Comic film actor, producer, screenwriter, Mario Fortino Alfonso Moreno Reyes, known professionally as Cantinflas was born in the Santa Maria la Ribera neighborhood of Mexico City. He grew up in Tepito. A pioneer of cinema in Mexico, he was famed for portraying poor peasants and became identified as a national treasure. Referred to as “The Charlie Chaplin of Mexico” Cantinflas had a mammoth film career in his homeland and a successful one in Hollywood as well; winning a Golden Globe for Best Actor in the David Niven vehicle, Around the World in 80 Days. Chaplin himself called Cantinflas the best comedian alive. However, his influence extended beyond entertainment as an outspoken advocate for the impoverished, leading to strides in the struggle to combat union corruption.
Cantinflas was raised in a tough part of town. His quick wit was his survival mechanism and he took that comic personality to work in the circus. Initially he tried to be the next Al Jolson, putting on blackface, but it didn’t feel right to him so he played with a variety of characters until hitting onto the street dweller with the distinctive moustache. It was also under that circus tent that he got the name Cantinflas. It was a nonsensical moniker to hide the fact he was a performer from his parents. His folks thought such a profession was disgusting. Well, the trick must’ve worked because he went from the circus tent to theater to movies.
Cantinflas was a political activist. During his career he was president of the national Association of Actors; the Mexican writers guild. Cantinflas was also the first secretary general of the independent film workers union. Once retired he contributed heavily to charities to help the unfortunate and children.
In America it was the language barrier that prevented Cantinflas from receiving greater recognition. When Around the World in 80 Days was shown in English speaking countries David Niven was billed as the star. Cantinflas was the star everywhere else; giving him international heft and making him the top paid actor of his era.
Unfortunately that era ended and Cantinflas, like many performers before and after, suffered backlash. His follow up American star vehicle, Pepe was dead on arrival and his once beloved Mexican peasant, el pelado, came to be viewed as a stereotypical embarrassment. Critics attacked him professionally and politically. They said he was a danger to Mexican society, a bourgeois puppet and a transgressor of gender roles. Whereas defenders saw him as a verbal innovator, a pious Catholic and a kind philanthropist.
Cantinflas died of lung cancer on April 20, 1993 in Mexico City. He’d been a lifetime smoker. His body lay in state for three days and thousands of mourners attended his funeral to pay their respects in the rain. He had his own production company, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and did animated voices to educate children. He had songs written about him and his name became part of slang. He is credited with the rise in Chicano theater and spearheading the golden era of Mexican films. Even the US Senate had a moment of silence to mark his passing. Not bad for a comic.
By Darryl “D’Militant” Littleton