With its world-class facilities and lavish productions, Studio Misr transformed the scattered individual efforts of Egyptian filmmakers into a thriving cinema industry and introduced us to many of the directors and stars of the future.
Shadi Abdel Salam was at a loss. The board of directors of Banque Misr had asked him to produce a three-minute film for the bank’s silver jubilee but the director just couldn’t seem to figure out how to compress all that the venerable institution stood for into a few short minutes. The idea for the film finally began to take shape during one of Abdel Salam’s daily visits to the bank where he observed dozens of workmen diligently polishing the huge brass sign attached to the bank’s façade. He immediately brought in his cameras and filmed the workers’ tireless efforts to remove every single speck of dust and rust from the word ‘Egypt’. This short and captivating work clearly reflected Shadi Abdel Salam’s ethos and perfectly matched Talaat Harb’s vision, both for the bank and for the country.
Talaat Harb was not only a highly capable economist and financier, he was a visionary who did his utmost to turn his dream of Egyptian economic independence into reality. In 1920 he founded Banque Misr, the first national bank with Egyptian financing, and went on to establish companies operating in industries such as spinning and weaving, textiles, insurance and shipping, among others. His vision did not limit itself to industrial or economic development, however. He realized that any lasting growth had to be accompanied by a cultural renaissance. He valued books as an important means of education and established a state-of-the art printing press. Harb also believed that cinema played a pivotal cultural role and spoke often of the capacity of film to shape people’s behaviour. For him, this was the impetus to establish Studio Misr, by far the most important project in the history of Egyptian cinema.
Harb first established the Misr Company for Acting and Cinema (MCAC) to produce documentaries promoting Egypt’s burgeoning industry. At the time, feature films were being produced in a handful of primitive film studios set up first in Alexandria, then in Cairo. By 1935, Harb had realized that feature films were the future and established Studio Misr to provide facilities for local filmmakers to shoot and edit feature films in Egypt. He started by sending four young men (Ahmed Badrakhan, Maurice Kassab, Mohamed Abdel Azim and Hassan Mourad) to study in Germany—which at the time was the leader in cinema production. He then recruited experts in editing, cinematography, sound, set design as well as enlisting the services of director Fritz Kramp. Harb also acquired the latest equipment and built a state-of-the-art cinema auditorium—named Cinema Studio Misr—to help finance the purchase of the remaining equipment needed for the studio. Located in Emad al-Din Street, it replaced a theatre owned by a Frenchwoman—named Madame Marcel—who owned several theatrical establishments in the area. The new cinema provided the audience with plush carpets, comfortable seats and a viewing experience unlike any they had experienced before.
Studio Misr was inaugurated on 12 October 1935 on an evening of twinkling lights and soaring hopes with the crème de la crème of Egyptian society in attendance. The historical event was just a foretaste of the glories to come.
Gateway to Stardom
It was Studio Misr that first presented the voice of Um Kulthum on the cinema screen in Wedad (1936) and Munyet Shababi (The Chant of Hope, 1937) but that was far from being the studio’s only ground-breaking achievement. In the landmark film al-‘Azeema (Determination, 1939), the studio depicted the daily struggles facing residents of a popular Egyptian neighbourhood and addressed a social problem drawn from actual conditions, which was a radical concept at the time. The studio also launched the careers of legends such as directors Salah Abu Seif, Kamal al-Sheikh, Ahmed Badrakhan, Kamal Selim and Kamel al-Telmissany and gave audiences their first glimpse of stars such as Emad Hamdi who made his debut in al-Souq al-Sawda’ (The Black Market, 1945).
With the backing of Studio Misr, the incredible directing talents of Niazi Mostafa emerged from the editing room. In 1937, Studio Misr produced Mostafa’s social comedy Salama fi Kheir (Salama is Safe) starring Naguib al-Rihani and sparing no expense on the production including a lavish set designed by the talented Waley al-Din Sameh. The film was a tremendous success, effectively launching the careers of cast members such as lead actress Raqya Ibrahim, Rawheya Khaled, Hussein Riad, Sharafantah, Menassa Fahmy, Hassan Fayek, Stephane Rosti, Fuad Shafik, Fardos Mohamed and others. Almost a century later, the classic still retains its charm and comedic appeal.
