The golden age of Egyptian cinema

Dina Al-Mahdy, Tuesday 7 Apr 2020

The recent loss of the last princess of Egyptian cinema’s golden age, actress Nadia Lotfi, has reawakened many memories of the remarkable figures of this era

Studio Misr

Egyptian people love films. Even before the advent of television, videos and DVDs, going to the cinema was a favourite form of entertainment.

This infatuation dates back to the late 19th century, with the first screening of a motion picture in Egypt in Alexandria in 1896. In November 1896, several venues in Alexandria and Cairo hosted some of the earliest-known screenings of the world’s first short film directed by the French Lumière Brothers. The projection of the film, which took place in the Toussoun Pasha Palace in Alexandria, came less than a year after it was first shown to the world in Paris.

“Egypt had a love affair and deep connection with moving pictures right from the beginning,” says Osama Asal, an Egyptian film critic and writer. “Just a week after the films of the Lumière Brothers made their debut in Europe in 1895, they were shown at the prestigious cafes of Alexandria and Cairo,” he added.

Hamama and Sherif

The Lumière Brothers monopolised the scene until 1906, when the French Pathé and the Italian Irnapora companies joined the market in Egypt. The industry then gradually Egyptianised with the arrival of new cinematic techniques such as scenes shot on location and sound effects, attracting more Egyptians to work in the industry.

“The industry developed from silent movies to talkies, with musicals being the bulk of the productions in the 1930s and 1940s,” Asal said. “It was a time of light movies, of love, of songs, and often about the rich class and what their life was like.” It has been called the golden age of Arab cinema, a period from the late 1940s to 1960s when Arab actors from across the Middle East headed to stardom in Cairo.

Between 1930 and 1936, various small studios produced at least 44 feature films. In 1935, Studio Misr, financed by industrialist Talaat Harb, emerged as a hub of cinematic creativity and produced many of Egypt’s film classics and became the Egyptian equivalent to Hollywood’s major studios, a role that the company retained for three decades.  

Fatma Rouchdi

“Egypt is where people from across the Arab world went to become stars and to make names for themselves,” Asal said. “Actresses and actors all became Egyptian in the sense that they learnt and adopted the local dialect. Some even became citizens. When a film was a success in Egypt, it was a success across the Arab world.”

Big names were often compared to Hollywood stars: Hind Rostom became the Marilyn Monroe of Arabia; Roshdi Abaza the Arab Clark Gable; Mahmoud Al-Meligi the Anthony Quinn of the East; Anwar Wagdi the Arabian Robert Taylor; Fayrouz the Shirley Temple of Egypt; and Soad Hosni the Cinderella of Egyptian cinema.

To celebrate Egyptian cinema, many government bodies hold international film festivals annually, such as the Cairo, Alexandria and El Gouna International Film Festivals. In 2007, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina also celebrated the birth of the seventh art in Alexandria by paying tribute to Alexandrian cinema stars. On the fringes of the event, it launched “The Alex Cinema: The Birth of the Seventh Art in Alexandria” website, which includes a huge amount of information on the history of Egyptian cinema.

“Alexandria played a pioneering role in the establishment of the Egyptian cinema industry. Its early cinematographers were amateurs who experimented with this new form of art and were often scriptwriters, directors, actors and producers all in one. The first studios and films were Alexandrian, and Alexandrian by definition meant a mixture of foreigners resident in the city and Egyptians,” the website says.

The Lumière Brothers

“As the art and the industry flourished, cinema-makers gradually moved to Cairo where there was a larger audience and where the newly created Studio Misr provided sophisticated equipment. Now, a hundred years later, Alex Cinema explores the history of the birth of the seventh art in Alexandria, and the attempt to revive the art of film making in the city of its birth,” it adds.

Laila, 1927

BEGINNINGS: A limited number of silent films were made in Egypt, beginning in 1896. But Cairo’s film industry only really became a regional force with the coming of sound.

