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Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Remembering Mohamed Fawzi: Egyptian singer, actor and joy-maker

20 October marks the 51st anniversary of the death of Mohamed Fawzi, a star of the silver screen in the 40s and 50s

Ashraf Gharib, Friday 20 Oct 2017
Mohamed Fawzi
Mohamed Fawzi (Photo: Al Ahram)
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Many singers have found moved to the silver screen in Egypt, embraced not only because their musical heritage but because of the variety of dramatic contexts to which their musical talents were suited.

One of these singers who is deeply indebted to cinema is Mohamed Fawzi, who rose to fame in the 1940s and died on 20 October 1966.

Born on 15 August 1919, Fawzi debuted in The Executioner’s Sword (1944), directed by Youssef Wahbi.

He became known as the emotional singer, and was considered suitable to the roles of the young lead. At that time, the iconic Mohamed Abdel-Wahab was already in his mid-thirties, as was Farid Al-Atrash. Fawzi, at 25, was more suited to the role of the struggling young man who wants to pursue his dreams.

When Abdel-Wahab withdrew completely from acting after his last film I Am Not an Angel (1946), directed by Mohamed Karim, he left the cinematic arena for Fawzi and Al-Atrash, instead investing his time pushing his nephew and pupils, Saad Abdel-Wahab, whose debut was in Bread and Salt (1949), directed by Hussein Fawzi.

However, this debut took place after things had been stabilised between the original rivals Al-Atrash and Fawzi, with the audience inclining to the latter.

In the period between 1944 and 1959, Fawzi made 36 films.

Fawzi also entered the cinematic production business in 1947 with The Mind on Vacation, directed by Helmy Rafla, which strengthened his screen presence and displayed the kind of cinema which he wanted to create.

Abdel-Wahab, Al-Atrash and most of the singers at the time were also producers of their own films, but none of them came near to the number of films Mohamed Fawzi acting in, whether he produced them or not.

Fawzi’s musical style was very versatile during his musical career. He wasn’t inclined to popular singing like singers Abdel-Aziz Mahmoud, Karem Mahmoud, Abdel-Ghani El-Sayed and Mohamed El-Kahlawi, and nor was he a fan of Abdel-Wahab’s serene way of singing or of Farid Al-Atrash’s dirges.

Fawzi’s music combined graceful melody and his own light-heartedness; it had a oriental feel even while it could be experimental.

These elements all helped Fawzi become so successful. But cinematic dynamics were also on his side.

His cinematic career was launched at a time when film producers had begun to welcome the presence of a singer – any singer – in order to guarantee box office success.  Fawzi also debuted at the beginning of musical comedy’s Golden Age which came following the end of World War II.

What’s surprising is that after Naguib Al-Rihani’s death in 1949 and Ali Al-Kassar being relegated to minor roles, there was no comedy actor whom film producers were confident to cast as a leading man in any film, especially as Ismail Yassin hadn’t reached yet his peak.

Even more surprising is that none of the well-known comedians, such as Abdel-Salam Al-Nabulsi, Hassan Fayeq, Abdel-Fattah Al-Kasri, Stephan Rosti, Zeinat Sedki, Mary Moneib, Isamil Yassin and Shokoko was were seen as being directly connected to singing.

Even though Ismail Yassin and Shokoko could sing well, both were classified more as stand-up comedians. So, producers wondered, how could successful films be made that combined comedy and music?

The solution lay in the musical comedy of a young, light-hearted singer, and who could gracefully combine singing and acting. There was no one whose temperament and musical personality matched that description better than Mohamed Fawzi.

Despite Fawzi's success on screen in light of the predominance of musical comedy, we should not ignore one important fact: out of his 36 films, 34 were made in the first 12 years of his career (1944-1956), with the remaining two films in 1959, seven years before his death.

Did the emergence of the singer Abdel-Halim on screens starting from 1955 cause this? The answer is no, because the demand for Fawzi’s songs remained the same despite Abdel-Halim’s growing popularity. Moreover, the activity of other singers such as Farid Al-Atrash and Saad Abdel-Wahab didn’t decline during the same period.

Musical comedies weren’t waning and Abdel-Halim himself was keen on keeping up with Mohamed Fawzi by participating in films such as Nights of Love (1955), My Prince Charming (1957), Street of Love (1958) and others. Farid Al-Atrash also acted in this kind of musical comedy in You are My Lover (1957), and many other similar films featured singers such as Saad Abdel-Wahab, Abdel-Aziz Mahmoud and others.

Perhaps Fawzi was partially preoccupied by the vinyl record factory which he launched in 1957, and which swallowed almost all his savings. But he was definitely capable of carrying on his cinematic career, for he continued to sing and participate in public concerts and national projects.

He was at the time suffering from a mysterious illness which perplexed doctors and drove him to travel to Europe and America many times, which may also be a factor.

It is most likely that the turning point in Fawzi’s career came in 1956, the same year in which Gamal Abdel-Nasser became president, the British forces evacuated from Egypt, the Suez Canal being nationalised, the Suez War, and the defeat of the Tripartite Aggression. In short, after 1956, Nasser emerged as the sole ruler of Egypt and president Mohamed Naguib’s name vanished for decades to come.

Many sources confirm that there was a friendly relationship between Naguib and Fawzi; this is obvious in the famous photographs depicting the two men together. Evidence suggests that Fawzi paid the price of this declared loyalty.

Brigadier-General Nabil Mohamed Fawzi, Mohamed Fawzi’s son, told me about the film distributors’ sudden change of heart towards his father and cancellation of domestic and foreign distribution of his films after agreeing to do so. He was therefore obliged to cancel a number of films.

The decision to nationalise Misr Phone Company, which Fawzi had spent money, effort and time to establish, was another piece of evidence, as was the despicable treatment of Fawzi by the company’s administration afterwards.

At the same time, nationalisation decisions didn’t touch Sawt El-Fan, owned by Mohamed Abdel-Wahab and Abdel-Halim Hafez, who were close to the political leadership.

In addition, Fawzi’s liquid assets and his villa were seized, and he fell into depression and illness.

Those and several other reasons might have contributed to Fawzi’s final demise, on 20 October 1966.

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