Whether it’s that nostalgia for a bygone era or the unmatchable glamor of the 50s and 60s with the perfectly lacquered hair, luscious lips and that je ne ce quoi captured best by the quintessential cigarette holder, but nothing stands the test of time as classic movies and their classic actors. Maybe it’s because everything looks better in black and white, but between today’s botox and bare bums on the red carpet, the golden era of cinema seems even more glittering and elusive than ever!
Black and white frames and sepia snaps of chic guys and dolls - such as cinema darlings Marilyn Monroe, James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor - might be staples on Western movies’ memory lane, but classic Arab cinema row is not without its very own celeb-set oozing with uber-sophistication. With timeless faces and romantic storylines, old-school Arab Hollywood has remained a steadfast pleasure for all those in the region who love a dose of nostalgia.
Although there are now incredible cinematic offerings from across the Middle East, Egypt is the powerhouse for the vast majority of the Arab world’s early movies. Between the 1930s and the 1960s, the ‘Hollywood of the Middle East’ Arabic film industry operating out of Cairo was at its height: it was the ‘Golden Age’ of cinema. It produced hundreds of black & white comedies, melodramas and romances, that are still enjoyed and watched over and over again by generations old and new. The Egyptian repertoire was a huge regional success in that time and up to the 1990s. Egyptian cinema began its journey with its first silent films in the 1920s, until Studio Misr was established in 1935 and a whole new wave of films (with sound) came to life.
Who doesn’t get filled with ‘glee’ at the idea of a musical? The 1930s and 40s were the decade of Egyptian musical films, and music provided a lingua franca for pan Arab countries. Between the cheesy hits and the on-screen talent, these musical numbers were box-office hits across the Middle East. The Frank Sinatras and Ella Fitzgeralds of the Arab world -- singing legends Um Kulthum, Farid El Atrash and Abdelhalim Hafez -- were some of the talents to star and make their on-screen splash. Almost 50% of movies in that time were of this lyrical genre. Asmahan’s 1944 musical movie Passion and Revenge was very influential, and portrayed some of her best singing performances.
Despite some political flip-flopping (In 1964, cinema was nationalized then denationalized in 1970), movies gained popularity with the introduction of the realist and thriller genres, as well as film adaptations of classic novels - literary adaptations in film during the 1960s saw over 38 Naguib Mahfouz novels made into film, such as Cairo 30 in 1966.
Arab films gained exposure beyond the regional arena as they began to collect international recognition. Many of the biggest films of the era were nominated for international film awards, such as The Blazing Sky (1954), which was nominated for the Grand Prix at the Cannes International Film Festival, and Chased by the Dogs (1962) -- an Arab ‘Psycho’ as it were -- a psychological masterpiece nominated for the Golden berlin Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival.
In the western world, film buffs like to hark back to the Carey Grants and the Grace Kellys, while their Arab counterparts get shunned aside to collec dust. It’s time to take a trip down memory lane, to see those film stars who got your grandparents dreamy-eyed (while retaining street cred with the millennial youth!) with their debonair demeanor and dashing good looks. Move aside Liz Taylor - here’s Al Bawaba’s gallery of the most flawless classic Arab Hollywood stars and what makes each one of them timeless and unique.