New Year 2019
Mr. Magoo’s Cyrano de Bergerac
(Adapted for the Screen by True Boardman)
A Book Review by Ronald Milligan
The original play, Cyrano de Bergerac, was staged in Paris in 1897 by its author, Edmond Rostand, the French poet and playwright. The play became the most successful work of this writer who championed the Romantic drama in France during a time of decline for this genre.
Originally, Cyrano de Bergerac was presented in 5 acts with the entire play written in verse. The form is rhyming couplets of twelve syllables per line, not quite a classical alexandrine due to the lack of caesura in some verses. In enormous contrast, the Cyrano de Bergerac of Mr. Magoo covers all the basic plot elements in only 25 minutes. There are very few rhymes.
Unlike the majority of modern adaptations of Cyrano de Bergerac, this version with Mr. Magoo faithfully adheres to the spirit of the source material. Magoo manages to miraculously give the viewer the essence of the story and the élan of Cyrano. The audience gets a taste of the original text, a preview if you will, of the longer, detailed literary work. I think herein resides the inherent worth of this televised cartoon adventure of J. Quincy Magoo. The viewer just might get up off of the sofa and buy a copy of one of the many translations of Cyrano de Bergerac.
The story of Cyrano is set in 17th-century France. Any connection between the character and the real nobleman of the same name is . . . nominal, in name only. Rostand took the name and ran with it, all the way to success.
His dazzling verses, masterful blend of comedy and sentiment, phenomenally fast-moving plot, ardent originality and uplifting emotions — they were a welcome break from the dark dramas and bleak histrionics of the literary movements of this era in France. Naturalism and Symbolism were real downers.
J. Quincy Magoo takes all of this passion, pathos, and swordplay and re-creates a story that makes sense to the modern viewer. Nobility is not mawkish in Magoo. It’s almost matter-of-fact! He is calmly confident and placid in his acceptance of his fate. Rostand might even have liked the old boy!
It is this mixture of eloquent wit and noble serenity that the cartoon Magoo displays throughout the episode. Less convincing is the character of the love interest, Roxane. The beloved Christian redeems himself before his demise (thus becoming heroic). They offer a bit too much comic relief in this adaptation, so these two characters feel a bit “off”.
The villain, Count de Guiche, is depicted as a minor character, a prop that sends Cyrano and Christian to the war front. This plot device works well in the television form. The real Count de Guiche was a corrupt playboy of aristocratic mold. This animated character underplays the dastardly side, perhaps because cartooning is not the best means by which to portray evil within the time frame of 25 minutes.
Through the trials and travails of war, Cyrano and Christian forge a bond of friendship and mutual respect. They find themselves fighting together at the Siege of Arras in 1640.
Eventually Christian recognizes that Roxane loves him for the passion expressed by Cyrano in his prose. She does not love the man, Christian, who is so utterly incapable of any type of prose. This ungifted writer then asks Cyrano to reveal, through confession, his true identity to Roxane. At this point, Christian rushes off to a battle that proves fatal. Cyrano chooses to remain silent about his own part in the courtship of Roxane by Christian. To disclose the truth would be an act of dishonor toward the fallen French soldier, Christian.
Fourteen long years pass, and Cyrano once again sees Roxane, for the last time. Thus begins the most moving scene in this television cartoon epic, as well as in the stage play. The recitation of the love letter by Cyrano without even reading it: there is the key that unlocks the heart of Roxane.
Magoo is able to pull off a dramatic moment that with a Charles Dickens character might become treacly. The voice of Jim Backus has a strength here that comes to the fore, leaving the craggy comic Magoo behind. The dialogue takes on true drama, understated but felt.
Many people consider this heroic romantic play created by Edmond Rostand to be one of the most profound stories of literature. The idea of self-sacrifice in the name of love, particularly realized by a person who is so accomplished in many challenging arenas —it is the glory of love.
This tale is said to have been a favorite of Charles de Gaulle. Undoubtedly, Cyrano and his nobility of heart, mind, and soul appealed to this Frenchman. The element of wartime also played upon the heart-strings of this valiant leader, but one has to wonder if the sense of self-sacrifice was already there within Charles de Gaulle. Rostand struck a note waiting to be played, at a later place and time in French history, in the heart of General de Gaulle.
Whether or not Cyrano de Bergerac was based on a “true-life story,” the Rostand formulation was a huge triumph. The play opened in December 1897 and the first production ran for more than 300 consecutive performances. Such enthusiasm for a drama in verse had not been seen in Paris since Victor Hugo's Hernani, nearly 70 years earlier. The play was quickly translated into English, German, Russian and several other European languages.
Over time, the play has been translated and performed countless times, as well as transformed and adapted into various media: theatrical productions (with and without rhyming verse), books of all lengths, Hollywood movies, radio programs, TV sit-coms, and yes, the television cartoon adaptation starring Mr. Magoo. Cyrano has become a universal character transcending the bounds of presentation format. There are few comparisons to this dramatic work, and, like Cyrano himself, no true rivals.
This unique play is notably responsible for introducing the word "panache" into the English language. Cyrano (the character) is, in fact, famed for his panache. In the original stage production, he makes reference to "my panache”. This word, in French, means “the bunch of feathers or a plume, especially on a helmet.” Panache thereby became synonymous with spirit, brio, verve, gallantry.
Magoo does not use this term in this animated version, but he surely processes and displays panache in this role. His dying words are replete with spirit and gallantry.
True love is all that the Magoo Cyrano needed to light his way to Paradise – even if his eyes did not exactly possess 20/20 vision.