The Chaos And Comedy Of Mexico's Cantinflas

Originally published on August 13, 2011 11:39 pm

Last Friday would have been the 100th birthday of the Mexican comic legend Cantinflas. By the time of his death in 1993, Cantinflas had acted in 50 films, won a Golden Globe, and even inspired a new Spanish verb — cantinflear — in honor of his ability to play with the sounds of Spanish for comedic effect

But Cantinflas' journey to becoming Latin America's most famous comedian had humble origins. Cantinflas was born Mario Moreno on Aug. 12, 1911, in the working-class neighborhood of Tepito in Mexico City. He got his start performing in carpas, or tent theaters, that were Mexico's version of vaudeville. It was here that Moreno took on his nonsense nickname and the persona of an endearing, fast-talking vagabond.

In 1940, Cantinflas starred in the movie Allí Está El Detalle, which proved to be his breakout role. His character in the film, also called Cantinflas, spoke like Groucho Marx, but had the physical mannerisms of Charlie Chaplin. Perhaps it was his command of both physical and aural comedy that led Chaplin to call Cantinflas the best comedian alive.

Cantinflas' unique brand of wordplay roiled viewers throughout the Spanish-speaking world, including author Sandra Cisneros, who watched Cantinflas movies as a child in Chicago.

"You can never keep up with these Cantinflas movies because it was all about him speaking so quickly," says Cisneros. "I got used to these explosions of laughter, not always following the humor, but just watching the story and liking him because he was very likable."

The difficulty of following his mile-a-minute dialogue dimmed Cantinflas' prospects of breaking into the American market, according to professor Jeffrey Pilcher of the University of Minnesota. But, Pilcher says, the complexity of Cantinflas' humor is what made him so popular across the Spanish-speaking world.

"Because his humor was so chaotic, so incomprehensible," Pilcher says, "I think it allowed people to place their own jokes in his mouth."

Cantinflas was able to reach American audiences in the 1956 smash Around the World in 80 Days. The film won the Academy Award for best picture, and Cantinflas snagged a Golden Globe for best comic actor. His role as a valet to Englishman David Niven let Cantinflas be Cantinflas.

But even with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Cantinflas' star still shines most in Latin America, where as Pilcher puts it, his films are touchstones like "the way that the Wizard of Oz is in the United States."

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DAVID GREENE, host: Now to another landmark celebration. Yesterday would have been the 100th birthday of the Mexican comic legend known as Cantinflas. Charlie Chaplin once called Cantinflas, whose real name was Mario Moreno, the best comedian alive. He died in 1993 after making 50 films, most of them in Spanish. In Hollywood, he won a Golden Globe for his performance in "Around the World in 80 Days." Producer Lily Percy looks back.

LILY PERCY: Mario Moreno was born August 12, 1911 in a working-class neighborhood in Mexico City called Tepito. He got his start performing in carpas or tent theaters, Mexico's version of vaudeville. That's when he created the nonsense nickname Cantinflas and the character that would define him, an endearing, fast-talking vagabond.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PERCY: Cantinflas began his film career in the mid-1930s. But it wasn't until 1940 that he broke out in the movie "Ahi Est� El Detalle" or "There's the Rub."

GREGORIO LUKE: A movie that if you were - have never seen Cantinflas would probably be a good place to start.

PERCY: That's Gregorio Luke. He's an expert in Mexican art and culture based in Long Beach, California.

LUKE: Cantinflas plays, again, you know, this vagrant lowlife that has girlfriend who is the maid of a wealthy home. And so, you see Cantinflas speaking with the maid, and the maid complains that it doesn't work and that he's just good for nothing and that they will never get married.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "AHI ESTA EL DETALLE")

CANTINFLAS: (Spanish spoken)

LUKE: And Cantinflas responds to her that who says that work is a virtue? Has she ever seen any rich men work? If working were a good thing, the rich would work too.

PERCY: His character in the film, also called Cantinflas, talks like Groucho Marx but looks little like a famous English movie tramp.

SANDRA CISNEROS: He is the Mexican Charlie Chaplin.

PERCY: That's Mexican-American writer Sandra Cisneros. She remembers seeing Cantinflas movies as a child with her parents in Chicago.

CISNEROS: And, you know, you can never keep up with these Cantinflas movies because it was all about him speaking so quickly.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE)

CANTINFLAS: (Spanish spoken)

CISNEROS: He is famous for Cantinfliando(ph), you know, mixing words and bending them all around. So the audience would laugh, and I got used to these explosions of laughter, not always following that humor but just watching the story and liking him because he was very likable.

PERCY: Cantinflas found himself breaking box office records at crowded theaters in Mexico as well as all over Latin America. Soon, Hollywood came knocking. But it wasn't until 1956 that he found a role that let Cantinflas be Cantinflas. The movie was "Around the World in 80 Days," and he played the scene-stealing valet to Englishman David Niven.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS")

CANTINFLAS: (as Passepartout) It's not Sunday. It's Saturday. We have 10 minutes left.

DAVID NIVEN: (as Phileas Fogg) Look, what in the everlasting blazes are you jabbering about?

CANTINFLAS: It's Saturday. Look for yourself. It's Saturday.

PERCY: The film was a smash. It won the Best Picture Oscar that year, and Cantinflas collected the Golden Globe for Best Comic Actor. It was the highlight of his English language career, but he continued to rule in the Spanish language world.

JEFFREY PILCHER: The language that Cantinflas uses is really all about puns.

PERCY: That's University of Minnesota history Professor Jeffrey Pilcher. His focus is on Mexican cultural history, and he wrote a book on Cantinflas. And it was those puns, he says, that made Cantinflas so hard to translate for the U.S. market. Not so for audiences outside Mexico, though, from Colombia to Chile.

PILCHER: Because his humor was so chaotic, so incomprehensible, I think it allowed people to, even if they didn't get the specific references from that Mexico City dialect, they sort of placed their own jokes in his mouth.

PERCY: Cantinflas continued to make movies in English and Spanish well into the 1980s and even earned a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. A year before his death in 1983, the bible of Spanish language, the Real Academia Espanola, added a verb in his honor: cantinflear, which means, appropriately, talking without saying anything. And his movies are still a touchstone for Latinos, or as Jeffrey Pilcher puts it...

PILCHER: Sort of the way that the "Wizard of Oz" is in the United States.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PERCY: Mario Moreno would have turned 100 years old yesterday. For NPR News, this is Lily Percy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in foreign language) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.