Remembering Leila Mourad: Egypt cinema's first female superstar

Ashraf Gharib, Saturday 18 Nov 2017

The singer and actress was born 17 February 1918 and died 21 November 1995, leaving an indelible legacy in Egyptian cinema

Leila Mourad
Leila Mourad (Photo: Al Ahram)

Until the mid-1940s and in spite of the passing of 20 years from the first Egyptian feature film, Egypt’s young cinema didn’t know the phenomenon of the “box office star”.

In its simplest form, this Hollywood term means that fans search for their favourite star and see him or her in every film, without paying attention to any other details. Thus, a star’s name can be enough to ensure a film’s success.

The birth of a box office star is what happened when Leila Zaki Mourad — known as Leila Mourad, born 17 February 1918 to Jewish parents and an artistic family — appeared in Long Live Love (1938). She passed away 21 November 1995, leaving behind a large legacy in Egyptian cinema.

Leila Mourad came to the world of cinema from the field of singing. Her voice only graced The Victims (1935), directed by Mario Volpe. However, she didn’t achieve the success other competing songstresses did in their films.

Mourad herself didn’t consider her cinematic career was launched except with Long Live Love, with the famous singer Mohamed Abdel-Wahab as male lead and directed by Mohamed Karim. And her entire artistic career rested on this debut success. The film was a hit largely due to Abdel-Wahab’s huge popularity. It was also known that Karim, the director, wasn’t convinced of this young songstress whom Abdel-Wahab brought and imposed on the director. Nevertheless, the film’s reception was enough to give Leila Mourad impetus to continue on the silver screen, even without Abdel-Wahab.

Mourad found her ideal director in the form of Jewish producer and director Togo Mizrahi. He recognised the potential star in her, an actress to fit the tastes of the late 1930s and the early 1940s, with weepy melodramas dominating cinema halls at the time.

Mizrahi pushed Leila to acquire what she lacked in order to be a cinematic actress. He was able to work on her shyness, which Mohamed Karim had criticised, emboldened her in facing the camera, and trained her on facial expression and voice colouring.

Mizrahi directed her in five consecutive films between 1939 and 1944, monopolising her talent during those five years. Those films are: A Rainy Night, Leila, The Girl from the Countryside, Leila the School Girl, and Leila in the Darkness.

All the indicators were that Mourad was close to the throne of stardom, but she needed to accumulate more success, not to be just a star but an extraordinary star in the Hollywood mould.

She also needed to be liberated from the tragedies and weepy melodramas she made with Mizrahi. Falling into the trap of repetition, those films bore a degree of danger for the rising star, because what remained in the viewer’s mind was Leila’s aura and sweet voice.

Even her subsequent film, after Mizrahi’s five films, Martyrs of Passion (1944), directed by Kamal Selim, was set in an old historical atmosphere and adapted from the Romeo and Juliet tragedy. It was as if Selim, the father of realism in Egyptian cinema, forsook his realist approach in order to confirm the mental image connected to Leila Mourad.

Mourad was in need of another director to bring her closer to the viewers’ seats, remove the solemnity of tragedies and liberate her from the constraints and demands of an elite audience. She needed a man who knew well how to pursue a commercial formula without abandoning artistic calibre. This man was Anwar Wagdi.

Anwar Wagdi acted along with Leila Mourad in three films: Leila, the Girl from the Countryside, Leila in the Darkness and Martyrs of Passion, albeit in secondary male roles.

Leila Mourad’s ninth film, Leila Daughter of the Poor (1945), marked the emergence of Wagdi as the sole person responsible for Leila Mourad’s films; as a producer, distributor, director and a leading man, and even sometimes a co-scriptwriter, becoming the manager and guide of Leila Mourad’s talent.

Leila made seven films with him between 1945 and 1953. They were, chronologically: Leila Daughter of the Poor, Leila Daughter of the Rich, My Heart is My Guide, Ember, Flirtation of Girls, Soulmate, The Aristocrat and Passion and the Youth. In all of those films, produced and directed by Niazi Mostafa, the pair played the leading roles.

Those films were the most successful in Leila Mourad’s cinematic career and were the reason behind her extraordinary popularity throughout the 1940s and the 1950s, and after her forced retirement in 1955, and even after her death on 21 November 1995.

