Anwar Wagdi was of Syrian origin, the son of a textile trader, and believed from an early age that he resembled the American actor Robert Taylor. His first appearance on stage was in Julius Caesar in 1922. It was not until ten years later that he made it onto the screen, taking minor parts in Awlad al-Zawat (Children of the Aristocracy, 1932), and then in al-Difa’a (The Defense, 1935).
For his part in The Defense, Wagdi was paid six pounds, which he spent on three tailored suits, firmly believing that his tailor would play a major role in his success.
After moving between various theater companies, he settled with the National Theater Troupe established by the government in 1935, earning three pounds a month. Over the next five years, he took leading roles in several plays. But soon cinema called him back, and he played the lead role in Bayya’ al-Tufah (The Apple Seller, 1943), directed by his friend Husayn Fawzi. In 1944 Togo Mizrahi gave him the principal part in Kadhbfi Kadhb (Lies in Lies). Costarring with dancer Biba Ezz al-Din, he played a despondent young man weighed down by debt.
In 1945, he resigned from the National Theater Troupe and formed his own film company. Its first production, that same year, was Layla Bint al-Fuqara’ (Layla, Daughter of the Poor), which he directed and starred in opposite Layla Murad. Soon after, he married Murad, and directed her in Qalbi Dalili (My Heart is my Guide, 1947), ‘Anbar (1948), and in 1951 his masterpiece, Ghazal al-Banat (The Flirtation of Girls).
In the meantime he had discovered the child actress Fayrouz, who sang and danced like an Arab Shirley Temple. He made several successful films with her, notably Yasmin in 1950.
By the 1950s, Anwar Wagdi had become the leading light of Egyptian cinema. His name had only to appear on a project for distributors to flock to finance it. His specialty was melodrama mixed with fast-paced musical scenes, greatly helped by the editing skills of Kamal al-Shaykh and others.
Suddenly at the height of his fame, wealthy and married to actress Layla Fawzi, Anwar Wagdi died of kidney failure, aged fifty-one.