Historians disagree in determining the beginning of cinema in Egypt. Some say it was in 1896, when the first film was projected in Egypt, while others date the beginning to June 1907 with a short documentary film about the visit of the khedive Abbas Helmi II to the Institute of Morsi Abul-Abbas in Alexandria.

“Regardless of the famous first cinema projection in Alexandria that took place before the new century unfolded, establishing Egypt as one of the few nations to see the development of the new seventh art, Egypt had the only film industry in the region for decades. The specific political status of the country post 1919, the British recognition of Egyptian independence, and the new constitution all resulted in making Egyptians modern citizens of the world. They were represented as such at international gatherings and summits,” Ahmed Nabil, an Alexandrian documentary filmmaker, said.

In 1917, the director Mohamed Karim established a production company in Alexandria that went on to produce two films, Dead Flowers and Honour the Bedouin, which were shown in Alexandria in early 1918. Since then, more than 4,000 films have been produced in Egypt, or about three-quarters of total Arab film production. Egypt is now the most productive country in the Middle East in the field of films and the one with the most developed media system.

Studio Amon Films was the first studio to be established by an Egyptian, Mohamed Bayoumi, in 1923, making him a pioneer in laying the foundations of authentic Egyptian cinema. It was then that Bayoumi met Talaat Harb, the founder of Bank Misr, and from that encounter the idea of building Studio Misr emerged. This was the first film studio in the real sense of the word, not only in Egypt but also in the entire Arab world.

Aziza Amir

According to filmmaker Mohamed Zeidan, “the official beginning of Egyptian cinema was in 1927, with the screening of notable full-length feature films like Kiss in the Desert and Layla by Stephen Rosti. These were technically accomplished films, with those coming before being much shorter and more primitive.”

Once the talking feature-film had been established in 1936, films started to be made in the genres of farce, melodrama, and musicals. These were collaborations by established musicians, singers, and actors, including actor and theatre director Youssef Wahbi, comedian Naguib Al-Rihani, and singers Um Kolthoum, Mohamed Abdel-Wahab, Farid Al-Attrash, Asmahan, Shadia, Sabah, and Layla Morad.

But the 1940s to the 1960s are generally perceived as the golden age of Egyptian cinema. The “Hollywood of the Orient” and the “Hollywood on the Nile” were names given to the film industry in Egypt at the time, with this growing after World War II partially because of difficulties in acquiring American and European films.

Egypt’s cinema industry was the world’s third largest in the 1950s. As in the West, films responded to the popular imagination, with most falling into predictable genres (happy endings being the norm), and many actors making careers out of playing leading characters. In the words of one critic, “if an Egyptian film intended for popular audiences lacked any of these prerequisites, it constituted a betrayal of the unwritten contract with the spectator, the results of which would manifest themselves at the box office.”

For Samir Farid, a well-known film critic, the period between 1933 and 1963 was the golden era. The state began to play a much larger role in the economy and society, and it used all the tools of that time to express ideas flourishing within the nation, including films. The growing industry of films benefited from markets in the wider Arab region, as they were distributed in the major countries. With the distribution of the films came political support for Egypt and its leadership at the time.

Zainab, 1930

FORTIES TO SIXTIES: In 1940, the entrepreneur Anis Ebeid established Anis Ebeid Films as the first subtitling company in Egypt and the Middle East, bringing hundreds of American and world movies to Egypt. Later on, he entered the movie distribution business as well.

Until the late 1950s, it was difficult to differentiate between Egyptian, American, Italian and French films on a technical level. Egypt established a dominant position as the capital of the Arab film world powered by the mighty Studio Misr and international stars such as the young Omar Sharif and Faten Hamama. From that point until the 1960s, people could enjoy a steady stream of marvellous films that even today have a special influence on Arab citizens to the extent that they aspire to produce contemporary colour films as enchanting as these black-and-white classics.

