The Courtesan-Queen as Critique of Royal Excess in Layla (1942)

By Deborah Starr
Submitted to Session P5251 (Layla Murad: The Shifting Image of a Star, 2018 Annual Meeting
Media Arts
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
"Layla" (1942, directed by Togo Mizrahi), based on "La Dame aux Camélias" by Alexandre Dumas fils (1848), is a story about a prostitute who sacrifices herself to save the honor of the man she loves. In Mizrahi’s Egyptian adaptation, the kept woman is a singer named Layla (Layla Murad). The young man, Farid (Husayn Sidqi), issues from a conservative, upper-Egyptian land-owning family.

This narrative about a virtuous courtesan was produced amidst the social struggle in Egypt to abolish legal prostitution. In 1882 following the British occupation of Egypt, colonial authorities implemented regulations to legalize and thereby regulate prostitution. A comprehensive Law on Brothels was promulgated in 1896, the year in which the opening scene of "Layla" is set. In this paper, I read "Layla" through the abolitionist movement’s tenet that prostitution debases the nation.

This paper further argues that Layla affects social critique by identifying Layla not with the lowly street-walker, but with royalty. The character Layla is visually and narratively aligned with symbols of the Egyptian ruling family through the vernacular of fashion and via her mode of transportation. I also argue that the film’s advertising campaign simultaneously links the star, Layla Murad to her starring roles as characters named Layla, and elevate her to cinema royalty. This paper unpacks "Layla’s" implications for national honor, in the face of the King Faruk’s political impotence on the one hand, and the excesses of virility displayed in his philandering and debauchery.

"Layla" is the fourth of five films Layla Murad made under the direction by Togo Mizrahi between 1939 and 1944. Layla Murad’s star power and salary grew exponentially during this time. I situate my close reading of Layla within a discussion of the successful and mutually beneficial collaboration between star and director.