Cantinflas (1911–1993) was one of Mexico's most beloved cinematic figures, a masterful comedian who cast himself as the resourceful voice of the common people. With a stream of his trademark non-sense talk, he could neutralize the powerful or work around the most absurd forms of bureaucracy.
That nonsense talk was so well known that by the end of his life Spanish dictionaries listed a new verb, cantinflear, meaning to talk a lot without really saying anything. Cantinflas released some 45 films over his long career, gaining some recognition among English-speaking audiences when he appeared in the 1956 crowd-pleaser Around the World in 80 Days. Often considered a Mexican counterpart to silent-film comedian Charlie Chaplin—an impression reinforced when Chaplin, according to the Houston Chronicle, called him "the greatest co-median alive"—Cantinflas actually blended verbal comedy in a way that recalled various figures of early English-language cinema without resembling any of them closely.
Performed on Streets
The youngest of eight surviving children in his family, Cantinflas (cahn-TEEN-flas) was born Mario Moreno Reyes August 12, 1911, in Mexico City. His father, a post office worker, hoped for professional success for his son and enrolled him in good schools. But Cantinflas preferred to watch the Mexican capital's numerous street performers and, as soon as he was old enough, to try to imitate their tricks and acrobatic feats. Although he did not grow up in extreme poverty, he soon gained sympathy for those who did. Cantinflas was sent to a government agricultural school when he was 15, but he dropped out to join a carpa—the Mexican version of the American tent show.
For a while, Cantinflas was a jack-of-all trades after dropping out of school. He acquired his unusual stage name, which had no real meaning in Spanish, very early on. Several stories have circulated as to its origin, but he seems to have derived it from "En la cantina, tu inflas" (In a bar, you drink), a line that amused him when it was hurled his way by a drunken heckler one night in a bar. He was looking for a stage name, anyhow, for he still hoped to hide his performing career from his parents. Cantinflas was active as both a boxer and a bullfighter, activities that demanded quick thinking.
In the bull ring, Cantinflas was a torero bufo, a comic matador so popular that pawnshops had to be closed to stop poor fans from putting their possessions in hock so they could see him perform. Later, in films (including Around the World in 80 Days) he performed versions of his bullfighting routine, in which he would walk into the ring, head buried in a newspaper, and remain motionless until the charging bull was inches away. Cantinflas was a ham in the boxing ring as well, and on stage in the tent shows he was popular as a dancer.
None of these appearances required him to speak much, however, and one night when he filled in for a sick friend as a tent show's emcee he was seized with stage fright. As he tried to deliver his lines, he began to talk nervously and rapidly, saying the first thing that came into his mind just so that he could keep going. The audience, thinking that the rapid-fire patter was part of his routine, started to laugh, and Cantinflas kept on dishing up more of it. As he refined his unexpectedly successful act, the central part of his performing personality was born. His nonsense speech was a mixture of double-talk, mangled high-class mannerisms, malapropism, and pantomime, at which he always excelled—one of his specialties was a full-scale game of pool, with no table, balls, or cue stick. In a country with a small hereditary aristocracy and a growing urban underclass, Cantinflas used his nonsense speech to twit upper-class ways.
Joined Follies Bergère
Cantinflas climbed his way up the theatrical ladder and in 1935 joined the cast of the Follies Bergère variety show in Mexico City. He made his first film appearance the following year in No te engañes, corazón (Don't Kid Yourself, Sweetheart), but the film had little success. In 1937 he married Valentina Ivanova Zubareff, the daughter of a Russian-born tent show owner. The two stayed together until Valentina's death in 1966 and raised a son, Mario. Valentina urged Cantinflas to keep trying to crack the growing world of cinema, and he appeared in several more films. In the late 1930s he made a series of comic short subjects in which he was featured in a short story but that were essentially commercials for various products, shown along with newsreels between film presentations. The director of these films signed Cantinflas to make two full-length features, Ahí está el detalle (Here's the Point, 1940) and Ni sangre ni arena (Neither Blood Nor Sand, 1941). These films had Mexicans lining up in the street and outgrossed the top imported comedy of 1941, Chaplin's The Great Dictator; it was apparently Ni sangre ni arena that inspired Chaplin to put Cantinflas's talents above his own.
