Remembering Abdel-Moneim Madbouly: The knight of comedy

Ashraf Gharib, Sunday 9 Jul 2017

Abdel-Moneim Madbouly died 9 July 2006, leaving a legacy of over 30 films and a distinct style of theatrical acting

Abdel-Moneim Madbouly in Raya and Sakina (Photo: still from video of the play)

When in December 1921 Abdel-Moneim Madbouly was born in Bab El-Shereya, a popular quarter in the heart of Cairo, Naguib El-Rihani, born in the same neighbourhood, was the number one comedy star and at the pinnacle of his artistic success.

Madbouly grew up hearing his neighbours speaking proudly of El-Rihani and the singer Mohamed Abdel-Wahab, who also belonged to the same neighbourhood. He became fascinated with the arts of singing and acting in order to be like both stars.

Since preparatory school, the young boy began to sing on festive occasions for both his family and neighbourhood and act in school activities to the extent that it harmed his progress as a student. Soon, his family decided to enrol him in the School of Applied Arts to study sculpture and decor.

Madbouly remained a teacher in the establishment, even after graduating from the Higher Institute for Acting and becoming a well-known actor.

Abdel-Moneim Madbouly’s career path has a strange irony. Although he has spent his entire life in the theatre as an actor, playwright, translator, director and owner of many theatre companies, his popularity and artistic stardom, especially among modern generations, was due to the roles he played in cinema and television.

Madbouly, who was one of the Higher Institute for Acting’s second alumni in 1949, joined a number of theatre companies, such as the Free Theatre, the Modern Theatre, and the Television Theatre Company in the 1960s.

He became a luminary in Egyptian theatre in the second half of the 20th century and had a unique comedy style that was rendered a school for generations to come. Most people only called him "Baba Abdou," a famous character he played in the television series My Dear Sons, Thank You.

He is best remembered for his two prominent roles in the films The Grandchild (1974) directed by Atef Salem, and What Chaos (1975) by Hussein Kamal.

Although his plays, such as I, He and She, Hello Shalaby, Paradise Hotel, My Best Regards, and Raya and Sakina, are unforgettable, cinema has capacity to preserve the actor’s work.

Madbouly began his cinematic career as a non-speaking extra. Then he began to play a speaking extra in a number of roles, the most prominent of which was Mutual Love (1951) directed by Youssef Maalouf. Bit by bit, the space of his roles began to widen in tandem with his growing fame thanks to the well-known radio programme Comedy Hour presented by Egyptian radio in the 1950s.

This programme was the training ground for comedy stars such as Fouad El-Mohandes, Amin El-Heneidy, Abdel-Moneim Ibrahim and others.

The credit of bringing Madbouly to attention in cinema, however, goes to director Salah Abu-Seif who cast him in 1959 in the film Between Heaven and Earth, as a pickpocket stuck with 13 characters in a lift that went out of order in a Cairo building.

This film was a sensation upon release, and to this day is considered a classic. Madbouly became a sought-after face in the cinema of the 1960s.

He acted in more than 70 films, the last of which was I Want to Divorce My Husband (2005), released a year before his death on 9 July 2006. He was 85 years old.

We can look at Madbouly’s career on the silver screen in light of a number of observations. Madbouly co-wrote many of the films he acted in, with the exception of two: I, He and She, which was adapted from a foreign source, and Entry Highly Risky, which was adapted from a radio series written by him.

Madbouly was never cast as a leading man, coming closest in playing joint leading roles like in Quarter of a Dozen Villains (1970) directed by Nagdy Hafez. Nevertheless, he left his mark in every role he performed, no matter how small.

In many films all the audience would remember was his performance and his jokes. Some examples are Romantic Chase (1968) directed by Nagdy Hafez, For the Sake of a Bunch of Kids (1969) by Ibrahim Emara, and The Grandchild (1974) by Atef Salem. Perhaps such films engraved Abdel-Moneim Madbouly’s name in our collective memory until today.

Despite classifying Madbouly as a comedian, he successful also in non-comedy films. At times he was a smile that softened a film’s dark events, like in A Little Bit of Torment (1969) directed by Salah Abu-Seif, The Mirror (1970) by Ahmed Diaeddin, Some live Twice (1971) by Kamal Attia, Legs in the Mud (1976) by Atef Salem, and A Smile of Sad Eyes (1987) by Nasser Hussein.

Abdel-Moneim Madbouly tried to break free from comedic roles and attempted to play light or concealed villainy roles. as in Love in the Prison Cell (1983) directed by Mohammed Fadel. However, audiences did not accept this shift and preferred he return to more popular films.

In We are the Bus People (1979), directed by Hussein Kamal, Madbouly co-lead alongside Adel Imam, the superstar of Egyptian cinema in that period. It wasn’t a comedy role, even if the film started as a traditional comedy. Soon it turned dark, ending up in a heart-breaking and tragic atmosphere. These dramatic shifts allowed Madbouly to show his acting abilities, which filmmakers had locked away for a long time in comedic roles.

The commercial and critical success achieved by We are the Bus People encouraged Madbouly to play different roles; especially that he had similar success in his previous film, What Chaos (1975), with the same director. In that film, he sang his famous song, When Time was Humane.

Following these two films, he began performing a number of roles that suited his age, mainly through important TV series, such as My Dear Sons, Thank You, Goodbye Prime of Life, The Family, and No, My Dear Daughter.

Although his final roles were more like guest appearances, they were very influential in their dramatic context for exuding noble human emotion in films such as The Woman and the Cleaver (1996) directed by Saeed Marzouk, the Lovers (2001) by Nour El-Sherif, I Want My Share (2003) by Ahmed Nader Galal, and his last film, I Want to Divorce My Husband (2005) by Ahmed Awwad.

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