Niazi Mostafa and Naguib al-Rihani collaborated once again with Studio Misr in Si Omar (Mr. Omar, 1941), a comedy of errors showcasing al-Rihani’s dry, sarcastic style of comedy. Mostafa also directed the social drama al-Doktor (The Doctor, 1939) for the studio, a film that called attention to the health crisis plaguing the Egyptian countryside. This was followed by the musical Masna‘ al-Zawgat (The Wife Factory, 1941) with its message of gender equality. In 1943, Mostafa made Rabha, a film set among Bedouins who spoke in a dialect created by the great poet Bayram al-Tunsi, modernising the spoken word so that a Yemeni could just as easily grasp it as a Moroccan.
The Studio Misr productions of that era attracted Egyptians from all walks of life. From starstruck schoolgirls to elderly pensioners, people flocked to see the extravagant sets and intricate plots. On 12 December 1944, even King Farouk himself attended the opening night of Studio Misr’s blockbuster Gharam wa Intiqam (Love and Revenge) in a move unprecedented for a royal. The film’s star Asmahan had been killed in a suspicious car accident just five months earlier and the tragedy had sparked considerable interest in the film. It is not for this reason, however, that His Majesty attended. Rather, he was there to enjoy the spectacle of wealth and the depiction of the glory days of the royal family. The script had been written by poet Ahmed Ramy with songs composed for Asmahan’s crystal voice by Riad al-Sonbati. The impressive horse parades and teeming street scenes are said to have so delighted the king that he awarded director Youssef Wahbi the title of Bek.
Talaat Harb never lost sight his overall vision for the Banque Misr projects. Studio Misr played a vital role in fulfilling this vision by portraying the independence and modernity of Egypt. The studio filmed all major events taking place and screened them in what was billed as the ‘Journal of Major Events’ before the feature film in theatres. The recordings made by the studio during that period include such momentous events as the palace preparations for the wedding of King Farouk to Queen Farida in 1938 and the Meeting of Arab Kings, Presidents and Princes at Zahraa Anshas 1946. This film captures the arrival of Shoukri al-Koutali, president of the Republic of Syria; King Abdullah, king of Eastern Jordan; Prince Abdullah, regent to the Iraqi throne; Sheikh Bishara al-Khouri, president of Lebanon; Prince Seoud, crown prince of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia; and Prince Seif al-Islam, son of His Majesty al-Imam Yehia, king of Yemen all being received by King Farouk whether at Anshas airport or on the Royal barge.
This film perfectly displayed the technical skill of the Studio Misr crew. The cinematographer Hassan Mourad was one of the first-generation of photographers sent by Harb to study in Berlin in 1933. He had originally been a student of fine arts and deftly applied his artistic skills in composing scenes and adjusting camera angles. At times, he even placed the camera so low that the dignitaries all appeared larger than life. The commentary of the film was assigned to the actor and director Ibrahim Emara whose deep and moving voice evoked honesty and conviction.
During this era, Studio Misr produced numerous documentaries depicting the various Banque Misr projects. Harb also made sure that the contribution of Banque Misr factories was always acknowledged in film credits. At the start of the film, the audience would often see a brief note announcing that ‘the clothes in this film were made of fabrics produced by Misr for Textiles and Misr for Silk’.
Just as there were considerable highs in the history of Studio Misr, there were also times when even the backing of Talaat Harb could not prevent the studio from incurring heavy losses. One such case was Lasheen (1938) which was plagued by problems from the start. Harb had hired Fritz Kramp as director, together with a group of foreign technicians. He had also sent Egyptians for training in Europe who now felt they should be putting their new skills to use. During filming, tensions simmered between the two groups, holding up production but ultimately leading to an increased Egyptian presence on the production team.
