The famous tale of Cyrano de Bergerac is lavishly adapted for the silent screen, complete with stencil color. The story has been lifted so many times for romantic comedies that it almost needs no introduction: Cyrano, brilliant but marred by an outlandishly large nose, loves the beautiful Roxane. She, however, loves the handsome but vapid Christian. Can the two men combine to become the perfect lover?
Bonus: I will also be reviewing the 1950 version in a Silents vs. Talkies feature. Click here to skip to the talkie review.
A nose by any other name…
You probably know Cyrano well even if you have never seen the plays or films that bear his name.
I dare say that most of us know Cyrano de Bergerac through the 1987 romantic comedy Roxanne, which is a modern update of the 1898 play by Edmond Rostand. Some of you may even know the story through the 1996 gender-reversed (and very loose) adaptation, The Truth About Cats and Dogs. Or those of you who enjoy the classics may have seen Love Letters (1945), another take on Cyrano that starred Joseph Cotton and Jennifer Jones.
My point is that the story of Cyrano and his unrequited love has struck a chord in Hollywood and it continues to be adapted and reimagined. (And usually with a happy ending tacked on for good measure.)
Well, we are stepping out of Hollywood today. This 1925 film was an French and Italian co-production that attempted to capture the wit and panache of Rostand’s play in silent movie form. Did it succeed?
First, here is a brief overview of the plot:
Cyrano de Bergerac is a poet, braggart, swordsman and wit. He is played enthusiastically by Pierre Magnier, one of the earliest on-stage Cyranos, who is best remembered today for his roles in La Roue and The Rules of the Game. Cyrano has taken it upon himself to protect his cousin, Roxane (Linda Moglia), from all insult. Roxane is Cyrano’s ideal woman: witty, learned, beautiful and sophisticated. However, he doesn’t dare approach her because of his self-consciousness about his, well, ample nose.
Roxane, however, has fallen for the handsome cadet, Christian (Angelo Ferrari), and she asks her cousin to keep him safe from hazing and other unpleasantness. Cyrano soon realizes that Christian is beautiful of form but empty of skull and so he decides to help the young lunk win over Roxane. It also gives him to opportunity to write the passionate words that he has been longing to say to his cousin.
Cyrano’s plan works all too well. Roxane and Christian have a whirlwind wedding on the eve of war with Spain. Both men are called up to fight and Cyrano promises that “Christian” shall write to Roxane every day.
Those letters touch Roxane’s heart and she braves enemy lines to find Christian and apologize. At first, she loved him because he was beautiful but now she loves his soul. Christian is not very smart but he is very honorable. He realizes that Cyrano loves Roxane and now he knows that Roxane loves Cyrano. He pleads for Cyrano to tell Roxane the truth. Cyrano has finally plucked up the courage when Christian is carried back to the camp. He has been mortally wounded and expires before the truth can be told.
Cyrano’s own honor and idealism cannot allow him to expose the ruse now. He vows to remain silent forever. Roxane, mourning her perfect lover, enters a convent. Years pass and Cyrano remains devoted to his cousin. However, his sharp tongue and sharper pen have earned him powerful enemies. Will he be able to evade them? And what of Roxane? Will she ever discover the real soul behind those letters?
Any production of this story lives and dies by the casting of Cyrano and Roxane. For Cyrano, the actor must have the fierce intelligence and sardonic wit but he must also be a man of action. Most of all, though, he must capture Cyrano’s fatalism and the brooding beneath the bravado. Roxane, for her part, must be lovely (the better to frighten Cyrano) but she must also give off an air of intelligence. This woman cannot be won with just good looks and protestations of love. She demands philosophical conversation and some extemporaneous poetry in the bargain. We in the audience must understand why Cyrano is willing to sacrifice everything for her happiness.
The 1925 version of Cyrano is very fortunate on both counts. Pierre Magnier’s Cyrano is thunderous but with good nature to spare once his prickly exterior has worn off. He is exuberant, energetic and humorous. This Cyrano has dark moments but he does not brood. He accepts his fate with some regret but high spirits.
Linda Moglia’s Roxane is very much his equal. She is no naive child but a self-possessed and independent young woman. However, she also shares Cyrano’s fatal flaw: idealism. You see, she does not truly love either Christian or Cyrano. She is in love with the combination of the two. Roxane is so ideal herself that she does not realize that impossibility of her quest to find someone equally perfect in brains and beauty.