Cantinflas and two partners formed their own production company, Posa Films, and between 1941 and the mid-1950s he regularly released one or more films every year. His persona was that of the pelado (the word means "one who is broke"), the down-and-out but resourceful son of the Mexico City streets. Like Chaplin, Cantinflas had a trademark moustache (his was pencil-thin), and he sometimes wore a hat made of newspaper. He could gain unlimited comic mileage out of the old vaudeville technique of wearing a pair of pants held up by a length of string, always threatening to fall down. Combining physical and verbal comedy, he was, in the words of Octavio Roca of the San Francisco Chronicle, "all the Marx Brothers rolled into one."
Another way in which Cantinflas resembled the great comedians of American cinema was that he mastered the trick of playing different characters in each new film but still keeping a consistent personality that came through to the audience. "Cantinflas had a pact with his audience," wrote Houston Chronicle reporter Fernando Dovalina. "Even though Cantinflas never stepped out of his character while he was on, the whole act was done with a knowing, subtle, and unseen nod to the common people. He was one of them. The adults could laugh at the witticisms-with-a-wink, and the children could laugh at the farce." Such films as El circo (The Circus, 1942), Un día con el diablo (One Day with the Devil, 1945), El mago (The Magician, 1948), and Abajo el telóon (Bring Down the Curtain, 1954) were consistent hits. By 1951 Cantinflas was so popular that a mural of Mexican heroes by artist Diego Rivera depicted him in its center panel.
Dovalina saw Cantinflas's films as a child in south Texas in the 1940s, and they became very popular in Mexican-American neighborhoods north of the border. Cantinflas's verbal routines, however, were impossible to translate into English, and he remained unknown among English-speaking audiences. Cantinflas frequently traveled to the United States, however, and he later acquired homes in the Los Angeles and Houston areas. Cantinflas made powerful American friends, including then Congressman Lyndon Johnson of Texas. In 1966, when Cantinflas's wife was suffering from cancer, the by-then-President Johnson sent a jet to bring her to the U.S. for treatment.
Appeared as Valet
There was obviously potential profit to be made if Cantinflas's popularity could be expanded into the English-speaking world, but the comedian's grasp of English was shaky, and the right opportunity never came along. Finally, in 1956, Cantinflas was cast, over the initial objections of director Michael Todd, in the adventure romance Around the World in 80 Days. Cantinflas played the role of Passepartout, a valet to well-heeled traveler Phineas Fogg (David Niven). Passepartout was intended to be of French origin, but Cantinflas convinced Todd that a change in nationality would work, and, moreover, would give him the chance to trot out one of his comic bullfighting routines. His intuition was vindicated when Around the World in 80 Days became an international hit and earned Cantinflas a Golden Globe award for best actor in a musical or comedy.
Meanwhile, Cantinflas suffered no slowdown in his Spanish-language career, Sube y baja (Up and Down,1958), in which he played an elevator attendant, achieved some international distribution. An attempt to use Cantinflas in a starring English role was unsuccessful, however; Pepe, which starred the comedian as a ranch hand who takes off for Hollywood to try to find a prize horse who has been sold to an alcoholic film director, was a big-budget flop despite the presence of a roster of stars (Bing Crosby, Shirley Jones, Jack Lemmon, Janet Leigh, Jimmy Durante, and many others). Cantinflas returned to the Mexican market, now sometimes working in Hollywood. He released new films consistently through the 1960s, ending his career with Patrullero 777 (Patrolman 777, 1977) and El barrendero(The Street Cleaner, 1981). He made one more appearance in the Mexican television film México … estamos contigo (Mexico, We Are With You) in 1985.
By that time Cantinflas, who had invested his money cannily and sheltered some of it in offshore locations to avoid Mexican taxes, was a wealthy man. Part of his mystique among Mexicans grew from his generosity in plowing money back into neighborhoods like the one in which he had grown up. His annual charitable donations were once estimated at $175,000. At one point he single-handedly supported 250 families in the Mexico City neighborhood of Granjas, and he built and sold off dozens of low-cost housing units.
In his later years Cantinflas lived off and on in Houston. He carried on a relationship there with an American woman, Joyce Jett, and largely stayed out of the limelight. He remained a folk hero in Mexico, however, and appeared on television in that country with Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari over the 1992 holiday season. After a lung cancer diagnosis, he died in Mexico City on April 20, 1993. Salinas, according to Mike Reid of the London Guardian, called him "a Mexican legend," and his funeral service, initially planned to be restricted to family and close friends, was crowded with thousands of Mexicans great and small.
Cantinflas's reputation continued to grow after his death. Several Spanish-language books chronicled the co-median's career, and an English-language academic study, Cantinflas and the Chaos of Mexican Modernity, sought to relate his film comedy to the tremendous social changes that had overtaken Mexico during his career. A biographical, bilingual play, Cantinflas!, was presented in San Francisco and Houston, and it seemed that, despite the continuing language barrier, one of the great comic figures in the popular culture of the 20th century was becoming better known outside Latin America.