Leila Mourad and Anwar Wagdi
Leila Mourad and Anwar Wagdi (Photo: Al Ahram)

Leila Mourad and Anwar Wagdi: The making of success

We may wonder why Leila Mourad achieved this exceptional success in her collaboration with Anwar Wagdi. The answer is entangled in several facts.

With the end of World War II and the rise of a new social class due to political, economic developments, Anwar Wagdi realised that the Egyptian audience's tastes began to move away from tragedies to comedy and musical films or their combination. This genre suited the low classes who constituted the majority of cinema goers.

We can notice the sudden change in the content of Leila Mourad’s films from Togo Mizrahi’s melodramas to musical comedies with Anwar Wagdi which reached their pinnacle in Flirtation of Girls (1949).

With the change to this mould, Leila Mourad became more vivacious and mobile and consequently more enchanting and magical. Her fans identified themselves more with her, even off screen.

Despite Anwar Wagdi’s reliance on the musical comedies mould, he, as the maker of Mourad’s films, didn’t lean too much on the side of low class comedies prevalent at the time. He rather maintained a kind of distinctive milieu for the actress that allowed her to keep an audience belonging to the middle and aristocratic classes — the cultured segment reminiscent of the fans of Togo Mizrahi’s stage.

For her part, Mourad didn’t want to lose the fans of classical tragedies when she acted with other directors, as in The Unknown Past (1946) directed by Ahmed Salem, and her films Fate’s Strike and The Valley’s Songstress, both directed by Youssef Wahbi in 1947, as well as Adam and Eve (1951) by Hussein Sedki or The Train’s Lady (1952) by Youssef Chahine. In addition, she was the leading lady in romantic dramas such as Passion Beach in (1950) and Heart to Heart (1951), both directed by Henri Barakat.

In Leila Mourad’s musical comedies, Anwar Wagdi proved capable of superbly blending the artistic and the commercial formula. Thus, he assembled the very best comedians of the time, such as Bishara Wakim, Hassan Fayeq, Ismail Yassin, Aziz Othman and Zinat Sedki, who became the staple in those films, as well as the giant of comedy Naguib Al-Rihani whose acting alongside Leila Mourad in Flirtation of Girls was a unique event nobody had expected.

Anwar Wagdi also spent with largesse on this film’s songs and dance routines and brought the best elements to ensure success in music composition, lyrics, choreography, costumes and extras. Thus, the routines appeared to be on equal footing with those of Hollywood.

One of the consequences of adopting the musical comedy mould was that Mourad’s songs were liberated from solemnity in both lyrics and melodies, for which she was known in her previous films. The songs’ vocabulary came closer to reality and the way ordinary people talk. As for the melodies, they became faster and more slender. Consequently, they gained in immortality.

The marriage of Anwar Wagdi and Leila Mourad in 1945 contributed to cementing the success of this artistic duo and increasing their credibility among viewers, especially that Leila and Anwar were the only artistic couple who were married in real life. In contrast, the off-screen relationship between Farid Al-Atrash and Samia Gamal was full of tension that eventually prevented their marriage.

Anwar Wagdi was clever in providing innovative methods in publicity making for Leila Mourad, or more precisely for his films with Leila Mourad, that reached the extent of pulling the audience into their marital problems and asking their counsel. Definitely, this led the audience to be more attached to their favourite female star and follow her professional and personal news as if they were members of the same family. That was what Anwar Wagdi wanted. It goes without saying that this increased ticket sales.

In short, Leila Mourad reached with Anwar Wagdi the apex of her artistic and popular success. As a result, Mourad became more confident in other cinematic experiences with other directors.

She was the leading lady in soft romantic films, such as Passion Beach, and in human tragedy, in The Mad Woman (1949) directed by Helmy Rafla and The Train Lady in which she was bold enough to act as an old lady whose hair was grey with wrinkles covering her face. After her separation from Anwar Wagdi, and backed by the success they achieved together, Leila Mourad produced and played the leading lady in Life is Love (1954), directed by Seif El-Din Shawkat. Her last film was The Unknown Lover (1955), directed by Hassan El-Siefi.

Leila Mourad will remain an exceptional case among Egyptian cinema stars, for she was forced to retire when she was only 37 years old, at the peak of her artistic maturity and cinematic glory. In spite of her retirement, she preserved her stature and popularity for the four following decades, and even 22 years after her death.

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