Anwar Wagdi, Egypt’s first leading man

When prominent actor and director Anwar Wagdi died on 14 May, 1955, he was just 44 years old. But despite his relatively short life, he had already achieved a legacy unlike any other in the history of Egyptian cinema.

There are many big names who are known for their creativity in the fields of acting, screenwriting, directing and even producing. But artists like Youssef Wahbi, Hussein Sedki, Mahmoud Zulfikar or even Youssef Chahine are primarily known for their creativity in one or at most two fields, whereas Wagdi reached the height of stardom and fame through excellence in all of these fields combined.

In acting, he was the first leading man to become a real box office star in the history of Egyptian cinema, and was an undeniable presence on screen. He also had all the ingredients of an intelligent screenwriter, whether he was writing work for himself or for others.

As a director, he possessed a special style and was able to put his own mark on his films, especially the musicals he directed; it is enough to mention the films Ember, The Flirtation of Girls or Dahab as proof.

As for Anwar Wagdi the producer, he was without exaggeration the smartest and shrewdest among those who worked in this field at that time. He spent generously on his films and managed to make his money back through innovative methods in publicity and distribution.

He was also skillful in combining the elements of unfailing commercial formulas, in order to create the blockbusters of his time.

He also made new stars, rediscovered others and got the best out of the rest.

In addition, he had an impeccable capability to satisfy the audience’s needs, whether by pushing comedy into farce, by allowing a tragedy to slide into melodrama, or perhaps both in a single film.

According to him, the important thing was to attract the audience into the cinema to watch the film and to ensure they were satisfied. In short, the man was a cinematic institution.

Perhaps some may say that Wagdi did what he did for the sake of wealth, not to fulfill himself as an artist. In my opinion, only one person can resolve this matter, and that is Anwar Wagdi himself. We, for our part, can ask ourselves: Is Anwar Wagdi’s cinematic legacy real art, or false?

Did he make concessions for the sake of money at the expense of his art? I think if we put his cinematic output under an objective microscope, we will be able to correct many misconceptions about this man and give his work its deserved stature.

Although Wagdi was ingenious in all the aforementioned fields, we must admit that his wide-ranging fame was built on his screen presence over anything else, and came before his involvement in other fields.

The late film critic Ahmed El-Hadary wrote in his book The History of Cinema in Egypt: Part 1 that Wagdi participated in the silent film Midnight Felony in 1930.

This is contradicted by Youssef Wahbi in his memoirs, entitled I Lived One Thousand Years, who says that he hired Anwar Wagdi as a costume assistant, along with the Ramses theatrical company that he was part of, and they went to South America in 1930.

It is however certain that Wagdi’s first film was The Defence (1935), which starring his master Youssef Wahbi. Wahbi was then the leading actor in the Ramses company, where Wagdi was also a member.

Since the film is lost it would be difficult to determine the nature of Anwar Wagdi’s role. The same goes for Wagdi’s second film, The Last Solution (1937), which was directed by Abdel-Fattah Hassan.

In 1938 he acted in the film The Desert Wings, then in 1939, a huge leap in his career took place when he secured acting roles in four out of the fourteen films produced by the Egyptian film industry in that year.

There is no explanation for this quantitative leap from one film in 1935 to this huge number of roles a few years later, except that this ambitious young man had achieved some successes and had a tangible presence with the theatre company which he joined in 1935.

This was due to the fact that Zaki Touleimat, the company’s leading actor, had faith in Wagdi’s talent and was one of his backers, even if he had some regularly stated reservations about Wagdi’s behaviour.

The years 1938-1939 weren’t just a quantitative leap forward, but a qualitative one, for through those five roles the first features of Wagdi’s artistic persona began to emerge. For instance, in The Doctor, directed by Niazi Mostafa, he was the other side of the coin of an aristocratic physician who was dissolute and very superficial, while Suleiman Naguib played the aristocratic philanthropist doctor. His role in The Desert Wings was a carbon copy of The Doctor.

The image becomes clearer in The Apple Seller by Hussein Fawzi, then the image reaches its epitome in Kamal Selim’s masterpiece The Determination.

It is right that Wagdi played a frivolous young man who is only interested in squandering his pasha father’s money in pursuing sensual pleasures and on his bad friends.

However, the role’s size was greater and the feeling of contrast between his character and the character of Mohammed Effendi (Hussein Sedki) was stronger. Thus, he was given the opportunity to display some of his acting skills in his most important film so far.

Coming out of 1939, Anwar Wagdi’s image as a dissolute aristocratic young man representing the ugly face of this class became entrenched in the minds of filmgoers.

Relying on his vitality, handsomeness, presence, and arriving on screens just as the idea of the movie star was being established, it was easy for him to adopt and repeat this character. Such was the demand for him to play similar kinds of characters he secured roles in 14 films over the next three years.

