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Thursday, 20 June 2019

Remembering Abdel Salam Al-Nabulsy: Beloved actor of Egyptian cinema's golden age

Al-Nabulsy, one of the most prominent Egyptian comedians of his generation, passed away on 5 July 1968

Ashraf Gharib, Thursday 6 Jul 2017
 A Day of My Life
Film A Day of My Life (1961), Abdel Salam Al-Nabulsy with Abdel Halim Hafez in the background
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Born in Tripoli, Lebanon in 1899 to a Lebanese-Palestinian family, Abdel-Salam Al-Nabulsy was destined for a life far from his home, roots, and the expectations of family.

Though as a young man he enjoyed writing poetry and was interested in literature, Al-Nabulsy's family did not plan for him a life in the arts or humanities.

The actor was brought up in a strict religious environment; his family expected him to follow in his father’s footsteps as a judge in the Sharia courts and sent him to Cairo to study at Al-Azhar.

Instead Al-Nabulsy fell in love with Cairo, and it was here he allowed his creative interests to blossom.

While still a student, he became involved in cinema, much to the disappointment of his family who tried to discourage him from this path by cutting off financial support.

Al-Nabulsy insisted on making it, even if he had to do it on his own. He started by taking small roles and working as an assistant director.

Who would have thought that years later his name would be cemented among the most beloved comedians of Egyptian cinema’s golden age?

It is hard to pinpoint Al-Nabulsy’s debut role in film.

Ahmed Al-Hadary suggests in his book The History of Cinema in Egypt that among his first roles was a bit part in The Desert Belle (1929).

Love and Kindness
Abdel Salam Al-Nabulsy in Love and Kindness (1956)

Al-Nabulsy’s oldest available movie, a silent film titled The Victims (1932), cast him in the role of a villain as Morsi, the right hand man of drug gang leader Bourei (Zaki Rostom).

Morsi’s crimes went beyond smuggling and selling narcotics; in one scene he betrays his friend and master by making advances on his helpless wife (Bahiga Hafez), who slaps him violently.

The year 1939 saw Al-Nabulsy cast in director Kamal Selim’s The Will, which would set the mould for the actor. Al-Nabulsy plays a dissolute aristocrat who encourages the character of co-star Anwar Wagdi to lead a sensual life.

Al-Nabulsy went on to play similar roles in films throughout the 1940s.

Although the role of the youthful aristocrat allowed Al-Nabulsy to show his funny side, it neither satisfied his artistic desire nor secured his popularity.

Al-Nabulsy achieved true fame when he shifted to comedic roles, working alongside other emerging comedians and in a genre that gained popularity after the second world war. 

In those crucial years, the actor was tasked with finding a character that would distinguish him from other aspiring comedians and make him an essential part of the successful commercial formula.

Al-Nabulsy began working with scriptwriters Badie Khairy and Abul-Saud El-Ebiary to adapt the neurotic character he usually performed; he was known to play the dandy, sometimes aristocratic and most of the times pretending to be so.

With this special composition, Al-Nabulsy became unique, not only among the comedians of his generation, but among actors who would later imitate his style in attempt to win audiences the way only he could.

Hasaballah the XVI
Hasaballah the XVI (1959)

Al-Nabulsy achieved commercial success in large part due to the help of his close friend Farid Al-Atrash, a cinema star of the 1940 and 50s.

Al-Atrash helped him secure roles in 13 out of 18 films in which Al-Atrash himself played the leading man up through 1955.

Given the popularity of musical films at the time, and Al-Atrash' status as a genre icon, Al-Nabulsy benefited from this cooperation tremendously and had the opportuinty to work with other singers.

Al-Nabulsy acted alongside Mohamed Fawzi in The Mind is on Holiday (1947), Love and Madness (1948), Fatma, Marika and Rachel (1949), and Justify Your Wealth (1952). He also acted alongside Shadia in Ask my Heart (1951), Good Omen (1952) and My Lover and I (1953).

