At The Royal Cinema

The Lumière Brothers' toy, perfected year after year, challenges Thalia and Melpomene and the people of Bucharest take cinemas by storm. Businessmen are quick in smelling money, and thus many individuals whose energy used to be spent "at the haberdasher's or on market automobiles" become ever more prosperous cinema owners. The canvas of the screen extends first over Elisabeth Boulevard, which used to be called, half in jest, half seriously, "the Romanian Hollywood," only to spread later over all the districts of the capital. The Capitol, Trianon, Eforia, Voiculescu, Boulevard Palace, Odeon, Vlaicu cinemas are situated from the very start one next to the other on Elisabeth Boulevard, so that film lovers can come out from one movie and step in right away to the one showing next door. On Lipscani there is Pathé Palace, called thus after Charles Pathé, owner of a film distribution company. We have the Luxe cinema on Doamnei Street and Select on Calea Victory, with a direct relation, naturally, between the name and the actual viewing conditions. Also on Calea Victory, at number 48, close to Jean Feder's store, there is the Frascati cinema, for the guests of the homonymous hotel, while at number 15 we find the Colossus cinema. Marconi and Roma on Grivita, of course, the American cinema on Calea Mosilor, showing American movies, Volta in Buzesti district and Edison on Calea Dudesti. These are the first. Soon there open, to accommodate the new amusement, the Royal cinema on the cinema boulevard, the Roxy on Lipscani and, last but not least, the Aro, largest and most elegant of all. Film vies with all the arts, since it stole something from each of them. Some call it the seventh art, others the eighth wonder, but most still judge it a mere plebeian pleasure, more akin to technique and conjuration rather than to art.It is a fact that films showing in Bucharest in the 20's are productions of doubtful value. Arghezi even comes up with the – visionary – idea of creating an art cinema because, from 1921 to 1928, "Bucharest has seen no more than three movies that could possibly satisfy one who also has certain familiarity with books." Or perhaps, to be less harsh, "let's say five movies, so we can count Pat and Patachon twice." The price of a ticket, at the select cinemas, is 60 lei, the equivalent, Arghezi concludes, of a volume by Anatole France or André Gide. Nonetheless, Alex. Bilciurescu notes in the same year, again in Arghezi's magazine: "There are many film lovers in our country. Cinemas crop up like mushrooms. Film magazines as well. Lured by the magic of the dollar, all the girls dream of becoming film stars." From the start, the mirage of the movie outdoes all the others both in scope and in diversity. The first to yield to the temptation is the weak sex: "Every blonde believes she has the charm of the irresistible Mary Pickford; every dull brunette is convinced that she is the mirror image of Pola Negri. Flat-footed (sic!) Variety dancers long for their bodies to evince the graceful charm of Lya de Putti; all have a film face and want to make cinema." Men do not fail to follow suite: "The shop attendant with rimmed glasses discovers one day that he looks like Harold Lloyd, while the young man who happens to 'do' a midinette thinks of himself as a new Rudolf Valentino! Even the unaesthetic pot-bellied bourgeois wants to leave for America because his belly looks like Fatty's!" If in the age of the silent movie there are hardly any Romanians who do not see themselves as photogenic and good actors, with the emergence of sound films, also called then "talking films," autochthonous studios are assaulted by presumptuous voluntaries. Already in 1931 the Magazine writes that it is old-fashioned to seek to become a theatre actor; instead, "the milliner, the dressmaker, the chambermaid," ladies "rather advanced in years" as well as undergraduate students, all want to be movie stars. Sound film directors and managers receive daily requests and everybody says, on different, out of tune voices: "I have a burning desire to play in a sound film." The first Romanian sound film is released in 1930. The script is based on Ciuleandra, a novel by one of the most popular prose writers of the time, and the director is Martin Berger, from Germany. The film turns out to be a disaster and triggers a media scandal. Among the causes of the catastrophe are the texts incorporated in Rebreanu's story by the German scriptwriter Kurt Schwabach, the Romanian folk doinas blended with German musical successes and, above all, the director's lack of inspiration. As far back as 1928 Alexandru Bilciurescu writes an article about the Romanian film, more specifically about the discrepancy between pretense and outcome, which is not far from what happened with Ciuleandra: "In order to give the film a national, folkloric character, there were inserted rustic sceneries: deplorable, dismal landscapes, country roads chosen from the muddiest. Posing as indigenous beauties, in national costumes, there feature on the screen: sickly faces, alcohol-wrecked physiognomies, dirty-footed young gypsies. Many-coloured posters advertise the release of the Romanian movie. The public, the great public who had so often been taken in by movies of the kind, holds back."In 1933 Bucharest already has fifty cinemas which, on a good day, can host as many as seven performances. This means, according to Emanoil Bucuta's calculations in Romania Literara, 150,000 spectators. Which further means that over a lapse of four days "every citizen of Bucharest" can see a movie. Bucuta is one of those who distinguish between this pseudo-art and "higher" performances, theatre or concerts, and notes with a pang of the heart that the movie prevailed. For the theatres, the opera and concert halls together cannot seat more than 10,000 spectators, even on the best of days, matinées included. Which is to say, goes the relentless article, that "for each inhabitant of the city to be able to see one performance, it would take at least sixty days." That is, a movie every four days, a theatre play or a concert every two months. Despite of its entering the artistic life through the back door, as pressmen judge it, the cinema won. The same phenomenon had happened in the previous century with the novel, which replaced lyric and epic poetry and drama and settled remorselessly at the top of the literary hierarchy.  Excerpted from Return To Inter-War Bucharest, Humanitas, 2003

by Ioana Pârvulescu