Remembering Ismail Yassin: The name and the films

Ashraf Gharib, Wednesday 24 May 2017

During his career, launched in 1935 and continued until his death in 1972, Yassin acted in hundreds of films and several dozens of theatre plays

Ismail Yassin In the Army
(Photo: still from Ismail Yassin In the Army)

Today, 24 May, comes the 45th anniversary of the death of the most famous Egyptian comedian, Ismail Yassin.

Born in 1912, Yassin spent over four decades entertaining viewers of his many films and theatre plays, leaving an important imprint on Egypt's cultural history. 

Through satellite TV reruns, specialists began to rediscover this artist and shed light on his career, which was full of public successes — success Ismail Yassin couldn’t have achieved if he didn’t meet his career’s companion, director Fateen Abdel-Wahab.

Perhaps it is one of the fate’s surprises that Ismail Yassin, who was older than Fateen Abdel-Wahab (1913-1972) by one year, died only 11 days after Abdel-Wahab. It is believed that Yassin's health began to deteriorate rapidly after attending the funeral of his career’s companion. 

The Ghost House (1951) was the first film they worked on together and their successful collaboration yielded another 15 films, the last one being The Three Musketeers (1962). Their joint success reached a pinnacle in the film series that bore Yassin’s name in their titles.

Until 7 February 1954, when Fateen Abdel-Wahab’s eighth film, Miss Hanafi, with Ismail Yassin as the leading man was shown, Fateen’s previous seven films didn’t achieve the resounding success that would permit him to impose his word and style on the film market.

In spite of the first film’s success, Fateen was in need of a box office smash hit to reclassify him and transfer him to the big directors’ platform. This is what Miss Hanafi achieved. On the other hand, Ismail Yassin, who acted before this film in 142 films, was suffering from swinging between the leading man roles as in Filfil, The Smart and The Millionaire, supporting roles as in Pickpocket Lady, The Charming Mothers-in-law and Dahab and also joint leading roles as in The Ghost House and The Word of Truth.

Hence, he was waiting for the film through which to grab the audience, critics and producers’ acknowledgement of being worthy to be the sole leading man with nobody sharing with him this role. At the same time, he was in need of a director capable of highlighting his comedic energies and redefining his artistic persona away from the flood of accusations and criticisms that were chasing him.

This awaited film was Miss Hanafi directed by Fateen Abdel-Wahab. Due to its smash hit success, the year 1954 was the year of Ismail Yassin’s big launch.

Suffice to mention that it was the second most prolific year in his cinematic career (18 films) and the year in which he formed his theatrical company that continued until 1966. It was also the year that witnessed the film series that bore Ismail Yassin’s name in their titles, reaching 16 films. The extent of this series’ success drove film producers sometimes to put Ismail Yassin’s name in the title then search for a story for it.

Everything in Miss Hanafi was foretelling that it will be a milestone in the Egyptian comedy film genre; the story was new and unfamiliar and had a factual basis where a young man was transformed after a surgery into a girl who suffered from the society’s harsh outlook towards her.

The film’s treatment was made by a writer and a journalist known for his satirical language, Galil Al-Bindary, as well as Ismail Yassin’s capabilities and through a cinematic language Fateen used to create a film that he wanted it to be shocking to society without the audience losing the entertainment element.

Miss Hanafi’s success encouraged directors and producers to quickly exploit this sudden popularity of the film’s hero and made two subsequent films bearing his name, Ismail Yassin’s Adventures directed by Youssef Maalouf and Ismail Yassin’s Ghost by Hassan El-Seifi. Although the leading man in the first film was Kamal Al-Shennawi, it was a proof of Ismail Yassin’s evident popularity.

Fateen Abdel-Wahab also had to benefit from the popularity he contributed to creating for Ismail Yassin, or at least attempt to present the comedy that he desired, leaning on Ismail Yassin’s sweeping popularity. Hence, Fateen decided to catch up with the series of films bearing Ismail Yassin’s name in their titles. It seems that artistic reasons blended with political considerations, but in the end they were the most mature films that bore Yassin's name in their titles.

