The Lost War Against Mickey Mouse
Hollywood literally bursts into the Romanian cultural landscape in the first years after the First World War. In the 1920s, there are almost 30 film distribution companies that offer an audience with an already insatiable appetite for movies recent American premieres, in which shine the great stars of the silent era, such as Rudolf Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks or Mary Pickford. At the beginning of 1925, the famous The Thief of Baghdad or Charlie Chaplin’s The Pilgrim are already running in Romania. The big American studios – Metro-Goldwin, Paramount, Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox – open distribution offices in the country and are aggressively advertising their newest flick, including their own magazines, which also sold like hotcakes.
The first talkies are shown in 1929 but poor technical conditions make some roll their eyes. A Bucharest magazine describes the experience in the most unflattering terms: “…thanks to the perfection of the device hidden upstairs, the alto players play with baritone voices, the tenors become deep bass, and the howling of cats acquires tones of an elephant pinched on its belly.” But like everywhere in the world, sound films are winning, helped in good part by the new craze for musicals, whose singalong tunes also become available on records. In 1934 there may be as many as 36 cinemas in Bucharest, perhaps even more, but movies could be enjoyed even under the starts as some popular beer gardens didn’t shy away from the moving pictures. The excitement and curiosity are kept alive by several magazines exclusively dedicated to film, such as Cinema (Bucharest), Film Variete (Timișoara), Cinema and Film (Alba-Iulia). Most influential magazines dedicate large sections to cinema and its stars and, in addition, the newspapers are always full of news and publicity about the movies.
Obviously, through such an acerbic consumption of American cinema, Romanians soon get acquainted with many aspects of the American way of life, from fashionable hairstyles, sartorial preferences, culinary staples or popular ways of spending leisure time to technological advances and the new architecture that is reshaping the skyline of the American metropolis. Indeed, more than anything else in the first half of the 20th century, America is jazz and film, and the seductive, accessible, sensational, exciting bite of the Americana becomes a permanent feature of an enduring fascination hard to suppress or inhibit even in the harshest periods.
Towards the end of the 1930s and later, after the communist takeover in 1947, it is not idiosyncrasies or snobbery of the public that are Hollywood’s fiercest enemies, but political calculations and ideological dogmatism. As expected, by entering the Axis orbit, Romania rejects all American cultural imports. For a few years during the Second World War, to the disappointment of the public, who does not share the cinematic allergies of the authorities, the American movies disappear almost entirely from the Romanian screens. Moreover, the Ministry of Propaganda exhibits bouts of irritation fueled by the anti-fascist attitudes of stars like Marx Brothers, Robert Taylor, Bette Davis or James Stewart, whose films are duly indexed.
Yet at the end of the war, the American cinema triumphantly returns to the Romanian movie theaters. The public is really “thirsty” for Hollywood stories and stars, as American diplomats put it in their cables, which have been expelled from the screening rooms for several years. The audiences rejoice at the return of Bogard, Cagney, Hedy Lamar or Jane Russel and rush to theaters to indulge in the latest attractions coming from across the Ocean. But this short honeymoon is about to end abruptly with the advent of the most unforgiving foe Tinseltown has ever met in Romania.
Irritated by the crushing success of the American features, which made the Soviet dry, politicized productions go almost unnoticed, the communists began a well-orchestrated campaign against Hollywood film. Censorship denies distribution visas for the most absurd and trivial reasons; the films of actors, directors or producers who have made pronouncements against the Soviet Union are no longer permitted to appear on Romanian screens; an impossible tax burden is imposed on American productions that makes the business of exhibiting U.S. features totally unviable. When nothing else works, the authorities set up mock protests of concerned proletarians who ask for some pictures to be taken down for allegedly being immoral or downright fascist.
An illustrious victim of this coordinated assault is no other than Walt Disney, a fervent anti-communist, whose beloved characters like Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck, adored by cohorts of children in Romania and all over the world, are banned as dangerous from the movie theater and pushed into forced oblivion. But the scheme wipes out the entire American distribution system and for more than a decade almost all American films become out of reach for a public agonizing under the unforgiving Stalinist dictatorship and praying for better times.
Which will come as communist Romania adopts a more independent course from the Soviet Union and begin to dramatically improve its relations with the Western World. The Romanian-American diplomatic détente touches all aspects of transatlantic relations and inaugurates a true golden age of the American cinema in Romania. Mickey Mouse is back, with a vengeance. Even Ceaușescu is pictured in a tête-à-tête with the most famous mouse in the world during one of his his visits to the U.S.
It all started a little earlier, in 1962, with the visit of a group of American filmmakers, including Jack Lemon and Shirley MacLaine, when the lines in front of cinemas began forming in the early hours of the morning. Already in 1964, when the Romanian communists openly proclaim their independent stance, there are some weeks when more American features are running in the capital’s cinemas than Russian or European films. Some movies draw huge crowds that would do anything to get a ticket. Sometimes the pressure is so high that windows brake and doors are shattered. After years of blunt cinematic diet, the excitement of a healthy dose of good, old entertainment is huge.
The new films are expensive but older ones seem fresher than ever – and are of best quality. In 1970 a Romanian can watch great films like Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, In the Heat of the Night, The Birds, The Party, To Kill a Mockingbird, Splendor in the Grass, The Sound of Music, Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid, Love Story, Hello Dolly, etc. Between 1967 and 1971, American productions also dominate the program of the newly created National Television. In 1970 44 American films are shown, compared to 21 French and only 19 Soviet. In 1971 the number is even greater as more than one American film is shown almost every week. The American productions are currently reviewed in magazines and the cultural supplements of the major newspapers and the movie-goers are as well accustomed with the American filmmakers in Bucharest as they are in New York City.
But the faith of the American film in Romania during this time, like any other cultural import, is determined by political diktats. The period of relative liberalism ends in the second half of the 1970s, when a new ideological course, more dogmatic and increasingly anti-Western, as well as mounting economic problems, which cut sharply from funds for cultural imports, have a debilitating effect on the circulation of American movies in Romania. Keeping a tight purse, the authorities refuse to spend hard currency on Hollywood entertainment and the theaters must run and re-run older productions. By then, however, the love affair of Romanians with the American film is well-established and gone are the days of explicit anti-American policies of the Stalinist 1950s. In the 1980s, the lack of new titles in the theaters is supplanted, after the invention of the videocassette, by a vast and well-oiled market of American films that bring the latest features, of which some would have never passed the censorship, directly to the leaving rooms of Romanians. Mickey Mouse is here to stay!
References: Bogdan Barbu, Vin americanii (The Americans are Coming), Bucharest, Humanitas, 2006; Ioana Pârvulescu, Întoarcere în Bucureștiul interbelic (Back to Interwar Bucharest), Bucharest, Humanitas, 2009; Chuck Norris vs. Communism, documentary, directed by Ilinca Călugăreanu, 2015
Photo 1: Capitol Cinema, Bucharest, 1929
Photo 2: Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife, Elena at Disneyland in 1970