The 1960s witnessed the emergence of a new generation of filmmakers, spearheaded by Hussein Kamal’s films Al-Mustahil (Impossible), Al-Bustagi (The Mailman), and Shi’ min Al-Khawf (A Bit of Fear) and Shadi Abdel-Salam’s masterpiece Al-Mummiaa (The Mummy). Many other films of the 1960s are considered treasures of Egyptian cinema, including Al-Haram (The Sin), Al-Nasser Salaheddin (Saladin), and Al-Qahera 30 (Cairo 1930), all of which were produced under the auspices of the public sector. Some of these films did not make money at the time, but they are internationally recognised and have stood the test of time.

The success of the industry at the time can be attributed to many factors, including the romantic relationships between the prominent stars on the screen. Co-starring in many films, romantic couples, icons of classic Egyptian cinema, were either happily married, or were living out their own love stories, for example.

In the 1940s, the actor, producer and director Anwar Wagdi and the singer and actress Layla Morad became one of the classic romantic couples of Egyptian cinema. They fell in love in 1941 during the filming of Laila bint Al-Reef (Laila, the Girl from the Countryside), and Wagdi achieved particular success after partnering with Murad in a series of blockbuster films such as Laila fil Zalam (Laila in the Shadows) and Laila Bint Al-Fuqara (Laila, Daughter of the Poor). Shortly after their marriage, the two co-starred in six films. When they divorced, they ceased their partnership in any further film productions.

Murad and Wagdi

Another prominent couple was made up of producer and director Hussein Fawzi and actress Naima Akef. After discovering her artistic talent in Fatat Al-Cirk (The Girl of the Circus), Fawzi decided to partner with Akef, whose career skyrocketed to star in numerous films produced by Nahhas Films, the most famous production and distribution company in the Arab world at the time. During their ten-year relationship, which eventually turned into romance, Fawzi directed and produced around 15 musicals starring Akef.

The third remarkable couple was actress Shadia and actor Salah Zulfikar. Shadia started her long career by playing heavily melodramatic roles, such as that of a simple girl seduced by a male protagonist and facing a series of tragedies and injustices. After her second marriage, she performed mainly in light comedy roles. She then divorced her first spouse, actor Emad Hamdi, and married Zulfikar, co-starring with him in romantic comedies such as Afreet Merati (My Wife’s Ghost), Merati Moudir Aam (My Wife the General Manager), Karamet Zawgati (My Wife’s Dignity), and Aghla min Hayati (More Precious than my Life).

Another immortal cinematic and romantic couple was made up of Omar Sharif and Faten Hamama. In 1954, Sharif starred in Shaytan Al-Sahara (The Devil of the Desert), but his first major film role was in Siraa Fil-Wadi (Struggle in the Valley) alongside Hamama. Their love began when they worked together in the latter film, directed by Youssef Chahine, and though born a Catholic Sharif changed his name and converted to Islam to marry Hamama in 1955.

This was a marriage that lasted for 20 years and became a symbol of love for Egyptian audiences, with the two stars appearing together in films like Ayamna Al-Helwa (Our Beautiful Days), Nahr Al-Hobb (River of Love), Sayedat Al-Kasr (The Lady of the Palace), and Siraa fil-Meena (Struggle in the Port), among others. In the 1960s, Sharif achieved international stardom by acting in the film Lawrence of Arabia alongside Peter O’Toole, as well as in Dr Zhivago and Funny Girl. While the 1960s were the busiest years of Sharif’s career, they also took a toll on his marriage with Hamama, and the couple shocked their fans by getting a divorce in 1974.

A fifth prominent couple was Ihab Nafea and Magda. Passionate about cinema, air fighter pilot Nafea married the Egyptian star Magda and became famous for his roles with her in films such as Hijrat Al-Rasoul (The Migration of the Prophet) and Al-Hakika Al-Ariya (The Naked Truth). Their last film together was Al-Naddaha (The Caller) in the 1970s and was followed by their divorce.  

Last but not least, there was the famous couple of actress Soad Hosni and director Ali Badrakhan, who were married for 11 years during which they presented landmark productions like Al-Karnak (Karnak), Ahl Al-Qimma (People at the Top), Shafika wa Metwalli (Shafika and Metwalli), Al-Gou (The Hunger), and Al-Hob alazi Kan (Bygone Love). Their last film together, Al-Raai wal-Nisaa (The Shepherd and the Women), was followed by divorce.  

