At the dawn of Mexico’s golden age of cinema, a single man helped start the party. He remains an indelible star and symbol of his country’s humility, humor and people. Fortino Mario Alfonso Moreno Reyes, professionally known as Cantinflas, was this man. Mario Moreno catapulted himself from sideshow performer to master of his own three-ring circus. The actor, producer and comedian crafted his own destiny and simultaneously started a cinematic revolution in his native land.
Born in 1911, Moreno was the eldest of eight children and grew up in a tough barrio of Mexico City called Tepito. There his quick wit and street savvy kept him out of trouble. Attributes that he would later employ to benefit his stage and screen career. Before embracing his stage persona Moreno tried numerous professions from dancing to medicine. After making money as an amateur boxer, Moreno left the ring for the sideshow carpas where he performed as a bull rider and acrobat. Legend has it this is where his alter-ego Cantinflas was born. Moreno’s only son claims that his father’s stage fright caused him to babble uncontrollably during his first performance. The result was an audience member heckling him with, “Cuanto inflas!” (You’re so annoying!). The shtick (and contraction of the phrase) stuck and won him affection and approval.
Baggy pants tied with rope, a shrunken cap and a pencil-thin moustache became trademarks of Cantinflas’ campesino. The other was his babbling chatter that his underdog characters would use to lampoon the rich and talk about issues affecting the poor. His early stage efforts would eventually lead to a film appearance in the movie No te engañes corazón. The first of over 55 films he made throughout his almost six decade career.
But Moreno also worked behind the camera. In 1939 Moreno started a film production company – Posa Films with producer Jacques Gelman where he acted while Gelman produced. Posa’s films are where Moreno developed his Cantinflas character. Many also credit the company with starting Mexico’s golden era of cinema.
After several years of success in Mexico Moreno’s star ascended even further in 1940 after shooting Ahí está el detalle. Hollywood took notice and in 1946, Columbia Pictures signed Moreno to star in feature-length films that were made and distributed exclusively for Mexican audiences. However, American audiences also got to see Cantinflas’s brilliance in the film Around the World in 80 Days which gained him a Golden Globe award in 1956.
Cantinflas next graduated to leading man status in the American film Pepe. As the star, Cantinflas specific Spanish language satire was lost in translation and the film did poorly. Moreno didn’t mourn the failure but instead returned to his beloved Mexico and continued making films. His physical comedy and witty dialogue earned the respect of his contemporaries like Charlie Chaplin, a comic legend who called Cantinflas “the greatest comedian that ever lived.”
Off screen Moreno was active in his country’s labor movement supporting the Mexican Asociación Nacional de Actores and other labor organizations. He is also well known for funding the construction of low-income housing for the poor in Mexico City. Upon retiring Moreno spent the rest of his life involved in philanthropic causes for children and the poor.
After six decades in the spotlight, Moreno died in 1993 of lung cancer in Mexico City. He laid in state in the capital and his funeral lasted for three days with thousands of mourners in attendance. His recent centennial birthday was marked by books, exhibits, postage stamps and tributes around the world.
Cantinflas impact on Latino culture is still felt today. “Cantinflaer,” which means to speak nonsense and doubletalk, was accepted as a word by the Real Academia de Espanol and the Spanish language dictionary in 1992. It’s also believed that Cantinflas inspired the Chicano theater that was a hallmark of the Chicano movement in the United States.
For his dedication to his country, his craft and being our very first king of comedy, he is a true don.