The Mexican actor Cantinflas has been compared to two very different American comedians – Charlie Chaplin and Groucho Marx. Like Chaplin’s tramp, Cantinflas represents the Mexican Everyman with his pelado character. Like Groucho Marx, he spurns authority figures and uses wit and wisecracks to get himself in and out of trouble. In these ways, he has been seen by many to embody the characteristics of his home nation. Post-revolutionary Mexicans made up a wide range of socio-economic divisions. Most of the population was made up of mestizo people of mixed heritage. Many of them had been rural agrarian workers but were in transition to a more urban way of life as Mexico made its first attempts to modernize. Cantinflas’s success as a world-famous comedian enabled him to portray the desires and qualities of the Mexican people to an international audience.
Cantinflas was born Mario Moreno Reyes in August, 1913. He was the sixth of fifteen born to a respectable but poor working class family near Mexico City. Although his parents tried to obtain a good education for him at the national agricultural school, Moreno rejected formal education for a life in show business. He became a member of the carpa, a travelling tent show (similar in some ways to the American vaudeville circuit). He started out as a dancer, then left the show to try boxing, then was lured back when they offered him more money. According to legend, Moreno got his big break when the announcer for the show failed to show. Moreno, who was asked to replace him, was struck with a serious bought of stage freight, jumbling all his words until he was incomprehensible. The audience laughed uproariously, believing this to be part of the act. A heckler in the audience shouted, “Callete, Cantinflas!” and a character was born.
By the late 1930s, Cantinflas was a national sensation. He became Mexico’s favourite film star during the 1940s, the Golden Age of Mexican cinema. This era parallels the “Golden Age of Hollywood,” spanning from the mid-1930s until about 1970. As in Hollywood, Mexico produced a number of its own film stars and blockbuster films. Some of these stars, like Dolores del Rio, were able to have successful careers in Hollywood and Mexico, but usually only if they could master both Spanish and English. The comedies were seen as portraying most realistically the life of the average Mexican, rather than the glamour and allure shown in the more dramatic pictures.
These are the types of films in which Cantinflas’s character was showcased. Cantinflas made his way into the film industry first with film shorts. He was given the opportunity to make a full-length feature when producers realized audiences loved the shorts more than the pictures they were paying to see.
In 1956, Cantinflas made his international film debut in the film adaptation of Jules Verne’s AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS starring David Niven. The film included several cameo appearances of Hollywood stars including Noel Coward, John Gielgud, Charles Boyer, Cesar Romero, Ronald Colman, Shirley MacLaine, Peter Lorre, Red Skelton, Marlene Dietrich, Frank Sinatra, Buster Keaton, and many many many more. Although Cantinflas’s performances in America were praised by the film critics, his Hollywood career was short-lived. AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS (1956) was followed by another Hollywood movie PEPE (1960), this time starring Cantinflas in the lead and also including a star lineup of cameos. Unfortunately, Moreno’s comedy, so heavily based on spoken routines, did not translate as well for English-speaking audiences as it had in his home country.
Cantinflas would become very involved in union work, especially in the cinema industry of Mexico. Through both his films and his charity work, Cantinflas helped to promote social enterprises in Mexico. Just as his character had done in movies, Moreno stood up for the little man, helping raise funds for charities and supporting philanthropic work, especially for children. In his movies, Cantinflas “viewed the future of his country in an optimistic light. He had become so popular that he actually won votes in presidential elections.” (“The Riddle of Cantinflas: On Laughter and Revolution“)
Cantinflas’ image is based on a Chaplin-like Everyman – poor, urban, working class. Both Cantinflas and Chaplin’s tramp characters are described by scholars as representative of the “urban debris of industrialization, rootless migrants to the big city who survived by their wits in a bewildering and coldhearted environment.” The tramp and the pelado both “possessed an innate geniality that elicited sympathy for their underdog status” (Cantinflas and the Chaos of Mexican Modernity). However, although their characters were very similar, their positions in their respective societies were somewhat different. This difference is what identifies Cantinflas with a specifically Mexican environment. Although Cantinflas was certainly most popular with the middle and lower classes of Mexican society, there is evidence that suggests that the upper class elite, those who were able to travel in international circles, also expressed pride in the movie star’s popular international success.
Cantinflas’s attitude as el pelado is also representative of the hopes and desires expressed by the Mexican people during this era. Just as Mexico’s transitional state shaped Cantinflas’s identity, so too did Cantinflas begin to shape the “expectations and identity of the Mexican people.” Poet Muriel Rukeyser captures the essence of this relationship in her poem, “A Charm for Cantinflas:”
All things human clumsy and fair
As graceful as loving as stupid as true
And on this stage always the clown of our living
Gives us our sunlight and our incantation
As sun does, laughing, shining, reciting dawn, noon, and down,
Making all delight and healing all ills…