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Monday, 24 June 2019

Remembering Helmy Rafla: King of musical comedy

Egyptian director, producer and screenwriter, Helmy Rafla was born 15 May 1909 and died 22 April 1978

Ashraf Gharib, Thursday 18 Apr 2019
Helmy Rafla
Helmy Rafla
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Helmy Rafla is considered one of the important figures in the history of cinema directors in Egypt.

Rafla was a director, producer, screenwriter and makeup artist. He directed 71 films between 1947 and 1985 in Egypt, apart from a number of films he directed in Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and Nigeria.

Rafla was born in 15 May 1909. After receiving intermediate education he started to work in makeup artistry. In 1936, the education ministry sent him to study further in both England and France. In the following year he returned and joined the National Theatre Company after which he began to work as a makeup artist in films at the end of the 1930s and became an assistant to prominent directors such as Ahmed Kamel Morsi, Ibrahim Emara, Abbas Kamel and Hussein Fawzi.

His golden opportunity came when the well-known singer and actor Mohamed Fawzi, who founded a film production company in 1947, asked Rafla to direct the company's first film. It was The Mind on a Vacation, which was also the songstress and actress Shadia's debut.

Since his early beginnings, Rafla showed an obvious inclination towards the musical comedies genre, which was predominant following the end of World War II. He formed a successful duet with both Abo El-Seoud Al-Ebiary and Badie Khairy, who were grand masters in screenwriting. It was the most fertile period in Rafla's career as a director where 44 out of his total 71 films were made in his first 10 years. He was also the common denominator in the films of singers at the time.

He made with Mohamed Fawzi 14 films out of his 36. The most prominent were Fatma, Marika and Rachel (1949) and Miss Mammy (1950). He made 12 films starring Shadia and three films starring Abdel-Halim Hafez. They were Nights of Love (1955), My Prince Charming (1957) and Female Idol (1967) in which he reached the pinnacle in presenting the film song to the extent that many critics considered this film the perfect model for musical films.

He was behind the Algerian songstress Warda's debut in Almaz and Abdo El-Hamouly (1963) then he persuaded her to come out after years of retirement in The Sound of Love (1973). We may point to two films with Nagat Al-Saghira – whose film appearances were few – My Dear Daughter (1971) and The Tears have dried (1975).

Rafla wasn't the king of musical comedies due only to the number of films he directed, but also because he had a distinctive style in direction.

He was brilliant in using the available comedic capabilities to the utmost, especially that of Ismail Yassin, the comedic star of the time. He was adept in utlising singers in performing comedies whether Shadia, Farid Al-Atrash, Sabah, Mohamed Fawzi and even Abdel-Halim Hafez. Rafla’s most salient strength was his skillfulness in executing operettas, musical duets and even trios in a refined cinematic way through which his prowess in moving visually between the stars of the musical scene was done with agility and in precise tempo. In addition, he used to employ wide or panoramic shots in directing musical numbers as if they were on a real stage.

Rafla was also notable in making direct comedy built around one star, namely Ismail Yassin, who acted in 22 films under his direction, whether as a leading man as in The Millionaire (1950) and My Mother-in-Law is an Atomic Bomb (1951) or as a supporting actor in The Charming Mothers-in-Law (1953).

Rafla didn’t miss directing hot romantic dramas, which had a special appeal at the time. He directed Hoda (1949), The Soul Lover (1955) and No My Ex-Lover (1976). In the 1970s, Rafla began to present social dramas which sometimes weren’t without suspense, such as Housing Crisis (1972), The Happy Marriage (1974) and The Pickpocket (1985), which was released eight years after his death.

Rafla also directed films outside Egypt, including Daughter of the Sheikh (1970) in Lebanon, The Suitable Man (1970) in Syria, and Son of Africa (1970) in Nigeria in which a number of Egyptian actresses such as Nabila Ebeid and Madiha Kamel participated. It was rumoured that the film was a cover for an operation by Egyptian Intelligence to blow up an Israeli oil drilling rig in West Africa.

It is noteworthy that Rafla directed a film about the October 1973 War, which was one of the most successful films in this genre: The Great Faithfulness starring Naglaa Fathy and Mahmoud Yassin. This same couple were the stars of First Year of Love (1975) in which Rafla participated with four other directors in directing the film based on a novel by the well-known journalist Mustafa Amin.

In his final years Rafla suffered a number of illnesses that forced him to halt many artistic projects. He died 22 April 1978.

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