but he snagged a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination and was able to establish a toehold in films. But it wasn’t much of a toehold: minor roles in the forgettable flicks “Whirlpool” (1949) and “Crisis” (1950). Had it not been for “Cyrano de Bergerac,” Ferrer’s Hollywood flirtation would have been brief.

Ferrer had the incredible good fortune to star in the 1946 Broadway adaptation of the Edmond Rostand play, winning the Tony Award for his work. The role of Cyrano was a surefire winner for any actor who inherited the part – the character has the funniest lines, the most daring fight sequences, and the most wonderfully tragic death sequence imaginable. The original Cyrano, French actor Constant Coquelin, first played the role in 1897 and only abandoned it until he died (one of the earliest surviving sound-on-film recordings features Coquelin reciting a Cyrano soliloquy).

In America, venerable actor Walter Hamden made the part his own in countless productions – even as late as 1946, a special performance had Ferrer and Hamden together (Hamden took over the role in the final act of that night’s show, for Cyrano’s eloquent death scene). Even Orson Welles planned to play Cyrano on screen, but like many of his projected movie ideas it never happened.

Ferrer reprised “Cyrano de Bergerac” for a live 1949 TV broadcast. Independent producer Stanley Kramer, perhaps impressed by the TV production, opted to bring the work to the big screen. However, he had several things going against him. While the Broadway production was successful, a 1945 French film adaptation starring Claude Dauphin was not well-received. As mentioned earlier, Ferrer was not a movie star and anchoring the production to a relative unknown was commercially risky. And most notably, Kramer specialized in low budget films and “Cyrano de Bergerac” was a costume drama that literally cried out for a big budget adaptation.

Today, most of the criticism of “Cyrano de Bergerac” comes from the fact that Kramer kept to his low budget ways. The film has a theatrical production style that makes it look like a cheapjack effort (this was a similar problem in other overly ambitious Kramer productions, including “Death of Salesman” and “A Member of the Wedding”). Even in its day, critics were rather surprised that “Cyrano de Bergerac” lacked the flamboyant production values one normally associates with movies involving swashbuckling soldiers.

Even more damaging was Kramer’s decision to fill the two major supporting roles with a pair of the least interesting actors imaginable. As the fair Roxanne, the elusive object of Cyrano’s doomed love, Kramer cast newcomer Mala Powers. She was very pretty but couldn’t act for beans. And as Christian, the virile but inarticulate soldier that Cyrano supplies romantic verbiage for wooing Roxanne (she prefers the good-looking Christian to the big nosed Cyrano), William Prince was cast. Like Powers, he was very pretty and couldn’t act for beans.

But, ultimately, it didn’t matter. Ferrer’s Cyrano dominates the screen with a power that was uncommon for American cinema of that period. Using his rich, booming voice like a weapon, Ferrer roars through Rostand’s verse with a brilliant savagery that literally obliterated everyone around him. And when swordplay is required, Ferrer (who, quite frankly, was a fairly average looking man off-screen) becomes a rapier-swinging superhero who slashes at multiple foes with a gusto unseen since Errol Flynn’s heyday.

But Ferrer’s work seemed to be in vain. Despite the best efforts of United Artists, “Cyrano de Bergerac” was a box office flop. Even Ferrer’s standing as a Broadway star didn’t help him in the Big Apple: the New York Film Critics Circle gave their Best Actor Award to Gregory Peck in “Twelve O’Clock High.” When the Academy Award nominations were announced, Peck was surprisingly absent and Ferrer snagged a spot alongside stiff competition: Spencer Tracy in “Father of the Bride,” James Stewart in “Harvey,” William Holden in “Sunset Boulevard” and Louis Calhern in “The Magnificent Yankee.” Ferrer’s Oscar rivals had everything he lacked: established movie stardom, big budget studio backing, and commercially successful vehicles.

Ferrer had another major strike against him: shortly after the Oscar nominations were announced, he was subpoenaed to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) on charges that he may be a Communist. During the blacklisting period, Academy Award pedigrees were no protection from the Red baiters and even the suspicion of Commie ties could kill a career.

However, Ferrer won the Best Actor Oscar for “Cyrano de Bergerac.” Even better, he cleared his name before the HUAC hearing and finally achieved a secure place in Hollywood. But the role of Cyrano was significant to him and he returned to it several times: in a 1954 Broadway revival, a 1955 live TV broadcast, a 1964 French film called “Cyrano et d’Artagnan” (directed by Abel Gance) and as the voice of Cyrano in a 1974 animated TV film.

One final word on the blacklisting: while Ferrer escaped career disruption, other members of the film’s family were less lucky. Director Michael Gordon, screenwriter Carl Foreman and supporting actor Morris Carnovsky had their careers disrupted by the blacklist. Gordon and Foreman were able to resume their film output, but Carnovsky was not and spent the rest of his career in the theater, where the blacklist never had much of an impact.

Stanley Kramer neglected to renew the copyright for “Cyrano de Bergerac” and the film lapsed into the public domain. Duped prints have proliferated for years, which is unfortunate since their shoddy visual quality make the already-cheap production look even cheaper. Despite its Oscar-winning pedigree, no one is willing to rescue this orphaned film and restore it from bootleg purgatory.

If “Cyrano de Bergerac” is not a great movie, it is host to a great performance. Anyone who is even vaguely interested in pursuing acting should carefully study the vibrant, stunning star-turn that Ferrer gave in this work. While many Oscar wins have stuck debate and controversy, this is one case where the Academy Award honor was richly deserved.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at
Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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  1. David Cochrane says:

    Peck was nominated the previous year; I guess the film wasn’t released in New York until 1950.