Sad Tale Of The Death Of A Scenario
Fictionised Zola Turned Into Film History
From IRIS CONLAY, Catholic Herald Film Critic Not so long ago we were hearing with flourish of trumpets the announcement of a Charles Laughton picture of Cyrano de Bergerac. Nothing came of the idea and a strange silence has since overhung the halls of Denham about the fate of Cyrano.
The story of its fate evidently is an unfinished one. This week Mr. Humbert Wolfe has published his translation of Edmond Rostand's play, and with it the Exciting Story of a Film Scenarist.*
Mr. Humbert Wolfe is very graphic and very funny about the whole business, though he lets us know by inference of his soreness.
He begins 'by describing initial excitements. " A voice on the telephone, speaking from Newcastle-on-Tyne, without warning or explanation, startled me with the
following unexpected announcement : London Films are going to ask you to translate Cyrano de Bergerac for Charles Laughton.' Just that and the voice as remote, as unanticipated as ancestral voices prophesying war had ceased. . ."
This was followed up by the Korda interview. "'Could you do it in a fortnight?,' Mr. Korda. 'It's 217 pages long in the French,' Mr. Wolfe. ' Ah! then three weeks or perhaps a month?' Mr. Korda." And with instructions to render into verse all Rostand's flamboyance, Mr. Wolfe left Denham on his gargantuan mission.
Despite hideous handicaps that occur when French verse is suppressed into English, the version of Cyrano was ready in scheduled time. But literal rendering from one verse form to another does not always work. It did not in this case. Cyrano's couplets even handled with Laughton skill were tame. Some were re-written according to the spirit instead of the letter.
Mr. Wolfe gives a description of nightly rehearsals at Laughton's rooms.
"I am not likely to forget the evenings which I spent with Laughton at his Upper part in Gordon Square. The ritual was always the same. I arrived at eight to find in the austere room a new floral welcome. Along one side were always ranged, never in excessive profusion, but always in perfect harmony, strange and lovely flowers. Laughton wore a bright dressing-gown over some form of black silk pyjamas, looking with his yellow hair like the raw material of all the actor that there is."
Audience of One
These two worked two or three nights a week for three months—but Cyrano was fated to die after a production for an audience of one. A prose version was tried as an alternative to the verse, but weeks passed and Denham took no notice. Entire re-orientation of the text was discussed and brought out, but still Cyrano de Bergerac sits broody upon a undisturbed shelf in Denham.
A sad tale of the death of a scenario. I Accuse Paul Muni, like George Arliss, has got into the rut of 1066 and all that and is fast reducing the characters of French history to a common denominator. Louis Pasteur has been replaced this time by Emile Zola and within the limits set by the script, Muni's Zola is a great muddle of human qualities that turn the character into a rather lovable bear.
Whether Zola was that lovable bear who spent himself in early life in fearless social reform; and had no vices worse than those of middle-age spread is perhaps a little limited, but evidently the director was determined at all costs to avoid controversy. He does so by painting in his hero's character in safe humanitarian strokes of the brush.
Although 1 still maintain that straight biography (from adolescence to death) does not make good cinema, the film of Zola is praiseworthy because painstaking and because of the character work put in by Muni. The canvas is far too full, Drefus appears in full dress story, Cezanne's indication is far less eclipsy to the general plot (if you can call biography a plot) and the over-furnished interiors of the nineteenth century houses in which the film is shot are very symbolic of its overloaded story. In the trial scenes the film rises to itssummit.
Jericho, the picture which was boasted before birth because of lovely Princess Konka brought so many miles to play in it, is a disappointment, in'spite of the Princess. Paul Robeson has a great part and plays it wholeheartedly rather than wholeheadedly. Some desert sequences are memorable and the imitation news-reel style is absolute reality. Princess Konka's part is slight and she looks charming but need she have COME so far for so little?
Cyrano de Bergerac, by Humbert Wolfe (Hutchinson, 6s.)