Shadia and Zulfikar

CHILD STARS: A significant factor that enriched the Egyptian film industry was the emergence of child stars, who succeeded in performing important leading roles.

Ahmed Farahat, born in 1950, was an actor in his childhood and played his first role before completing his studies at elementary school in Mugrim fi Agaza (A Criminal on Vacation, 1958). He starred in several movies with famous actors such as Sharie Al-Hobb (Street of Love) with singer Abdel-Halim Hafez, Ishaait Hobb (A Rumour of Love) with Omar Sharif and Soad Hosni, and Ser Taaeyet Al-Ekhfa (The Secret of the Vanishing Cap) with Abdel-Moneim Ibrahim.

Fayrouz, born in 1943, was a cinema icon who was often referred to as the “Shirley Temple of Egypt”. She was born to an Armenian-Egyptian family and had a thriving career in the 1950s, working in films at a very young age until she was discovered by director Anwar Wagdi who gave her the name Fayrouz in his black-and-white films that were extremely successful at the time. Her career spanned over 10 years and 10 films, mostly musical comedies such as Yasmine (1950), Feyrouz Hane, Dahab, and Al-Hirman (Deprivation). Her last role was in Bafakkar fi elli Naseeni (Thinking of the One who Forgot Me, 1959). She retired from acting while still young and married the actor Badreddin Gamgoum.  

Zizi (also known as Ekram Ezzo) started her childhood career in 1959, when she played numerous roles including in Emraa Maghoula (An Unknown Woman) and Min Agl Hobbi (For My Love). However, her most famous role was in Al-Fanous Al-Sihri (The Magic Lantern, 1960), where she co-starred with comedian Ismail Yassin. She was known as a child who brings luck, which encouraged producers to ask her to participate in their films, co-starring with Souad Hosni, Ahmed Ramzi and Fouad Al-Mohandess in the famous Ailet Zizi (Zizi’s Family).

She starred in Al-Sabaa Banat (The Seven Girls) with Abdel-Salam Nabolsi, and her last film was Al-Zog Al-Aazab (The Single Husband, 1966) with Hind Rostom.


WOMEN’S CONTRIBUTIONS: Egyptian women played an important role in the development of Egyptian film.

“Film critics credit Talaat Harb as one of the pioneers of Egypt’s home-grown industry because he founded Studio Misr in 1935, which became one of the major studios. Yet, not many people know that the Egyptian Cinema was pioneered by women in production and acting before the establishment of Studio Misr. The 1920s, 1930s, and the 1940s were the golden age of the cinematic industry led by women,” said Zeidan.

Before the establishment of Studio Misr, female stars who played a prominent role in the production of Egyptian films tackled various societal problems in them, and producing films, as well as acting in them, created a path for women led by women, hence creating a cinema for women by women. “Women did not only play a remarkable role in Egyptian cinema, they also played a leading role in the establishment of this industry in comparison with other cinemas all over the world. Surprisingly, the role of female directors in Egyptian cinema has outmatched their counterparts in many world cinemas,” Zeidan said.

Men like Youssef Wahbi and Naguib Al-Rihani offered acting opportunities to talented actresses, allowing them to become the first women in Egypt to appear on screen without a veil. Not only did such women have their own studios, but they also had strong characters, and they included women filmmakers and pioneers like Aziza Amir (1901-1952), known as a true pioneer of Egyptian cinema in both acting and producing, Fatima Roshdi (1908-1996), an actress, film director, and producer, and Assia Dagher (1904-1986), born in Lebanon and moving to Cairo with her niece May Queeny in 1919 after the French occupation.

Queeny (1916-2003), like her aunt, was an actress and film producer, and there was also Amina Mohamed (1908-1985), a dancer, actress, film director and journalist, and Bahiga Hafez (1908-1983), a producer, actress, costume designer and composer.