However, Al-Nabulsy’s finest hour and the pinnacle of his success came when he started acting alongside Abdel-Halim Hafez.

Five Abdel-Halim films became Al-Nabulsy’s most famous works: Love Nights (1955), My Prince Charming (1957), The Story of a Love (1959), The Street of Love (1958) and A Day in My Life (1961).

Alongside his role in musicals, Al-Nabulsy also starred in a series of successful melodramas such as The Great Artist, The Red Mask, Heaven’s Justice, The Little Millionaires, Ask My Heart, Deprivation and Whom Do You Love.

At one point, Al-Nabulsy and Ismail Yassin were a fixture that guaranteed success for any film.

By the mid-1950s, when comedy films dominated cinema, both actors were capable of carrying any film, and often acted together to rave reviews.

Lahn Hobbi

In his films with Hafez, Al-Nabulsy could sometimes be found playing the leading man's rival in love, as in I Love You or The Lady Ghost, though he was more often cast as the lead's best fried.

Occasionally, Al-Nabulsy tried to rebel against these good-natured roles, yearning to play the villains even if he would not abandon his usual light-heartedness.

In Good Omen (1952) directed by Hassan Ramzy and The Heart’s Decisions (1956) by Helmy Halim, he portrayed the youth hatching plots to separate lovers for the sake of money. But his on-screen villainy reached its peak in the film Whom Do You Love (1954) directed by Helmy Rafla, in which he played Borei’s (Farid Shawki) and co-conspirator working to extort a married woman for money.These roles served as a rare glimpse into the actor's dramatic range. 

Dreams of Youth
Dreams of Youth (1957)

Two of Al-Nabulsy's films can be considered exceptional in a different light.

In 1957, Al-Nabulsy played the lead alongside Omar Al-Sharif and Faten Hamama in Land of Peace, directed by Kamal Al-Sheikh. He portrayed a very humane role as a Palestinian man living with his clan under Israeli occupation. His characted, who appears droopy and cowardly at the start of the film, becomes the first to sacrifice his life to help one of the Egyptian fedayeen behind enemy lines.

In 1959, he played a role that could have been written just for him in Between Heaven and Earth, under the direction of Salah Abu-Seif. As an arrogant and pedantic aristocrat he encounters a range of humanity while trapped inside an out-of-order lift with thirteen other occupants.

A case of type-casting, Nabulsy's character nonetheless went deeper here than he ever had before. Through this character, Abu-Seif was able to creat a spontaneous class struggle and political discussion at a sensitive moment in the July Revolution and its aftermath.

Throughout his career, Al-Nabulsy played the leading man in only six films, two of which he produced himself. These included Love and Humanness (1956), Ashour the Lionhearted (1961), The Love of My Life (1958), The Women’s Barber (1960), The Girls of Bahari (1960) and The Agony Aunt (1962) which was the last he made in Egypt before moving to Beirut.. Even in his own productions, Al-Nabulsy limited his personal screen time, allowing other characters a chance to carry the plot.

The Secret Police
The Secret Police (1959)

It seems astonishing to many that when starring roles began to pour in for Al-Nabulsy in the early 1960s he decided to leave Cairo, hoping for more opportunities in Lebanese cinema.

Al-Nabulsy's strength came in his ability to deftly channel extreme character traits for comedic effect.

We will never forget the way he held the telephone away from his ear, during a conversation with Sergeant Attia in Ismail Yassin in the Military Police (1958); his trembling hand in A Day in My Life in the simple act of handing over a picture; or his hand again as the music conductor Hasab-Allah XVI in The Street of Love.

We will always remember his exaggerated way of bowing his head to show respect or raising it high in a moment of arrogance. His peculiar pronunciation drove scriptwriters to write certain mannerisms especially for him which are cemented in cinema history--think "Buono," in The Lady Ghost.

Al-Nabulsy knew well the character that befitted him and better still, knew how to carry it straight to the heart of the viewer. He retained a prominent standing in Egyptian cinema until his death in 1968.

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