With the lead performances in excellent hands, let’s move on to this movie’s other great asset: its lavish production values. The costumes are sumptuous reproductions. The town and theater scenes are grand, bustling and crowded. The battle scenes are epic. Cyrano has never looked better (yes, I include the 1990 version in this statement).
Some of you may have noticed that this film is sometimes listed with a 1923 production year. This is because the filming was completed in that year but was then painstaking stencil color process pushed back the release to 1925. I would say it was worth it!
I have one caveat, though. You see, Cyrano the play involved a whole lot of talk. The protagonist’s loquacious manner is one of the most recognizable aspects of his personality. And this is a silent movie.
Now intertitles can be quite clever but they are better for the kind of humor I describe as a Depth Charge. You know, you get the first half of the joke in a title card, a few beats pass and then the second half appears to uproarious laughter.
Cyrano’s rapid delivery and wordiness must be cut back or the movie would be nothing but title card after title card. The filmmakers must have been aware of this difficulty and they try to remedy it by having some of Cyrano’s more clever moments actually appear over the action itself. This is pretty successful but doesn’t quite do justice to the play’s witty dialogue.
But now we must discuss another misunderstood aspect of Cyrano: The ending!
I suppose I should give a spoiler warning but as the play is over a century old, I think it is reasonable to say that spoilers are fair game.
The story ends with Cyrano’s life ebbing away, the victim of assassination. It is only when he is dying that Cyrano lets down his guard and allows Roxane to find out the truth. This ending is very sad but it is also the only way the tale could have been resolved, thanks to the moral knots that our hero has wound himself up in.
Most of the modernized versions do not take this route. Letting the hero die just as his love is about to be returned? Gracious, no! Sure, letting the duo have a happily-ever-after completely misses the point of the story but, but, but… BOX OFFICE!
(This reminds me of the Pygmalion vs. My Fair Lady endings. Audiences clamored for, and eventually got, a version of the tale that paired Higgins with Eliza. The problem is that this ending ignores a key theme of the play: Eliza’s emancipation.)
There are two extremes in the great Hollywood Ending Debate. Happy Endings at All Costs vs. Death = Art. The forced happy ending is, unfortunately, often the price that must be paid in order to get more cerebral works adapted to the big screen.
I enjoy appropriate happy endings and I applaud well-made tragedy. The key, at least to me, is that the ending must fit the story it is attached to. I do not like slapped-on happy endings but I also do not think that a tragic ending is automatically more artistic. Tragedy for its own sake is just as affected as a phony happy ending.
I defend the happy ending of The Wind and celebrate the tragic ending of The Penalty, both of which were changes from the original material. In the case of Cyrano, however, any ending that lets him out of his moral knot is cheating, plain and simple. (The majority of the modern Cyranos are let off this moral hook by either having Christian survive, making him a jerk or by having another character clue Roxane in.)
This film version retains the tragic ending. It is played touchingly by Pierre Magnier but we must not overlook the importance of Linda Moglia’s Roxane in this scene. After all, she has just lost the man she loved for the second time. Her elegantly pantomimed despair, tinged with regret and guilt, is what really puts the scene over and makes the ending a success. I doubt there was a dry eye in the theater.
Give me genuine tears over a plastic happy ending any day.
While Cyrano de Bergerac does not manage to completely capture the appeal of its source material, it is still a well-acted visual feast. Most definitely worth checking out.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★½
Where can I see it?
Now it’s time for a Silents vs. Talkies match-up! The 1925 Cyrano is going to go toe-to-toe against the 1950 version, which contains Jose Ferrer’s Oscar-winning take on the famous hero. Only one film can be named champion so let the fight begin!
The Talkie Challenger: Cyrano de Bergerac (1950)
This match-up is particularly interesting because the silent and the talkie clock in at 113 and 112 minutes respectively. The nearly identical run-times make this an interesting comparison in terms of adaptation. This is also where the similarities between the two versions end.
While the 1925 version was a lavish affair with sumptuous costumes, crowds of extras, beautiful sets and, of course, that delicate stencil color, the 1950 film was… well… cheap. The sets just barely conceal the studio walls, the costumes look like something out of a high school production and the whole thing was shot in black and white in a time when dazzling color was de rigueur for historical movies.
