Monday, March 23, 2020

A Glass and a Cigarette (Egypt, 1955)

Despite being fronted by a trio of Egypt’s most beloved female entertainers, A Glass and a Cigarette, with its retrograde sexual politics, does women few favors. After all, what hoary old patriarchal stereotype is more hoary and old than that of the marriage-minded career girl? Even when that career girl is a belly dancer? And, yes, the film does feint toward being a gritty examination of alcoholism, but all such concerns get sent out with the trash once the home-wrecking floozy gets her slapstick come-uppance and the wayward heroine comes to realize her rightful place as a wife and mother. Ugh.

And I say the above with a real sense of disappointment, as Egyptian cinema, even in the fifties, was not necessarily hostile to feminist--or borderline feminist—statements, such as the films in director Salah Abu-Sief’s “Female Empowerment Trilogy”. Of course, those films came a couple of years after A Glass and a Cigarette, and have been hailed for their progressive attitudes. Maybe Glass, with its emphasis on hand-wringing domestic melodrama, wrapped in a legitimizing veil of social concern, provides an example of the type of movies that Abu-Seif was progressing from. Nevertheless, the film is considered a classic of Egyptian cinema’s Golden Age, thanks to the sure-handed direction of Niazi Mustapha (Antar, The Black Prince), the dazzling star power of its lead cast, the rich, black and white cinematography of Abdel Aziz Fahmy, and several glamorous musical numbers that put the vocally talented actors to good use.

In the film, Samia Gamal and Kouka play Hoda and Samma, two dancers at Cairo’s Al-Gala Casino. Both of them dream of marriage, but with Hoda, that dream has grown into a full-blown obsession. Early in the film, Samma, ever eager to help her friend, culls an assortment of unattached men from among the casino regulars and cajols Hoda to pick one of them to marry. The marriage designs of Samma, a non-resident Tunisian, are more administrative in character. It is at this time that we see Hoda throwing back shot to allay her “shyness.”

But Hoda’s shyness is not enough to keep Mamdouh (Nabil El-Aify) an up-and-coming-and-handsome young doctor, from sweeping her off her feet. As Hoda is primed like some kind of matrimonial rocket, almost no time passes before the two are married and have a baby, who they name Samma, after the woman who tried to pimp out her best friend in an Arabic augury to The Bachelorette. After a period of domestic bliss, trouble arises in the hourglass-shaped form of Mamdouh’s new nurse, Yolanda (Dalida), a dark Italian beauty whom the women mockingly call “Yolanda Macaroni’.” Yolanda sets her sites on Mahmoud and it is not long before Hoda, driven mad with jealousy, is throwing back highball after highball. This is treated as a new development, although we’ve already been shown that Hoda will turn to the sauce over being cut off in traffic.

A word about the women of A Glass and a Cigarette: At the time of making the film, Samia Gamal was widely regarded as one of the best belly dancers in the world. Six years earlier, she had starred as a mischievous genie in the comedy Afrita Hanem, one of the most beloved Egyptian films of its era. Kouka, who was the wife of director Mostafa, was so identified with the legendary figure of  Abla, the storied lover of first century Egyptian poet Antarah ibn Shaddad al-Abs, that one of the film’s musical numbers is dedicated to retelling the tale.

But it was Dalida who might have outshone them all. An Egyptian or Italian heritage, the actress and singer gained worldwide fame as a singer of French language songs. She could even claim the honor of singing the French language version of Brian Highland’s “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weeine Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.”

All three woman acquit themselves wonderfully in the acting department. I loved Gamal and Kouka’s antic portrayal of female friendship, which at times reminded me of the girls in  Broad City. Dalida’s Yolanda is a Kohl-eyed personification of feminine malignancy, cold, covetous and calculating. She also steals the movie with a gorgeous torch song that she sings near the end.

Gamal also is really good at portraying someone who is completely stinking drunk while maintaining her glamorous aura. In one penultimate scene, after coming to understand that she has accidentally killed her baby, she staggers wildly down a city street and tumbles into a doorway, where she splays her long body out elegantly before passing out.

Anyone who comes to A Glass and a Cigarette looking for a way to overcome alcoholism will probably be bitterly let down. As the film has it, Hoda begins drinking because her life is imperfect, but at the end, when she has humiliated Yolanda and has reclaimed her happy family, her life is perfect, and no more mention is made of her little problem until the cheerful closing credits music plays.

It all seems so simple.