Is there anybody who is of a larger stature and has had a greater impact on comedy in the Arab world than Naguib El-Rihani?
His strength is obvious to everyone, from those who attempted to harm his reputation and belittle his impact to those who are learning, if not imitating, his performance style.
Above all, there are millions of viewers who adored what little of his art reached us.
What if this man had appeared in the time of television, or if he had lived longer and given us – as others have – dozens of films and plays?
El-Rihani was born Naguib Elyas El-Rihani in 1889 in Bab El-She'reya, a district in the heart of Old Cairo, to a father of Iraqi Chaldean Christian origin who worked in horse-trading and the gypsum trade and an Egyptian Coptic mother from Upper Egypt.
El-Rihani learned French at the Collège des Frères de la Salle, though he did not complete his education due to family circumstances as well as his fascination with acting.
El-Rihani was an accomplished stage actor and that his glory and name are engraved in the Egyptian theatre’s almanacs.
He acted in 81 plays between 1916 and 1949, though no known recording of them exists.
His most famous roles included The Egyptian Pound (1931), Men Don't Know How To Lie (1935), Five Till (1943).
However, it is on the cinema screen where he secured his artistic immortality and high stature.
Even though he was not initially enthusiastic about cinema and did not invest much into it, it was this medium that has captured a fraction of El-Rihani’s art: his husky voice, which is familiar and unmistakable, as well as his artistic style and school of acting that left its imprint on his theatre company’s members.
It is thanks to him that these members went on to become stars. Whether they acknowledge this fact or not, whether they admit his influence on them or not, they all bear his mark.
He also appeared in nine films between 1931 and 1949, of which seven survived. The latter works help us understand his genius and the art he represented.
Although the copies of two of his three early films were lost, the characters El-Rihani performed in both films, His Excellency Keshkesh Bey (1931) and His Highness Wants to Marry (1936), did not differ much from the characters he portrayed in theatres of the time.
A spirit of the theatre in cinema
The character of Keshkesh Bey, the mayor of Kafr El-Ballas, is exploited by traders in the morning at the Cotton Stock Exchange and at night by beautiful girls in casinos.
This character was similar to a clown, with no dialogue yet giving a performance that communicated well without words, according to El-Rihani’s own memoirs, which he published in 1937.
In front of the camera, El-Rihani used a lot of improvisation, often co-authoring the script with his friend Badie Khairy.
Starting with his fourth film Salama is Alright (1937), directed by Niazy Mostafa, El-Rihani began giving up on improvisation.
He reached the pinnacle of his artistic maturity in his last film, Flirtation of Girls (1949), directed by Anwar Wagdi.
The performance in Flirtation of Girls was a far cry from that of a man who began his life on the edge of clownishness, moving to presenting characters with depth and provoking thought.
The first thing one notices in El-Rihani's films is that the actor’s long theatrical experience immensely influenced his acting.
In film, the dialogue is at the forefront and the actors' movement is limited in comparison to theatre. There is also larger diversity in shot sizes and angles.
El-Rihani tried to find his own vocabulary within this kind of medium, always pushing theatre into it.
Even though such theatrical performances would in many instances not be accepted in film, we should not ignore how much El-Rihani influenced the directors with whom he worked, especially since all of them, with the exception of Anwar Wagdi, made their directorial debuts with El-Rihani.
Being a theatre icon, El-Rihani used his skill to portray contradicting emotions in one scene, moving cleverly between tragedy and comedy and inciting the laughter of the viewer.
By plucking the strings of feeling within the viewer, El-Rihani knew well how to gain the audience's sympathy before addressing their minds and driving them to contemplate; displaying the flexibility of a trapeze performer.
Unlike many other actors, El-Rihani's comedy did not aim to provoke laughter per se; he was rather satisfied with drawing even the most subtle smile on the faces of his audience, pushing them to think in the process.
El-Rihani died of typhoid on 8 June 1949 at the age of 60.
This article was previously published in 2017, marking Naguib El-Rihani’s 68th death memory
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