Women played a pivotal role in the cinema industry not only in terms of directing or producing, but also in terms of acting in leading roles. In the first half of the 20th century, famous actresses like Faten Hamama starred in films like Doaa Al-Karawan (The Call of the Curlew) and Al-Haram (The Sin) directed by Henry Barakat and produced by his wife Queeny. The actress Magda also produced and starred in many films highlighting the issues of Egyptian women, as did Madiha Yousri, Shadia, and many others.

After the 1952 Revolution, feminist issues were sidelined by nationalist ideology, and the regime played a larger role in the cinema industry. Critic Rasha Al-Allam notes that “women were portrayed as educationally incompetent to men.” A new wave of films criticised independent women and applauded “traditional women” such as in the film Shabab Emraaa (Youth of a Woman), which associated independence with misbehaviour. This wave was opposed by feminist movies such as Ana Horra (I am Free) and Al-Bab Al-Maftouh (The Open Door), which plot rebellion against stifling norms and portray women’s fight for freedom.

ADAPTATIONS: At its outset, cinema documented real-life scenes such as in the famous French film Workers Leaving the Factory in 1895.

Later, filmmakers began to adapt short stories to produce short films in the form of theatrical performances. Many directors started to pay attention to international classics that could be adapted into short films.

When cinema was introduced in Egypt, short silent films were produced based on plays such as those by Shakespeare, but most of these were lost. In 1930, the first major Egyptian novel, Zainab by Mohamed Hussein Heikal, was adapted into a film of the same title.

Later, in the 1950s, there was a strong bond between the cinema and novels, with works by writers such as Taha Hussein, Ihsan Abdul-Qoddous, Naguib Mahfouz, Yehia Hakki, Latifa Al-Zayat, Youssef Sibaai, and Youssef Idris being adapted into films like Ayn Umri? (Where is My Life?), La Anam (I Can’t Sleep), Ana Horra, and others. After 1952, the mood also changed, with Asal explaining that “Egypt and the Arab world, with its new air of Pan-Arabism, started to rediscover itself, bringing a time of creativity in every sense when the cultural and art scene developed to a remarkable level.

 “It was the 1950s and 1960s that produced the great cinema giants and timeless films that were beautifully crafted on every level,” Asal added, pointing to director Youssef Chahine, who is credited with giving Egyptian films an international profile. Cinema also grew more intellectual with the inclusion of established literary figures like Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz. Laws were passed to support the film industry as well establishing the Higher Cinema Institute.

Since its beginning, Egyptian cinema has consistently presented remarkable films that have become milestones in the history of cinema. Egyptian films were made from international classics, including such films as Al-Garima Wal-Iqab and Al-Ikhwa Al-Adaa based on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novels Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. The nationalisation of the film industry carried out in 1961 by the Nasser regime gave room for both big directors and young artistic talents and enabled many big productions, including treasures of the time. Egypt was one of the biggest exporters of films in the region and became an undeniable reference for popular culture in the Arab world.

With more than 15 local studios, Egypt began to produce 60 to 70 films a year at the height of the golden age. But by the end of the 1960s, censorship was beginning to take over, and some professionals fled Egypt as a result. Following Egypt’s defeat in the 1967 War, the country entered a stage of self-criticism and reconsideration of the factors that had led to it. The Egyptian cinema of the time produced films critical of the regime, including Al-Qadiyah 68 (Case 68, 1968), Miramar in 1969, and Al-Ard (The Land, 1970).

Afterwards, the film industry started to decline, mirroring a divided society and marking the worst era in the history of Egyptian cinema for many. But after Egypt’s victory in the October 1973 War, films featuring stories of military victories were screened, including some of the greatest war films, such as Al-Rusasa la Tazal fi Gaybi (The Bullet is Still in my Pocket) and Al-Wafaa Al-Azim (The Greatest Loyalty).

In the 1970s, the denationalisation of the film industry followed, and even though cinematic gems appeared in this period and after, such as Chahine’s Al-Asfour (The Sparrow), a more profit-driven and commercial period arrived that for many put an end to the golden age of Egyptian cinema.

*A version of this article appears in print in the  9 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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