By Mohamad Diab
In a past era when television was not widely accessible and long before music videos were invented, musical films were the primary way for Arab audiences to watch and connect with their favorite singers. An audience of avid music listeners was transformed into spectators, and this recipe proved successful for film producers. Between the early 1930s and early 1960s, over 300 musicals were made. Many of these films were box office hits, with singer-actors including Mohammed Abdel Wahab, Umm Kulthum, Mohamed Fawzi, Shadia, Sabah, Farid Al- Atrash and Abdel Halim Hafez emerging as Arab idols, with their iconic portraits spanning walls and billboards of major Arab cities.
Despite the later influence of Hollywood, early Egyptian musicals evolved independently from international cinematic trends. The emergence of Egyptian musical films in the 1930s has its roots in the debut of modern theater in Egypt and the Arab world at the turn of the twentieth century. The exciting combination of music with acting was popular in musical performances, particularly in plays from troupes led by Youssef Wahbi, Ali Al-Kassar and Naguib Al-Rihani. These theater pioneers were themselves among the early trailblazers of Egyptian cinema.
In the early 1930s, prominent composer and singer Mohammed Abdel Wahab began a partnership with aspiring director Mohammed Karim. This collaboration lasted until Abdel Wahab’s retirement from acting in 1946 and resulted in several prominent films, including The White Rose (1933), Love’s Tears (1935) and Long Live Love (1938). Songs from these films departed from traditional Arab songs in length, each being about five minutes duration. These songs often reflected the inner sorrows and joys of the protagonist, the young lover Abdel Wahab.
Between the late 1930s and early 1940s, many new singers enjoyed their debut film appearances, including Umm Kulthum, Farid Al-Atrash, Layla Murad, Mohammed Al-Kahlawi, Nour Al-Hoda, and Mohamed Fawzi. Several of these talents were already recognized and had attained fame through other media, such as music hall performances and radio, while others were discovered and introduced to cinema by directors like Hussein Fawzi, Youssef Wahbi and Ahmed Badrakhan.
While the first wave of musicals in the 1930s was often associated with melodrama, subsequent films were less confined to this genre and trends began to emerge in themes, stars and directors. For example, Umm Kulthum typically starred in tragic love stories and historical adaptations. Farid Al-Atrash often portrayed the difficult journey of a young singer to fame. Musicals featuring singer-composer-actor Mohamed Fawzi tended toward cheerful comedy, especially beginning in the late 1940s; this is most evident in musicals like Love and Madness (1949) and Fatima, Marika and Rachel (1949). In the late 1940s, musicals combining drama, comedy and romance, and featuring individual songs and theatrical performances – the films Girls’ Flirtation (1949) and The Feast Night (1949) are two prime examples – represented the peak of Egyptian musical entertainment cinema.
Musicals from this period had a massive public impact. Anecdotes from the debut of Umm Kulthum’s Fatmah (1947) report that the audience was filled with intense sorrow. The film tells the bitter story of Fatmah, a poor girl who is deceived by a flamboyant, wealthy man who leaves her when she becomes pregnant. Scenarist Sherif El-Menyawi recalls viewing the film’s first release as a 10-year-old boy in Port Said. When Umm Kulthum’s beloved breaks his promise and leaves her, she sings People Were Unfair to Me, which provoked the rapt cinema audience to burst into tears, according to El-Menyawi. When she holds and mourns her newborn son, the audience began to cry as if they were mourning a funeral. Some young girls in the audience fainted, which led to the show being stopped and the lights raised.
The late 1940s and early 1950s saw the birth of stardom for a new generation of singers: Shadia, Sabah and Abdel Halim Hafez, who were contemporaneous to Farid Al-Atrash, Layla Murad and Mohamed Fawzi during the 1950s. Lighthearted Shadia stepped back from singing and focused on acting after a number of successful musicals, highlighted by Amal (1952) and You Are My Love (1957). Lebanese actress-singer Sabah’s career was one of the longest and earned her pan-Arab popularity. Among her most-known films are Bolbol Efendi (1948), Love Street (1958) and The Tears Road (1961). Sabah later moved to Lebanon, where she also starred in dozens of films, including The Idol of the Crowds (1964) and The Millionairess (1966).
The icon of Egyptian musicals from the mid-1950s to late 1960s was Abdel Halim Hafez. Hafez represented his generation of Egyptian youth. Often portrayed as a vulnerable, poor young man struggling to win his beloved’s heart and overcome social barriers, he echoed many of his counterparts’ struggles and symbolized love, sacrifice and spontaneity. Filled with a mix of sad and cheerful songs, musicals such as Love Nights (1955), The Empty Pillow (1957) and A Day of My Life (1961) combined musicals with romantic melodramas. Many of Abdel Halim’s most popular short songs were originally made for cinema.
Beginning in the late 1950s, musical films represented a smaller share of Egyptian cinema production, giving way to more realistic dramas. This trend was in line with the State’s new directives for cinema. Thus, musicals were produced with less frequency from the 1960s onward. Despite flagging support from studios, a handful of new vocal talents still gravitated to the cinema industry. Singer Muharram Fouad starred in The Melody of Happiness (1960), while Maher Al-Attar starred in The Sad Melody (1960). Warda Al-Jazairia made her debut in Almaz and Abdo Al-Hamouly (1961). All three of these films were directed by Helmy Rafla, who worked on many of the best musicals produced in the 1950s and early 1960s.
Egyptian musicals were primarily associated with romance, drama and comedy. However, in limited examples, musicals featured religious stories (e.g. Rabiah Al-Adawiyah, 1963), biographies (e.g. Sayed Darwish, 1966), and historical/period dramas (e.g. The Singer, 1980).
It was common for musicals of the 1940s and 1950s to feature belly dancing performances. However, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, several musicals featured dance performances by the singer herself, particularly those of Soad Hosny (e.g. Watch Out for Zouzou, 1972). Other musicals from this period, including Reda Troupe’s Love in Karnak (1967), were distinguished by featuring group performances.
The waning popularity of musicals in the 1970s was compounded by the failure of the cinema production ecosystem to discover popular singers who also had acting talent. Most of the singers who appeared in musicals from the 1970s to 2000s, including Hany Shaker, Mohamed Fouad and Amr Diab, had only a handful of film appearances.
The cultural impact of Egyptian musicals, particularly those from the 1930s to 1960s, cannot be underestimated. They boosted the popularity of Egyptian cinema throughout the Arab world and beyond. To an audience of music listeners, these were a unique way to visualize songs and were likely a more cultivated predecessor to modern video clips. The wealth of musical films from the Golden Age of Egyptian Cinema, together with their posters and song recordings, represent an opportunity to rediscover an era of authentic love, joy and heartfelt melodies.
Discover City Lights Posters’ musical posters collection.
 Shafik, Viola. Arab Cinema: History and Cultural Identity. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2016.
 Creekmur, Corey K., and Linda Y. Mokdad. “Egypt.” In The International Film Musical, 213–26. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012.
 Kassem, Mahmoud. Musicals in Egyptian Cinema (Arabic). Beirut: Al-Furat, 2015.
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