Born the son of a pasha, Yusef Wahbi was expected to become an engineer like his father. But a passion for acting drove him along an unforeseen path. To his father’s astonishment and rage, Yusef joined the circus. In so doing he became a person whose testimony was inadmissible in court, and a disgrace to the family. His father expelled him from the family home, then enrolled him in agricultural school in an attempt to reform him.
Wahbi fled to Italy, and plunged himself into the theater, changing his name to Ramses. He only returned to Egypt when he heard of his father’s death. Even shared out between him and his four siblings, the pasha’s legacy gave him personally some LE10,000 in gold. With this money, Wahbi set out to extricate the theater from what he saw as the abyss created by the dancing whiskers of Naguib al Rihani’s Kishkish Bey and the jiggling eyebrows of Ali al-Kassar.
To this end, he formed a theater company, the Ramses Troupe. In this early stage of his career, he became known as the Messenger of Divine Mercy for the Salvation of Acting. Opinion differed over the sobriquet’s creator, whether it was the publicity boys of the Ramses Troupe, or the boasting and self-aggrandizing Yusef Wahbi himself.
Wahbi’s entrance into cinema was delayed by an unexpected outcry in the press, and consequently the public, over his plan to portray the Prophet Muhammad on the screen. When the storm subsided, he agreed with his friend Muhammad Karim to make instead a long narrative film, Zaynab (1930), which he would finance and Karim would direct.
With characteristic self-confidence, Wahbi then asked Karim to direct the first Egyptian talkie. Wahbi wrote the script and played the leading role. When the film, Awlad al-Zawat (Children of the Aristocracy, 1932), achieved enormous success, Wahbi’s confidence grew further. He wrote the script to al-Difa’a (The Defense, 1935), his second film, and co-directed it with Niyazi Mustafa. For his third film, al-Majd al-Khalid (Immortal Glory, 1937), Wahbi was author, lead actor, and director, all in one.
On three films—Layla Mumtara (A Rainy Night, 1939), Layla Bint al-Rif (Layla, Girl of the Country, 1941) and Layla Bint al-Madaris (Layla the Schoolgirl, 1941)—he collaborated with Togo Mizrahi, submitting his own script and role to the other man’s direction. After the success of these three films, Wahbi directed Gharam wa Intigam (Romance and Revenge, 1944), in which, at the age of forty-six, he played a young lover, with singer Asmahan in her second and last film, shortly before her death by drowning. The film contained a song which glorified the Egyptian royal family, and as a token of appreciation for this gesture he was awarded the title of Bey. Later, after the revolution, he received the National Appreciation Prize and an honorary doctoral degree.
In al-Iskandariya Layh? (Alexandria Why? 1979), he played an intellectual Jew who loved Egypt, the first actor to take such a role since the Free Officers’ Revolution.Wahbi was also responsible for building Ramses City, a cinematic town with a studio on more than two feddans.