In the next several weeks, in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, I will be examining several films that featured outstanding performances by Hispanic actors. The Hispanic community in early Hollywood consisted of many popular stars, including Anthony Quinn, Cesar Romero, Ramon Novarro, Lupe Velez, Rita Hayworth, Cantinflas, Rita Moreno, Carmen Miranda, Ricardo Montalban, Delores del Rio, and Desi Arnaz, to name a few. But the first Hispanic actor to ever win an Oscar for acting was Jose Ferrer for his performance in the 1950 film “Cyrano de Bergerac.”
Ferrer was born in Santurce, Puerto Rico and given the name of Jose Vincente Ferrer de Otero y Cintron. Ferrer was one of the first recipients of the newly founded Tony Award in 1946/1947 as best actor for his stage performance as Cyrano and thus became the ideal choice for the film version. In addition to his acting, he was known as a master director of Broadway productions. In the early 1950s, he had several of his plays running constantly. From 1950-51, he had three plays he directed running all at the same time; then from 1958 to 1960, he had four plays running in succession.
Set in 17th Century France, in the time of swashbuckling musketeers “Cyrano de Bergerac” is an adaptation of Edmund Rostand’s famous 1897 play that concerns the long-nosed, romantic cavalier who is in love with the beautiful Roxane. The film’s screenplay was by Carl Forman and it was directed by the relatively undistinguished Michael Gordon, whose biggest film would be the 1959 Rock Hudson/Doris Day romantic comedy “Pillow Talk.”
Cyrano is a man of action and is known as a poet, expert swordsman, soldier and philosopher. But in the realm of romance, he is reluctant because of his unusually larger nose.
In one of the first scenes, Cyrano is a spectator at a local stage play when he interrupts the lead performer complaining about his poor acting skills. Soon after a gentleman, Vicomte de Valvert criticizes his rant and comments on Cyrano’s nose. With a fiery voice, Cyrano mocks Valvert by composing a poem of what the man could have said about his large nose. This leads to a spectacular sword duel, which is appropriately complimented by Dimitri Tiomkin’s rousing score.
Shortly following this raucous battle the brave Cyrano reluctantly reveals to a friend of his unrequited love for his cousin Roxane (Mala Powers) and how deeply he fears her rejection because of his unusual facial features. The next day, when Cyrano meets Roxane he becomes further depressed by her request for Cyrano to protect Christian de Nevillette (William Prince,) a man in the regiment, who she loves from afar. And instead of pursuing his cousin for himself he takes on the role of cupid for the younger pair.
In a day or so later he encounters Christian in a public gathering while telling a story of his adventures to others, Christian rudely interrupts, mocking Cyrano’s nose. Tensions build to nearly a fight when Cyrano learns of his name and reveals he’ll help him win Roxane’s heart.
Christian admits to Cyrano, “I’m one of those stammering idiots who can’t court a woman.” Cyrano suggests he’ll coach Christian with rhapsodizing poetic words he can speak to Roxane. And thus Cyrano’s passion will vicariously capture Roxane’s love.
In one hilarious scene, the reluctant Christian stands under a balcony beneath Roxane’s window, while Cyrano literally feeds him words to court her.
Ferrer’s complete comfort in the role is so obvious in this film. With all of the vocal power and grand gestures, a Shakespearean master Ferrer dominates nearly every scene he’s in. His performance is simply magnificent.
The film’s one flaw may its low budget look and rather bland black and white visual style. More stylized remakes of this tale were completed in 1987 with Steve Martin, in the more ridiculously comical updating of the story called “Roxanne” and the 1990 French version of this romantic story with Gerard Depardieu. But no one has topped the unique vitality of Ferrer’s Cyrano. And by the way, George Clooney can brag that Ferrer was his uncle.