Many people criticized Fritz Kramp, calling him a glorified electrician, but in all fairness, he was a capable director who displayed considerable skill in both Lasheen and Wedad. His particular strength was in choreographing mass scenes the likes of which had never been seen in Egyptian cinema. The brilliantly rendered scenes of vast numbers of people taking to the streets to demand food and justice in Lasheen were so realistic they were part of the reason the film was banned following its first screening on 8 January 1938. The film told the story of a dissolute sultan impervious to his people’s suffering, heedless of the enemies at his country’s borders and oblivious to the traitors in his palace. In contrast, Lasheen, his commander in chief, is deeply troubled by the threats to his country and the impending famine. The implied criticism was deemed too close for comfort by the palace and the film was banned despite the clout wielded by Harb and Banque Misr. A sanitised version of the film was eventually released in November of the same year with many deleted scenes and an ending considered appropriate by the royal household. Fritz Kramp remained in Egypt until the Second World War when he had to be smuggled out of the country for fear of being apprehended by British forces.
Despite the tumultuous events surrounding its release, Lasheen shone a spotlight on many Egyptians who would later become the pioneers of Egyptian cinema. In addition to Ahmed Badrakhan who was an assistant director on the film, there was Abdel Fattah Hassan, another assistant director, who would bring to the screen such films as al-Hal al-Akheer (The Final Solution, 1937) and Mahatet al-Onss (Bonhomie Station, 1942). Waley al-Din Sameh would later become one of the most important set designers in Egypt starting with the lavishly produced Dananir (1939) starring Um Kulthum and directed by Ahmed Badrakhan up until al-Nassir Salah al-Din (Saladin The Victorious) in 1963. He also directed Le‘bet al-Sitt (The Lady’s Puppet, 1946) starring Naguib al-Rihani and Taheya Carioca.
Whereas the royal authorities ruined Lasheen, it was the public that destroyed al-Souq al Sawda’ (The Black Market, 1945). When it was first screened in December 1945, the audience reacted angrily, surrounding the director Kamel al-Telmissany and his cast and crew as soon as the lights went up. The situation was so tense that the artists had to be escorted out of the theatre by the police. Among those present on that day were Ahmed Kamel Morsi, Saad Nadim, Abdel Qader al-Telmissany, Salah Abu Seif and the film’s young stars Emad Hamdy and Aquila Rateb.
There have been many attempts to explain the audience reaction on that night. Some have posited that the techniques used were way ahead of their time making it difficult for the audience to accept the film. Cinematographer Ahmed Khorshid had relied on low and indirect lighting to communicate the sense of conspiracy and intrigue and used multiple perspectives in a single shot. Other critics, however, have theorised that the reaction had more to do with the nature of the audience. The film was an exposé of the war profiteers, black market dealers and thugs pushing the country towards famine and exploiting the poor to climb the social ladder. These were probably among the few people who could afford to attend the cinema at the time, and particularly, a prestigious film premiere. The subject matter may have been too close for their comfort prompting the aggressive reaction. Years after that dark night in 1945, the film was recognised for the ground-breaking classic it was.
Following the establishment of Studio Misr, several other studios were founded in Cairo including al-Ahram, Nassabian, Galal and Nahhas, but none ever attained the same stature. During the war years, profiteers entered the film industry and the number of films produced rose from 16 in 1943 to 28 in 1944 and 67 in 1945. Studio Misr valiantly tried to maintain the quality of its films but ultimately couldn’t compete with the deluge of inferior, but highly commercial productions. After several changes of ownership and attempts at revival, the studio eventually fell into disrepair and closed, the memory of its glory days living on only in the classics that entertain audiences until today.
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Kamal Ramzy is a prominent Cairo-based film critic and historian with close to twenty publications including al-Fann Bayn al-‘Imama wa-l-Dawla (co-authored with Ali Abu Shadi in 1992) and Saad Nadim, the Pioneer of Documentary Filmmaking (1988). He has also written numerous articles and studies in Egyptian and Arab magazines and newspapers and has frequently been a member of judging committees at both local and Arab festivals.