Contemporary Hispanic Biography, vol. 4, Gale, 2003.
Pilcher, Jeffrey M., Cantinflas and the Chaos of Mexican Modernity, Scholastic Resources, 2001.
Stavans, Ilan, The Riddle of Cantinflas: Essays on Hispanic Popular Culture, University of New Mexico Press, 1998.
Guardian (London, England), April 23, 1993.
Houston Chronicle, April 23, 1993; September 21, 1993.
Independent (London, England), April 24, 1993.
Los Angeles Times, April 11, 2001.
New York Times, April 22, 1993.
San Francisco Chronicle, September 17, 2002.
Times (London, England), April 22, 1993.
Variety, April 22, 1993.
"Cantinflas," All Movie Guide, http://www.allmovie.com (January 22, 2006).
Nationality: Mexican. Born: Mario Moreno Reyes in Ciudad de los Palacios, 12 August 1911. Education: Studied at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico in the school of medicine. Family: Married Valentina Zubareff, 1937 (died 1966), son: Mario Arturo Moreno Ivanova. Career: 1930—began working in variety theaters, using name Cantinflas to hide identity from family; 1936—first film role as comic in No te engañes corazón; 1940—became leading comic figure of Spanish-language cinema with lead role in Ahí está el detalle; 1941—founded Posa Films production company and produced Ni sangre ni arena; began lifelong professional relationship with the director Miguel M. Delgado after first film together, El gendarme desconocido; 1956—became known internationally after role as Passepartout in Around the World in Eighty Days; 1960—commercial and critical failure of Pepe led to his departure from Hollywood and return to Mexico; 1981—final feature film, after which he concentrated on philanthropic interests. 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 Globes, 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. Died: Of lung cancer, in Mexico City, 20 April 1993.
Films as Actor:
No te engañes corazón (Don't Deceive Yourself, My Heart) (Torres)
Así es mi tierra! (Boytler); Aguila o sol (Boytler)
Siempre listo en las tinieblas (Rivero—short); Jengibre contra dinamita (Rivero—short); El signo de la muerte (Urueta)
Ahí está el detalle (There Is the Detail; Here's the Point) (Oro) (as himself); Cantiflas y su prima (Toussain—short); Cantiflas boxeador (Cantinflas the Boxer) (Rivero—short); Cantiflas ruletero (Rivero—short)
Ni sangre ni arena (Neither Blood Nor Sand) (Galindo) (+ pr); El gendarme desconocido (Delgado) (as 77)
Los tres mosqueteros (The Three Musketeers) (Delgado) (as D'Artagnan); El circo (Delgado)
Romeo y Julieta (Romeo and Juliet) (Delgado) (as Romeo)
Gran hotel (Delgado)
Un día con el diablo (Delgado)
Soy un prófugo (Delgado)
El supersabio (Delgado)
Puerta . . . joven (Delgado); El mago
El siete machos (Delgado); El bombero atómico (The Atomic Fireman) (Delgado)
Si yo fuera diputado (Delgado)
El señor fotógrafo (Delgado)
Caballero a la medida (Delgado)
Abajo el telón (Delgado)
El bolero de Raquel (Delgado); Around the World in Eighty Days (Anderson) (as Passepartout)
Les Bijoutiers du clair de lune (The Night Heaven Fell; Heaven Fell that Night) (Vadim) (as Alfonso)
Ama a tu prójimo (Demicheli); Sube y bajo (Delgado); Agguato a Tangeri (Trapped in Tangiers) (Freda)
Pepe (Sidney) (title role); El analfabeto (Delgado) (as Inocencio Prieto y Calvo)
El extra (Delgado) (Rogaciano)
Entrega immediata (Delgado) (as Feliciano)
El padrecito (Delgado) (as Padre Sebas)
El señor doctor (Delgado) (as Dr. Medina)
Su exelencia (Delgado)
Por mis pistolas (Delgado) (as Fidenco)
Don Quijote sin mancha (Delgado)
El profe (Delgado)
Don Quijote cabalga de nuevo (Delgado) (as Sancho Panza)
El ministro y Yo (Delgado)
El patrullero 777 (Patrol Car 777) (Delgado)
El Barrendero (Delgado)
Mexico . . . Estamos Contigo (for TV)
By CANTINFLAS: book—
Cantiflas: Apología de un humilde, Mexico, n.d.
