Director: Henry Barakat
Little Miss Devil is a musical, fantasy, romantic comedy from what is often called the Golden Age of Egyptian cinema. Egyptian audiences in the 1940s and ’50s could expect to see locally made films, produced with industrious regularity, which often rivalled and sometimes even surpassed the quality of their American equivalents.
In Little Miss Devil, Asfour is a down-on-his-luck musician and stage actor, performing each night in a nightclub alongside the owner’s beautiful daughter Alia. Asfour is hopelessly in love with Alia, but she is much more interested in the wealthy, Europeanised dandy Mimi. In order to marry Alia, Asfour must raise more than Mimi’s offer of three thousand pounds to her father, and Asfour’s employer, Mr Queshta. Asfour strikes an endearing balance between down-on-his-luck everyman and bumbling loser, despite his obviously misguided love for Alia.
In desperation, Asfour and his hapless friend Boqo journey to a remote cave on the advice of a mysterious sage, wherein they find a beautiful genie in a lamp. The genie, Kahramana, is now sworn to grant Asfour’s every wish, but there’s a twist – Kahramana is now hopelessly in love with Asfour herself, and therefore reluctant to aid his pursuit of another woman.
From here, the film is an escalating series of comic moments as Asfour tries to use Kahramana’s wish-granting powers to win Alia’s love – but the mischievous genie undermines him with tricks and practical jokes at every opportunity. It’s a whimsical, slapstick story punctuated by heartfelt musical numbers showcasing the vocal talents of Gamal and al-Atrash, although these are a little grating to a Western audience unaccustomed to traditional Arabic music.
This film is a collaboration between some of the most iconic figures in twentieth century Egyptian film. The titular leading lady is played by the notorious actress and belly-dancer Samia Gamal – Arabic cinema’s equally scandalous answer to Marilyn Monroe. Her off-screen romance with the starring actor Farid al-Atrash lends their on-screen performance a chemistry not seen since Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep. And Little Miss Devil is also an early film by one of Egypt’s greatest directors, Henry Barakat, who over the course of his career would display the same ambitious prolificity and genre versatility as Hollywood legends like Billy Wilder.
But the echoes of classical Hollywood extend to the film’s style, too. The 1940s North African nightclub setting is most reminiscent of Casablanca, but Little Miss Devil draws most of its inspiration from two classic American genres: The backstage musical, and the screwball comedy. “Backstage musicals” of the ’30s and ’40s, particularly those of Busby Berkeley, are often about actors trying to put together a musical stage show, while romantic and comedic subplots play out in the background. This musical-within-the-musical structure is a staple of classic Hollywood, seen in films like Dames and 42nd Street. The screwball comedy aspect is most apparent in the film’s screenplay, written by the great Egyptian wit Aboul Soud Ibiary. The quick, snappy dialogue gives the audience a non-stop flow of wordplay, sexual innuendo, and lighthearted patter between its charismatic characters – familiar to fans of 1930s Hollywood classics like It Happened One Night, or Bringing Up Baby. In typical screwball fashion, there’s plenty of zany, madcap antics as characters’ well-meaning attempts to find success and romance spiral hilariously and ludicrously out of control.
I could write pages and pages picking out the parallels between Golden Age Egyptian cinema and classical Hollywood, but that would do Little Miss Devil a disservice. Ultimately, it exists not as a mere collection of American tropes and styles, but as an entertaining, well-crafted, and consistently engaging film in its own right. It’s hilarious, beautiful, and utterly charming.