Gamal Abdel-Nasser sought to benefit from Ismail Yassin's popularity in order to attract the ordinary Egyptian citizen to enlist in the soldiery's life and eradicate the grim image established in the minds about the nature of the Egyptian soldier. Fateen Abdel-Wahab's film Ismail Yassin in the Army was the fourth after Ismail Yassin's Adventures, Ismail Yassin’s Ghost and Ismail Yassin meeting Raya and Sekina. 

It does not come as a coincidence that Ismail Yassin in the Army was the brainchild of two men who basically belonged to the military institution; namely, the screenwriter Major Abdel-Moniem Al-Sibai and director Fateen Abdel-Wahab who was an ex-army captain. Moreover, Fateen was the only director to direct all the six soldiery films ending with Ismail Yassin in the Undercover Police.

At the same time, he didn't tend to commercially exploit the phenomenon of Ismail Yassin's films and left others to present "Ismail Yassin in the Wax Museum," "Ismail Yassin in Damascus" and "Ismail Yassin for Sale," among others. This points out that he was the only director trusted to do this mission or he had a certain specific message that coincided with the assignment he received from President Nasser who usually entrusted military personnel or those who previously belonged to the military establishment to execute such missions.

That happened with the director Ezz-Eldin Zulfikar in the films My Heart is Restored which immortalised the July Revolution and Port Said that glorified the resistance of this valiant city during the Tripartite Aggression in 1956.

Finally, it isn't a coincidence that Nasser attended the special screening of Ismail Yassin in the Army, the first in the soldiery films. It was the only time that Nasser attended a public screening of Ismail Yassin's films.

What's more important is that the film was screened in Diana Cinema House, 23 July 1955, in the climax of jubilation of the revolution's third anniversary. This meaning was asserted by screening the next film in the series, Ismail in the Police, also in Diana Cinema House on 16 July 1956, in celebration of the revolution's fourth anniversary.

We also notice that Ismail Yassin himself was different in these films which were directed by Fateen from the rest of the films that bore his name in their titles and were directed by others. For Fateen was capable of making Ismail committed to the written script and dialogue, pulling him away from the edge of farce and clowning and offering him the chance to give a more mature acting performance that sometimes reached tragedy.

The same goes for Yassin’s performance in other films directed by Fateen and not in the aforementioned series, such as Son of Hamidu, Al-Ataba Al-Khadra and The Magic Lantern. But – and to everyone's surprise – the last films both men collaborated in missed the usual luster and special magic, except The Magic Lantern (1960). After Ismail Yassin in the Undercover Police (1959), Yassin’s presence seemed to faint.

Perhaps it was understandable that Ismail Yassin appeared that way in The Ladies’ Hairdresser (1960) because he participated in it in support for his lifelong friend, Abdel-Salam Al-Nabulsi, who wrote and produced this film in order to play the leading man. Nothing was needed except supporting a colleague who many a time played a solid supporting role in Yassin’s films.

However, what Fateen did to his favourite star in the two films They’ll drive Me Mad (1960) and The Three Musketeers (1962) proves that he had nothing to give to Ismail Yassin and that actor whom he made through his name and fame had exhausted his purposes.

Fateen did well when he decided after The Three Musketeers to stop their artistic collaboration with his career companion out of respect for their long history and the successful films they made together; especially that Fateen at the time was taking a step towards another stage along with another star ascending the ladder of the leading man, Fouad El-Mohandes.

What’s surprising is that Ismail Yassin who seemed faint in his last films with Fateen Abdel-Wahab was more present – at the time – with other directors, such as Hussein Fawzi in Passion in the Circus, Issa Karama in A Husband for Hire and Hassan El-Seifi in Ismail Yassin in Prison and King of Oil.

Did Fateen feel that the artistic relationship between him and Ismail really reached the point of saturation that can be harmful to both if they didn’t notice it? Maybe. Did the big director have faith in Ismail Yassin’s acting capabilities or did he ride the winning horse of the 1950s and nothing more?

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