Cantinflas: Mexican Mirth-Maker

August 12 is the birthdate of the great Mexican stage and screen comedian Cantinflas (Mario Moreno, 1911-1993). Cantinflas is considered (and positioned himself as) the Charlie Chaplin of Mexico, but shares many traits in common with Groucho and Chico Marx, for his comedy was verbal as well as physical, incorporating punning, multiple meanings, and all manner of wordplay and fracturing of the Spanish language.

The son of a poor mail carrier, Moreno got his start circa 1930 in carpa, tented Mexican vaudeville troupes, dancing, performing acrobatics, and developing his clown character, a downtrodden peasant or slum-dweller, in frayed, patchwork clothes, a rope belt etc. This is a Mexican comic type known as a peladito, which was Cantinflas’s default character in the early years, although as time went on, much like Chaplin, he expanded his range to play many different types. 1936 he made his first film No te engañes corazón (Don’t Fool Yourself, Dear), which was such a hit with Mexican audiences, he remained on movie screens for another 45 years, becoming a key figure in the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema. Other notable films include El gendarme desconocido (The Unknown Policeman, 1941); the bullfighting comedy Ni sangre, ni arena (Neither Bloor Nor Sand, 1941), The THree Musketeers (1942), and El circo (The Circus, 1943).

In 1953 Cantinflas began performing a theatre work called Yo Colón (“I, Columbus”) at the Teatro de los Insurgentes. It was a parody of Columbus’s discovery of American which he performed onstage for years. By the 50s, Cantinflas was a huge star not just in Mexico, but over the entire Spanish-speaking world. In an attempt to tap into that box office might in international markets, in 1956, Hollywood gave him a tumble, which is why the name may be vaguely familiar to American film buffs. He was cast as Passepartout, the traveling companion of Phileas Fogg (David Niven) in Mike Todd’s Around the World in 80 Days. Then he got his own Hollywood starring vehicle Pepe, with Dan Dailey, Shirley Jones, and an all-star roster of cameos. Whereas the first film was a smash hit, the second was not, and Cantinflas returned to his home country, where he continued to turn out hit films over the next two and a half decades. His last film was El barrendero (1981).

To learn more about the variety arts, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic film comedy, please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.