Every country has its icons. Artists, politicians, musicians, actors, historical characters… you name it. In Mexico, the list is as diverse as our culture, and perhaps one of the characters who has trascended over time and borders is Cantinflas. Not to brag, but I’ve been abroad a few times, and in these trips there’s been at least one foreign person that after hearing that I come from Mexico throws out the name of Cantinflas. So, if you don’t know who he was, you probably know nothing about Mexico, because this guy is pretty much an icon, well known all over the world as one of the most influential figures in Mexican film history.
Who is Mario Moreno?
His journey to glory was long winding, but his unique personality and sense of humor took him really, really far. Mario Fortino Alfonso Moreno Reyes was born in a popular neighborhood in Mexico City in 1911. He was the third of 14 children. Coming from a rough upbringing, the Moreno Reyes children were destined to have a regular job, any job in fact, in order to make a living. But not Mario. He, from a very young age, discovered his real passion: the performing arts. Not only that, he proved to have a real talent to lure and entice audiences with his bubbly and witty personality.
Who was Cantinflas in real life?
He knew, since he was very young, he didn’t want to lead a mediocre life. When he was just sixteen years old, he enlisted in the army, but his father forced him to drop out because he had lied with his age. During his late teen, he worked in all professions you could imagine, from taxi driver to cobbler, mechanic, you name it. He tried to find his passion in everyday jobs, though he already knew he was destined to perform.
When he was in his twenties, he joined a circus where he was eventually allowed to perform. With the company, he toured the entire country which helped him develop the character that would accompany him his entire life. Inspired by his fellow circus mates and his humble background, Mario Moreno created Cantinflas, a hand-to-mouth character that would smart anybody with his baroque speech and easygoing personality.
The origin of ‘Cantinflas’
His very first opportunity in cinema came in the mid thirties when an important publicist hired him to make some ads. He saw right away that the character he had created wasn’t just a circus stunt but in fact a more complex character, one that had the potential to become an icon. After seeing the easiness he had following directions and improvising lines and new narratives, Santiago Reachi Fayad decided to take his rough diamond to the rising industry of cinema. Not only that, knowing he had discovered a really valuable treasure, Reachi actually decided to establish a film company exclusively to produce films with Cantinflas, which proved to be a success, at least for the young aspiring comedian.
Throughout the second half of the thirties, Reachi and Moreno produced endless short films in which they ended up setting the character that is still a huge cultural influence in Mexico, Latin America, and several other countries that fell for the clumsiness and wit of the man who became the most important comedian of his time. By the late thirties, he was the most famous comedian in Mexico, and the world was about to be hit by the Cantinflas hurricane.
An icon of the Mexican age of golden cinema
However, it was until 1940, with the release of his film Ahí está el detalle (Here’s The Point) when he first saw the impact his persona had. The association with Reachi ended quite soon after creative differences with investors who wanted to change the essence of Cantinflas (which they did eventually). At the end of the day, money is power and Mario Moreno was eager to become another icon of Mexico’s Golden Age cinema.
Cantinflas’ peak came in the forties and fifties, a time when he barely had time to live after the huge demand of his movies. Not only did he become an idol in the country, but his fame reached all continents. Though translation killed some of the humor, wittiness, and essence of the character, everyone fell in love with Cantinflas. Everyone but the critics. They were harsh on him since they believed fame had changed him, that he’d forgotten his humble origins, and that he was making profit out of a caricature of something that should not be laughable: poverty. Perhaps his most severe critique came after the famous painter Diego Rivera decided to portray him on a mural (which now lies on the Teatro de los Insurgentes) that features some of the most iconic characters in Mexico’s history. Was he still the low-born humble man that captivated everyone in Mexico?
Probably he wasn’t. It’s said that he was prepotent with people even when he was portraying one of the most approachable characters ever. But it’s also well known that he never lost his will to help others and try to make their lives better. He became president of the Asociación Nacional de Actores (National Association of Actors) and worked with several charities during his entire life, just as he lived with Cantinflas till the last of his days.
From the circus to Hollywood
After conquering the Hispanic audience, he was ready to make the huge leap most actors of the time wouldn’t even dare to try. He knew foreign critics loved him, and that Mexican cinema just wanted to keep him doing the same character he had been portraying for more than two decades. So, the so-called Latino Chaplin was eager to spice up his career a little bit.
That opportunity came in 1955 when he was offered the part of Jean Passepartout in Around the World in 80 Days, which consolidated his career on a global level and earned him a nomination to the Golden Globes in 1957, when he actually beat Marlon Brando and Yul Brynner in the Best Comedy Actor for his role in Around the World in 80 Days.
He kept working in Hollywood though he didn’t reach the success he had with Cantinflas, and even that one was destined to fade away. Whether he wore the character off, or the audience changed, eventually his films started to get repetitive, lousy, and even ridiculous. He tried to diversify his character by trying new formats like children cartoons, and television specials, but by the time, audiences were tired of the silly “humble” guy with a peculiar baroque speech.
Cultural legacy and death
Mario Moreno “Cantinflas” lived a quite long life profiting from his films. He died in 1993 of lung cancer complications, but his image was destined to live forever. He wasn’t just a funny actor or a random comedian, he invented a new way to create comedy to the point that his name is even a verb used in basically all Latin American countries: Cantinflear, which is used when you try to explain something but never get to the point. His loose pants, worn off shirt, and dirty hat are the foundation of a contemporary Mexican identity. His unique way of portraying and mocking the society are still mirrors of our culture, and his funny and witty way of expressing himself has become a huge essence of Mexican humor.