Cyrano de Bergerac (1900)
This very early experiment in sound film captures dialogue and also has color – making it a fairly impressive technical achievement for 1900. It would still be some time before all of the technical issues would be resolved, leading to synchronized sound and Technicolor for feature-length films by the late 1920s, but this movie shows that the industry was already looking forward to such techniques at a very early date.
The scene reproduced is the famous “duel” scene from Cyrano de Bergerac by Rostand. In this scene, a foppish upstart in a hotel challenges the great Cyrano (played here by Benoit Constant Coquelin) to a duel, and Cyrano, bored by the whole vulgar display, composes a poem as he duels, ending the poem at the moment he scores a hit on his opponent. The fighting is highly formalized fencing, as shown here, not the swashbuckling action that fans of the later version with Jose Ferrer, which makes more sense in light of Cyrano’s reciting as the duel proceeds. He wears rich-looking but fairly drab brown clothes, while the opponent has flourishes of bright green and yellow on his clothes, making him more dynamic in the picture. I was surprised that there was no sound of clanging swords, only the dialogue was recorded.
Apparently, the technique used here required the sound to be recorded on a wax cylinder, which was not synched in any way to the sound, so the projectionist had to try to crank at the right speed to get the words to come out at the right time. It’s easy to see why that technology wasn’t a tremendous success. Also, the color in this movie looks like hand-painted frames to me, which was no great innovation in 1900 (Méliès had been doing it for years, and Edison had tried it as well). It’s worth noting that the play was still quite new at this time (1897), so this wasn’t necessarily familiar material for all audiences, although of course having the spoken dialogue by Cyrano would help contextualize the scene for them. This also emphasizes the more “nationalist” nature of sound cinema – I don’t speak French, there are no subtitles provided, and I didn’t understand a word, whereas I can usually follow a silent foreign film without help.
Director: Clément Maurice
Cast: Benoit Constant Coquelin
Run Time: 2 Min
You can watch it for free: here.