1911 was not a particularly humorous year in Mexico, what with the bloody Revolution exploding in the countryside. But in that same year the seeds were sewn for decades of future laughter, for Fortino Mario Alfonso Moreno Reyes was born August 12.
Señor Moreno Reyes, better known as Cantinflas, was to become of the most, if not the most, recognized figures in the history of the Mexican cinema. With his mischievous eyes and trademark moustache (it resembles nothing more than two locomotives descending down opposite sides of the mountain of his upper lip, viewed from great distance), he delighted Mexican audiences with his quirky charm for four and a half decades.
Cantinflas’s movies, though they often carried a deeper meaning beneath the surface, were uniformly humorous, and the leading man’s personality changed little from one role to the next. He was the underdog, whether working as a waiter, street sweeper, priest, or doctor. Cantinflas’ goals were the most basic: a pretty lady, a neat sum of money, and the freedom to do what he wanted. To achieve this he conned his way past wealthy snobs, abusive bosses, authoritarian police, and anyone else who stood in his path.
Cantinflas’ comic trademark—aside from his inimitable walk—was confusion. Whether hitting on the scion of a rich family or talking himself out of a jam with the police, Cantinflas verbally shifted directions with more grace and skill than Ronaldiño on the soccer pitch.
Fortino Mario Alfonso Moreno Reyes grew up in the rough-and-tumble Tepito neighborhood of Mexico City, the sixth of twelve brothers and sisters. He tried his hand at a number of jobs as a youth, from boxer to circus hand. Ever the performer, he was always at home in front of his crowd, and he developed a following in the folk theater circuit. His national fame, however, had to wait until Cantinflas hopped onto the silver screen.
At some point while cutting his teeth in the local theaters, Moreno Reyes adopted “Cantinflas” as his stage name. Some say that the name was nonsense, used merely to hide his acting from disapproving parents. Others attribute the name to the actor co-opting and condensing heckler’s taunts from early in his career. Whatever its origins, Cantinflas is the moniker by which Moreno Reyes will forever be known.
His first film, Don’t Cheat Yourself, Dear hit the theatres in 1936. In a typically off-the-wall plot, Cantinflas finds out early on that he has a terminal illness. Inspired to live the rest of his days doing good deeds, he sets out to help those in need. Instead, he ultimately gets drunk and wakes up with a winning lottery ticket. Happily, he also learns that the doctor who diagnosed him is a quack headed for prison. The formula hadn’t changed a whole lot by 1982, when Cantinflas made his final film, The Street Sweeper. In the interim, he made close to fifty movies. The popularity of the Mexican legend peaked in the 1940s and 1950s, which account for almost half of the features in which Cantinflas starred.
Cantinflas made a brief attempt to transfer his Mexican success to Hollywood, but wound up staying mostly on the southern side of the Rio Grande. Although he won Golden Globes for each of his two American movies (Around the World in Eighty Days and Pepe), his humor was inextricably linked to jokes in his native Spanish, and did not translate as well into English. Despite the relative success of his brief foray into American pictures, his legacy lies with the movies he made in Mexico.
Part of that legacy is known in Mexico as Cantinflasismo, which is a label given to both his on-screen style and its social goals. One of the most enduring characterizations of Cantinflas’ societal value was the label “the dictator of optimism.” Perceptions of the actor’s career are closely tied to the period in which he lived—the 70 years of semi-authoritarian rule by the Institutional Party of the Revolution (PRI), during which national optimism was not always in abundance. Critics have interpreted his trademark—using confusion to con the powerful—as a thumb in the eye to all powerful PRI system. Where the PRI bosses wanted to control the conditions for public discourse, cheery Cantinflas denied them this right, without them even realizing it.
Moreno Reyes lived for more than a decade following his last film. He gained added admiration (though not much more fame, for such would have been impossible) through his many contributions to charitable causes, which usually benefited children. Moreno Reyes succumbed to lung cancer in 1993, occasioning a three-day funeral ceremony attended by thousands of fans.
As funny as his career was, Mexicans treat Cantinflas with something approaching reverence. English descriptions of his work tend to string together comparisons to a number of different American actors (Charlie Chaplin always appearing on the list), because his impact was so all-encompassing. He was a pioneer in the Mexican film industry, a trail-blazing comic, a prolific actor, a union heavyweight, and, most importantly, the clearest portrayal of the Mexican Everyman. There are few, if any, performers who come closer to inhabiting the national identity than Cantinflas does with Mexico. He was, and remains, loved by the rich and poor alike. Which is fitting, because in loving Cantinflas, Mexicans are really just admiring themselves.
-Originally Published January 2008