The most notable of these films are The Life of Darkness, directed by Ahmed Badrakhan; A Woman’s Heart and Leila, The Girl from the Countryside, both directed by Togo Mizrahi; and At Last I Married by Gamal Madkour. In Workshop, directed by Stefan Rosti, he played against type, taking the role of a reckless, liquor-guzzling young man, this time from a poor background.

Wagdi’s choices began to take a different direction after this, as he took a role in Niazi Mostafa’s The Wives’ Factory, and his endeavour with Ibrahim Lama, Saladin the Ayyubid, and the Bedouin film Son of the Desert.

However, his role in The Triumph of the Youth by Ahmed Badrakhan in 1941 was a remarkable sign of the beginnings of his artistic career. In this film Wagdi plays an aristocratic young man who believes in his sweetheart’s talent and stands by her side until she ascends the stairway to fame.

This film’s significance for Wagdi wasn’t just because of the size of the role, but rather because it was a much-needed step to extricate him from the stereotypical character he had so often been cast to play.

Moreover, it was the first time that he presented himself as a loving young man characterised by gallantry and nobility. These characteristics prepared him to be a leading man and to build his artistic glory.

After two years during which Wagdi attempted to diversify his roles, the young actor began in 1945, bit by bit, to come closer to the leading man role. This was his lucky year, in which he starred in 12 films and for the first time wrote the script for a film, Hansom Cab, which he did not go on to act in.

He then entered the film production field, meaning that this pauper, whose family cast him out years ago, started to gain profits from acting. In this year also, Anwar Wagdi became a director for the first time and married the goose that laid the golden eggs, the star Leila Mourad.

Most of Anwar Wagdi’s films in 1945 were light comedies, suiting the trend for comedy at the end of World War II. They were sufficient to establish Wagdi as a big name of the silver screen. Two films stand out, namely The Heart has One Lover directed by Barakat, and Leila Daughter of the Poor, directed by Wagdi himself. Both are a variation on the Cinderella theme and helped build the star’s image as a Prince Charming both on and off screen.

It wasn’t strange, therefore, that Wagdi invested in his success in a way that gained him both fame and money, as he was the producer and director of most his films, while his other half and partner in success was Leila Mourad, the superstar of the time. Their winning streak included Leila Daughter of the Rich, My Heart is My Guide, Ember, Flirtation of Girls, Soulmate, and The Aristocrat.

Even when he wasn’t with Mourad, Wagdi was successful–if to a lesser degree–with Oum Kalthoum in Fatma and with Aqeela Rayeb in The Divorce of Soad Hamnem. Then came his magnificent discovery of Fayrouz, then a young girl, in the early fifties.

But why did Anwar Wagdi in particular, among all the other big names emerging at the same time, achieve this level of success?

Egyptian cinema initially relied almost exclusively on theatre actors such as Youssef Wahbi and Naguib El-Rihani, or on singers like Mohamed Abdel-Wahab and Farid Al-Atrash, and hadn’t at that point produced its own names, save for Badr Lama (who started his career with the beginning of Egyptian narrative film) and Hussein Sedki.

However, the problem with all these stars was that they were presented to the public as too good to be true; as infallible in every sense, regardless of life’s pressures. Even those actors who emerged with Anwar Wagdi or slightly after him, such as Mohsen Sarhan, Emad Hamdy, and Yehia Chahine, didn’t differ much from their predecessors. When Anwar Wagdi began his starring roles in the mid-forties, he broke free from the mould. He was the model closest to reality.

The model is characterised by gallantry, as in My Heart is My Guide, or with deception, as in Fatma, or as the young man who knows the real meaning of real manhood, as in The Divorce of Soad Hanem; he is also miserable in Yasmine and Dahab, and the strong nightclub owner in People’s Hearts. However, Wagdi had a gift for performing all these characters with vitality, action and high-spiritedness in an attempt to distance himself from the sedate performances prevalent at the time.

It is right that Anwar Wagdi came- as did many others- from the world of theatre, but he didn’t fully absorb the stage traditions. Thus, unlike the rest, he was totally focused on treating cinema with a distinctive approach.

This was manifest in the way he presented himself in the mould of Hollywood stars—the attention to his good looks, the moustache, and the hair with one lock always falling onto his face in every brawl with the film’s villains, only to be returned to its normal place with a flick of his head.

This trademark of Anwar Wagdi was enough to win the audience’s applause. The only thing he couldn’t get rid of from the theatre was the excessive emotional performance in some scenes.

While Wagdi wasn’t a flawless actor, he was clever in choosing the roles suitable for him, and tailoring them for himself if he were the film’s screenwriter.

There is a significant irony here, which is that Wagdi’s acting proficiency is more obvious when he performs under the directorship of others. For instance, in The Count of Monte Cristo, directed by Barakat, and in Raya and Sakina and The Monster by Salah Abou-Seif, Wagdi was able to benefit from his acting tools and use them to maximum effect.

Source: Ahram online

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