On CANTINFLAS: books—
García Riera, Emilio, Historia documental del cine mexicano, vols. 1–9, Mexico, 1969–78.
Ayala Blanco, Jorge, La aventura del cine mexicano, Mexico, 1979.
Mora, Carl J., Mexican Cinema: Reflections of a Society 1896–1980, Berkeley, 1982.
Reachi, Santiago, La Revolución, Cantinflas y JoLoPo, Mexico City, 1982.
Ayala Blanco, Jorge, La búsqueda del cine mexicano, Mexico City, 1986.
Ayala Blanco, Jorge, La condición del cine mexicano, Mexico City, 1986.
De los Reyes, Aurelia, Medio siglo de cine mexicano (1896–1947), Mexico City, 1987.
On CANTINFLAS: articles—
Time (New York), 26 August 1940.
Oliver, M. R., "Cantinflas," in Hollywood Quarterly, April 1947.
Ross, B., "Mexico's Chaplin," in Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1948.
Current Biography 1953, New York, 1953.
"The Comedy of Cantinflas," in Films in Review (New York), January 1958.
Zunser, J., "Mexico's Millionaire Mirthquake," in Cue, 23 August 1958.
Butler, Ron, "Cantinflas: Mexico's Prince of Comedy," in Américas, April 1981.
Mejias-Rentas, Antonio, "Cantinflas Given D.C. Tribute," in Nuestro, June/July 1983.
García Marruz, Fina, "Cantinflas," in Cine Cubano (Havana), no. 111, 1985.
Obituary in New York Times, 22 April 1993.
Obituary in Variety (New York), 26 April 1993.
"OAS Bids Farewell to Cantinflas," in Américas, May/June 1993. Stavans, Ilan, "The Riddle of Cantinflas," in Transition, no. 67, 1995.
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The best-known figure of Spanish-language cinema, Cantinflas gained international recognition through his rendering of a purely local character. The Pelado is native to Mexico City's slums—a lumpen-proletarian created by rapid, unplanned, and uncontrollable urbanization, the clash of classes in a dependent and underdeveloped society, and the racial mixing and antagonism of Indians and Europeans. Streetwise as only the powerless learn to become, the pelado relies on wit and guile in dealing with the state apparatus—law, for instance—which oppresses rather than protects him. Cantinflas's peladito was a comic variant of this character but the actor's lack of a critical class consciousness led in the end to his acceptance of the very forces that he had built his career on attacking.
Literally, pelado means stripped clean, broke. Cantinflas himself defined his "prototype of the humble people from the urban barrio" in this way: "superficially educated and practically non-existent socially, but with a highly developed ingenuity (a Mexican characteristic), a formidable astuteness—and a large, gentle, and open heart." Confronted with the rich and powerful, Cantinflas's peladito delights in turning the tables and confusing them with their own tools of domination.
Language—the instrument of the educated—is one of the ways the privileged classes maintain their position, but it is also a front on which the peladito excels. Cantinflas's enormous gift for impromptu verbal invention was the very essence of his comedy—requiring, for example, that he be allowed to improvise fully on scripts. In Mexico, to cantinflear has come to mean to talk a lot and say nothing, while the noun cantinflas means lovable clown. As Cantinflas put it, when an explanation is demanded "by the policeman whose hat you stepped on or the boss whose shirt you just spilled catsup down, the pelado's defense is to talk, talk, talk."
In Cantinflas's early films this nonsensical double-talk was used to criticize forms of social control—for example, when he confused a courtroom full of lawyers, infecting them with his incoherent verbiage in Ahí está el detalle. In the later works, however, this critical attitude toward the use and abuse of language was replaced with word games which essentially denied the existence of social problems. In his last several movies Cantinflas became openly reactionary, taking on social roles he had earlier criticized, such as priest, doctor, and politician. Under the guise of being nonideological, Cantinflas spouted a rabid and simplistic anticommunism while calling fervidly for free enterprise—and offering himself as the most cogent and apparent example of what hard work can do for one.
Even if on one hand Cantinflas lost touch with his slum roots as he became a multimillionaire with five homes, a thousand-acre ranch, and his own airplane, he at the same time freely donated his time and money to philanthropic causes, appearing at numerous benefits each year and, notably, at one time financially supporting more than 250 poor families in a Mexico City slum. In the end Cantinflas was, justifiably or not, a hero to the Mexican masses, evidenced by the thousands of people who gathered outside the funeral home where his body lay, in tribute to his great talent for making people laugh as well as his enormous generosity.
—John Mraz, updated by David E. Salamie