“Please accept our apologies for the poor quality of the film”
– opening slide of Myanmar’s first ever film
The Excelsior is the last scion of a time when Myanmar’s film industry was a leading light in South East Asia. Despite some initial British censorship, the industry thrived, and by the 70s there were hundreds of cinemas up and down the country showing a healthy mix of imported and Burmese-made films.
The film being shown in the older photo is a 1944 musical, Bathing Beauty. A summary of the plot is (deep breath): a red-haired songwriter’s manager tries to destroy his relationship by hiring a Latin-American actress to claim he’s the father of her three red headed children, because after he gets married he and his swimming instructor wife plan to quit their jobs. His wife falls for the ruse, refuses to talk to him, and returns to her job at an all-female college. It turns out that this college isn’t technically all-female, so he enrolls as a student. He escapes an angry dog, wears a tutu, does his homework, and eventually succeeds in winning her back. Predictably, the whole thing could have been avoided by having a single robust conversation at the outset.
Burmese film making was increasingly controlled after the 1962 coup, but it was after the 1988 protests that government control being truly stifling. This, combined with the difficulty of getting film and equipment due to the economic sanctions, led to a general decline for the industry.
The Excelsior was nationalized in 1964, and renamed the Waziya. It had originally been built as a live theatre and became one again in 1895, and then in 1999 was leased to the Myanmar Motion Picture Organization and became a cinema again. It’s now used primarily for special events, and doesn’t have regular opening times. The MMPO has worked with the Yangon Heritage Trust on a proposal to restore the building as a combined cinema, theatre and industry museum.
Outside of Yangon, cinemas in Myanmar remain in a rough state. Land has become increasingly valuable, and people can readily find cheap pirated copies of foreign films to watch at home. The number of actual working cinemas in the country may have fallen to as low as 50. That said, in 2017 the Paradiso Cinema company announced it was planning to open 45 new locations, primarily in places with few or no cinemas, and several of these are now open in places like Monywa and Shwebo.
The lovely but aging Myanmar Motion Picture museum building in Yangon has recently been cleared out and refurbished, hopefully for eventual reopening. I had a look around during the clearing, and found this fantastic image of the Queen of England – presumably a prop of some kind from a film.
For more information on the history of Myanmar cinema, Jessica Mudditt has written a good article here.