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Cantinflas: 1911-1993: Actor, Comedian

Cantinflas: 1911-1993: Actor, comedian

The comedic Mexican actor Cantinflas was one of Latin-America's most popular cinematic figures. Using both physical and verbal comedy, Cantinflas embodied the everyday Mexican. His half-century career included 49 films, including the American films Around the World in Eighty Days and Pepe. His comedic journey began in 1930 as a performer in the carpas (travelling, vaudevillian tent shows showcasing a variety of performers). In the carpas, and later in his film career, the young performer created and polished his character, the disheveled underdog known to the world as Cantinflas. Through this character and the use of nonsensical verbal comedy, he lanced the privileged and wealthy classes of Mexican culture.

Came From Humble Beginnings

Cantinflas was born Mario Moreno Reyes on August 12, 1911, in Mexico City, Mexico. Moreno was the sixth of twelve sons and three daughters born to Jose and Maria (Guizar) Moreno. Although he grew up in a poor section of Mexico City, Cantinflas was privileged enough to attend good schools, like the Bartolome de las Casas School. More interested in the street life than in his books, Cantinflas often cut class to watch street performers and eventually performed himself. It was here that he found the skills that he would later need in a career of entertaining audiences.

As a child in the streets, Cantinflas learned how to play to the crowds. He won several contests with the valero, a ball-and-stick toy, and made small change as a child by singing and dancing. More importantly, he became closely familiar with the effects of destitution and the ravages of poverty. Both lessons would influence his work as a performer.

At fifteen, he entered the national agricultural school at Chapingo, but soon was tempted back to performing. He ran away from the school to join a carpa as a dance performer. In the carpas, Cantinflas found the excitement he desired. Colorful characters, loud, raucous audiences, and the reward of a clapping hand held the young performer captive for the rest of his life. He attempted to return home, but soon ran away again and joined the Campania Novel in Tacambara as a dancer.

At a Glance . . .

Born Mario Moreno Reyes on August 12, 1911, in Mexico City, Mexico; died on April 20, 1993, in Mexico City, Mexico; married Valentina Subareff, 1937 (died 1966); children: one son.

Career: Stage and screen actor, 1935-93.

Awards: Special Prize, Ariel Awards, Mexico, for "work on behalf of the Mexican cinema," 1950-51; Golden Globe for Best Actor, for Around the World in Eighty Days, 1956; Special Award, Golden Globe, 1960; Special Prize, Mexican Silver Goddesses, 1969; named "symbol of peace and happiness of the Americas," by the Organization of American States, 1983; Diploma of Honor, Inter-American Council of Music, 1983; honored for lifelong contribution to Mexican cinema, by the Mexican Academy of Cinemagraphic Arts and Sciences, 1988.

Became the Master of Bumbling Speech

As a dancer in the carpas, Cantinflas performed in front of audiences that included soldiers, laborers, and peasants that expected to be entertained with feats of acrobatics, scenes of drama, and skits of comedy. In this environment Cantinflas learned how to control larger crowds of people through comedy and honed the skill of dealing with heckling audience members. On one night, Cantinflas was forced to be a substitute for a sick master of ceremonies. Upon centering himself on the stage, stage fright caused the stand-in to forget what he was supposed to say. Cantinflas recounted, in Americas magazine, the launch of his trademark verbal comedy; "I just started talking nonsense. The audience began to laugh, so I continued " When the audience returned the next night they booed the official announcer.

The reign of the nonsense speech that would become Cantinflas' signature had begun. Krebs, in the New York Times, defined Cantinflas' routine as a "combi-nation of gibberish, double-talk, mispronunciation, wild exaggeration and pantomime." However, others see the routine as a way in which Cantinflas used the language proscribed to the lower classes when addressing a member of a higher class as a way to lampoon those higher classes. In 1935 Cantinflas joined the Follies Bergere Theater and soon became a popular figure on the theater scene of Mexico. In 1936 he appeared in his first cinematic comic role in No te Enganes Corazon. However, this appearance did not cause his film career to take off. Then, in 1937, Cantinflas married Valentina Subareff, the daughter of a Russian-born carpa owner.

Under constant urging by Valentina, Cantinflas began to appear in a series of short films. These short films were basically commercials advertising everything from trucks to beer. The reaction to Cantinflas on the screen was so overwhelming that theater owners began to request more film commercials featuring him. The director of the film commercials, Santiago Reachi, was impressed by the response to his commercials and produced two full-length films featuring Cantinflas. Ahi Esta el Detalle in 1940 and Ni Sangre Ni Adrena in 1941 shattered all previously-held Mexican and Latin American film records and outgrossed Charlie Chap-lin's The Dictator in the Mexican box office, which was out at the same time. The two films also skyrocketed Cantinflas into cinematic stardom in his native Mexico. This was the first time, according to the New York Times, that Mexican "men and women stood in the rain, waiting for admission to a show."

