Cantinflas: The Greatest Unknown Comic

September 2, 2014

Methinks there are but a few of my constant readers or indeed, many American filmgoers, who remember and celebrate the work of the great Mexican film comic Mario Moreno (1911-1993), best known under his nombre de cine, Cantinflas. 

If he is recalled at all, it is for one of his two major American films, Around the World in 80 Days (1956), the star-studded Best Picture in which he was the second male lead as Phileas Fogg’s valet Passepartout, and for which he won that year’s Golden Globe for best actor in a musical or comedy. Less known, and rightly so, is his title performance in 1960’s all-star Pepe, Columbia’s cameo-laden bomb that still hasn’t come to home video, if it ever will. Of course, Pepe is one of my personal guilty favorites.

Anyway, the new biopic Cantinflas aims to fill that memory gap in a handsomely mounted bilingual production—with bilingual subtitles—about his rise from humble beginnings to his eventual status as the world’s most popular comedian, a pronouncement made by none other than Charlie Chaplin himself. 

Mexico’s Xenio Films has gone all out to portray the panoply of his life, starting as a failed boxer in Vera Cruz, then as a comic in tent shows, moving on to his stint at the Mexico City branch of the Folies Bergere, and on to stardom at Churubusco Studios, queen of the golden age of Mexican cinema. 

As a biopic, Cantinflas falls into the genre’s de rigueur cliches, like womanizing, overdrinking, and megalomaniacal behavior on the set, all typical elements of the supposedly warts-and-all overview of a real life. However, in its favor it also delves into the rural roots of his stage personality, his political beliefs and activism, and his formation of a Mexico City actors guild to rival the official, and deeply corrupt, thespian union. 

But that’s only half of this movie. The other half is set in 1956, as rapscallion producer Mike Todd (Michael Imperioli) is in the process of lining of dozens of unpaid guest stars for his Jules Verne epic. With only days away from a major United Artists press conference that will announce the glittery lineup, Todd is sweating bullets as he tries to convince the giant international star Cantinflas—of whom he has never heard—to take a small role as an Apache chief. 

The film flips back and forth between the “past”, 1931-45, and the “present,” 1956, and although we know Moreno eventually will agree to sign up, it will be only in the much larger part of Passepartout. But nobody in this movie knows that fact until near the end. 

A number of cinema stars are impersonated, on both sides of the border, although the Latin stars fare far better. The actresses who play the classically beautiful Dolores Del Rio and the smoldering Maria Felix, for instance, are much more credible than their Hollywood counterparts. The Elizabeth Taylor doppelganger is costumed and made up correctly, down to the precisely placed beauty mark on her right cheek, but she never comes across as anything but a wishful, hollow double. The same is true of the briefly seen Yul Brynner (curiously pronounced “Briner,” with a long i), who looks more like Otto Preminger, not to mention the Brando and Sinatra impressionists who seem interchangeable. Worst is the characterization of a portly Chaplin, in reality an eternally good-looking man who was anything but Hitchcock-like stout. 

Further, the movie is more interested in delving into the soap opera of Moreno’s troubled home life, with a wife who can’t give him sons, rather than showing his open heart and generous philanthropy, including the building of decent low-income housing for the poor, the socioeconomic class from which he emerged. 

Still, there are plenty of reasons to go see this cinematic adulation of a character strongly associated with his native country’s identity. Not the least of which is Oscar Jaenada’s uncanny embodiment of Cantinflas, whose physiognomy, vocal inflections, and acrobatic body language are so immediately familiar to his fans, like myself. Jaenada’s work is right there at the top, alongside such masterful achievements like Paul Muni as Benito Juarez, Bette Davis as Elizabeth I, Charles Laughton as Henry VIII, and Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn. 

Si, es verdad. And what a great opportunity this could be to re-introduce oneself, or to expose one’s family, to a commemoration of Ciudad de Mexico’s own beloved Little Tramp.