Now the obvious solution for the budget woes would have been to embrace the stagy nature of the tale and present the phony sets and costumes with a wink and a smile. Cyrano would have approved of a gutsy move like this, I think. Instead, the 1950 movie just lurches its chintzy way along with its blank floors and particle board walls. This is especially obvious during the war scenes. War scenes are quite expensive to mount properly and there is only so much that the low light can conceal.
William Prince is dull as Christian but, then again, poor Christian was never a particularly interesting character. More damaging is the casting of Mala Powers as Roxane. She is a lovely girl and her performance is not bad exactly, it’s just that she is clearly not up to the material. She comes off as a pleasant young woman but nothing more. Why, exactly, would Cyrano be so deeply in love with someone so generic?
The 1950 film has exactly one thing in its favor but it is a lulu: Jose Ferrer’s performance.
Ferrer was showered in laurels by his contemporaries. He won an Oscar, an Emmy and a Tony for his role— a first. And in this case, the accolades were thoroughly deserved.
His Cyrano is dark and brooding. His wit is a weapon that cuts deeply but he wounds no one so much as he wounds himself. He is explosive, daring and more than slightly mad. However, he is also vulnerable, blustering to protect his all-too-tender heart.
Oh, and about those matching run-times… Usually, silent films manage to stuff in more plot than the talkies. A picture (or pantomime) truly is worth a thousand words. However, Cyrano seems to be an exception. The silent version is just so beautiful that the camera tends to linger on the sets, extras, battlefields and costumes. The talkie version does not visually linger because there is nothing to linger over. It knows its assets (Jose Ferrer and Jose Ferrer) and focuses on those instead. The result is rapid-fire dialogue, a few duels and all at a comparatively speedy clip.
And the winner is…
This was a very close competition. It seems that the 1925 and the 1950 versions have much in common with Christian and Cyrano. Do we go for looks or for soul? Well, like Roxane, I would rather have both but since no ties are allowed in this game…
The silent is lovely film but it couldn’t compete with Jose Ferrer’s powerful performance. The story also benefits from sound since Cyrano’s wit is hardly concise.
The scene that really won me over to the talkie was the famous nose insult speech delivered by Cyrano when an aristocrat tries to shame him by saying his nose is large. Cyrano is annoyed, not at the insult but at the fact that it is so unimaginative. What follows is best delivered with the force and speed of a machine gun. Cyrano bombards the young fool with all the modes of insult he might have used against so large a target:
AGGRESSIVE: I, sir, if that nose were mine, I’d have it amputated on the spot!
FRIENDLY: How do you drink with such a nose? You ought to have a cup made specially!
DESCRIPTIVE: Tis a rock a crag a cape. A cape? say rather, a peninsula!
INQUISITIVE: What is that receptacle? A razor case or a portfolio?
KINDLY: Ah, do you love the little birds so much that when they come and sing to you, you give them this to perch on?
INSOLENT: Sir, when you smoke, the neighbors must suppose your chimney is on fire.
CAUTIOUS: Take care, a weight like that might make you top-heavy.
THOUGHTFUL: Somebody fetch my parasol, those delicate colors fade so in the sun!
PEDANTIC: Does not Aristophanes mention a mythologic monster called Hippocampelephentocamelos? Surely we have here the original!
FAMILIAR: Well, old torchlight! Hang your hat over that chandelier it hurts my eyes.
ELOQUENT: When it blows, the typhoon howls, and the clouds darken.
DRAMATIC: When it bleeds, the Red Sea!
ENTERPRISING: What a sign for some perfumer!
LYRIC: Hark the horn of Roland calls to summon Charlemagne!
SIMPLE: When do they unveil the monument?
RESPECTFUL: Sir, I recognize in you a man of parts, a man of prominence
RUSTIC: Eh? What? Call that a nose? Naw Naw, I be no fool like what you think I be. That there’s a cucumber!
MILITARY: Point against cavalry!
PRACTICAL: Why not a lottery? With this for the grand prize?
Wonderful though the silent film is, this aggressive wit is what defines Cyrano’s character and it comes out best in the talkie.