Mexico marks century of comic Cantinflas' birth

August 11, 2011 - 5:30 AM
Mexico Cantinflas

In this Monday July 25, 2011 photo, a young man poses for a picture next to a photograph of the late Mexican comedian and actor Mario Moreno

MEXICO CITY (AP) — It is hard to think of a Mexican Everyman without turning to Cantinflas, the tattered, droopy-pants character created by comic Mario Moreno in the "tent theaters" of Mexico's slums in the 1930s.

With the approach of Friday's centenary of his birth, he has been celebrated as a touchstone of Mexican national identity, fondly remembered for his convoluted doublespeak and clever underdog persona he portrayed for neary six decades until his death in 1993.

He is best known in the rest of the world for his turn as David Niven's resourceful valet in "Around the World in Eighty Days," but the pencil-mustached Cantinflas contributed something much deeper in Mexico.

While leading man Pedro Infante represented Mexico's self-image as a brave, good-looking, velvet-voiced hero, Cantinflas reflected the poorer side of Mexico that gets by on its wits.

Moreno's son Mario Arturo Moreno Ivanova recalls the comic meeting Spain's King Juan Carlos:

"It is a great pleasure to meet Cantinflas in person, because I had only seen him in the movies," Juan Carlos said.

"Jeez, it's even a greater pleasure for me to meet a king in person, because I'd only ever seen them in a deck of cards," Moreno responded.

Wise behind his seeming illiteracy, able to snowball the pompous with a stream of clever but meaningless verbiage, Cantinflas was able to make the transition to movies, where he can still be seen winning out over snobs, bureaucrats and corrupt politicos.

He purposely shaved his normally full mustache to imitate the sparse growth of the "peladitos," the underclass Mexican laborers barely able to grow facial hair because of their Indian heritage.

As a sort of Groucho Marx of Mexico, no starchy bluenose or puffed-up society dame was safe from his sly wit. Charlie Chaplin reportedly once called Moreno the greatest comic in the world, and both men developed "tramp" characters.

"In the whole world, there is just you and I," Moreno's son recalled the English comic telling Moreno at a meeting in 1972.

But in Mexico, with its enormous disparities in income, his takedowns of the rich, powerful corrupt and arrogant came with a bigger dose of social justice. "There must be something bad about work, because if there weren't, the rich would have cornered the market in it," Cantinflas says in one movie.

"He represents a lower class that lacks everything, even the most basic necessities. That's why they called them 'pelados,'" said University of Guadalajara cinema historian Eduardo de la Vega Alfaro. Pelado in Spanish literally means peeled or hairless, but is used in Mexico to refer to someone who is penniless.

In the week leading up to the 100th anniversary of the comic's birth, his 51 movies have been shown on television and in theaters, stills and posters from his films displayed along Mexico City's main boulevard, and snippets of sound tracks from his many performances played in the city's subway.

The origin of the nickname Cantinflas remains obscure.

Moreno's son says one version attributes it to stage fright: When his father got up on stage early in his career, he froze up and managed only to babble an incoherent, stream-of-consciousness monologue. Someone in the crowd reportedly shouted "cuantas te inflas," or "how much have you been drinking?" The contraction of that phrase reportedly stuck.

Whether he was portraying a doctor, a cop or a street-sweeper in the movies, Cantinflas could be depended on to show up unexpected, ill-dressed and ill-advised but full of homely wisdom. His impact was so deep that "cantinflear" has become a verb in Mexico, meaning to talk around an issue in high-flown language without really saying anything.

Mexican writer Jorge G. Castaneda wrote in his latest book, "Tomorrow or the next day: The Mystery of Mexicans," that Cantinflas reflected a deep-seated trait in Mexico to avoid conflict.

"Cantinflas managed to run away from any trouble, and get his way based on pure palaver and loquaciousness, the use of double entendres and euphemisms ... sometimes verging on the incomprehensible," Castaneda wrote.

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Associated Press writer Edwin Tamara contributed to this report.