Mexico's Answer to Charlie Chaplin

From the beginning of his film career, Cantinflas was tempted by Hollywood. As stated in the New York Times, after the release of Ni Sangre Ni Arena, his studio, Posa Films, sent him to Hollywood "to see how things are done there." Cantinflas most often found himself compared to the famous American film comedian Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin, upon seeing Ni Sangre Ni Arena, declared Cantinflas to be the greatest comedian alive. Although Cantinflas was most often compared to Chaplin, he was also compared to the comedic likes of W.C. Fields, Buster Keaton, Bob Hope, and Will Rogers.

While early American films inspired the young boy who grew to become Cantinflas, the character of Cantinflas was truly a Mexican offspring. Dressed in drooping pants, a rope belt, and rumpled cap over his always-mussed hair and sporting a tiny mustache on the corners of his lips, Cantinflas entertained and amused scores of Mexican and American moviegoers. So popular were his films in Mexico and theaters in Spanish-speaking American markets like Texas, Arizona, and California, that by the time Cantinflas appeared in his first American film, he was already a millionaire 25 times over.

Becoming a millionaire, while arguably diminishing the social commentary of his films, did not diminish the social responsibility of Cantinflas. Starting in 1952 the actor began his crusade against poverty. In this year he set up an aid fund to help, according to the New York Times, "solve the problems of the poor." He donated money, matched by the government, to help build hospitals, maternity clinics, housing and restaurants for the sole use of the poor. To promote his aid program, Cantinflas, in a partnership with the afternoon newspaper Ultimas Noticias, began printing the estimated earnings and pictures of over a dozen known Mexican millionaires in order to pressure them into giving to the fund. He gained the support of the country's president, who donated both personal and public funds to the program.

Resolved to Help More

In 1966 Cantinflas' wife was fighting cancer. President Lyndon Johnson, personal friend of the comic actor, sent a U.S. government plane to Mexico City to rush Valentina to a Houston hospital for treatment. The cancer, however, was too strong and even with treatment, Valentina died that same year. The death of his wife only furthered the resolve of Cantinflas to continue his plight for the poor. At his home in Mexico City, droves of people formed a line to his front door. He gave over $175,000 out of his own pocket annually to these people. At one time, he was the sole supporter of more than 250 destitute families in the Mexico City slum of Granjas. He later built 64 apartment houses in Granjas and then sold the apartments to poor families for a fraction of their worth.

Cantinflas also raised money for charities by performing. He appeared at dozens of these charitable benefits every year. The performances that were the most popular and raised the most money were the ones in which he performed as a comedic bullfighter. Annually Cantinflas would fill the 46,000 seat Plaza Mexico in Mexico City and climb into the bullring to perform a comedy routine with a bull. A similar performance can be seen in Around the World in 80 Days.

Towards the end of his career his movie appearances dwindled, yet Cantinflas remained involved in acting through his charitable performances. However, one of the actor's most memorable movies came late in his career. His first role in an American film, as Passepartout the valet in the film Around the World in 80 Days garnered him an Oscar nomination. His second and last American film, Pepe, highlighted the much beloved actor in the title role. Although the cast of this movie included scores of Hollywood elites, like Edward G. Robinson, Debbie Reynolds, and Frank Sinatra, it was essentially a box office flop. In 1978 Patrol Car 777 acted as a theatrical book end to the career which had spanned five decades. In 1985, the sixth decade of his career, Cantinflas appeared in his last acting role on a made-for-television movie.

Cantinflas' success as both an entertainer and a philanthropist is best noted by the droves of people who attended his wake. Lines of people filled the streets of Mexico City for days mourning the comedian after his death on April 20, 1993. He is an indelible feature of Mexican culture that is proven by his appearance in the half-block long Diego Rivera mural that depicts heroes of Mexican history. His influence has spread beyond the silver screen the halls of academe. Spanish linguists now recognize the noun cantinflada as a long-winded, meaningless speech, and the verb cantinflear as meaning to talk too much but say too little. By the wealth of his charity and the appeal of his comedy, it is clear that no one can cantinflear about Cantinflas.

Selected filmography

No te Enganes Corazon, 1936.

Águila o sol, 1938.

Siempre listo en las tinieblas, 1939.

Ahi Esta el Detalle, 1940.

Ni Sangre Ni Adrena, 1941.

Los Tres Mosqueteros, 1942.

Romeo y Julieta, 1943.

Gran Hotel, 1944.

Dia con el Diablo, 1945.

Soy un prófugo, 1946.

A volar joven, 1947.

El Supersabio, 1948.

El Mago, 1949.

El Portero, 1950.

Si you fuera diputado, 1952.

Caballero a la medida, 1954.

Around the World in Eighty Days, 1956.

Sube y baja, 1959.

Pepe, 1960.

Por mis pistolas, 1968.

The Great Sex War,, 1969.

Conserge en condomino, 1973.

El Barrendero, 1981.



Dictionary of Hispanic Biography, Gale Research, 1996.


Los Angeles Times, April 11, 2001, pp. A1.

New York Times, June 15, 1941, p. X3; June 23, 1952, p. 3; December 22, 1960, p. 18; April 22, 1993, p. D26; April 23, 1993, p. A4.


"Cantinflas" Biography Resource Center, www.gale (March 10, 2003).

Adam R. Hazlett

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