I can’t write about Cantinflas (Mario Moreno) without first mentioning his cultural and comic heir, Chespirito (Roberto Gómez Bolaños) whose death on November 28, 2014 was a day of transcontinental mourning throughout the Latino world.
Although one of the world’s most beloved clowns, Chespirito is little known in the United States. You cannot turn on a television in South America, however, without being assailed with reruns of El Chavo del Ocho, his situation comedy that ran from 1971-93, and was an inspiration for The Simpsons. Neither can you channel surf in Mexico or South America without running across one or more of the 51 movies Mario Moreno made between 1937-82.
Both actors were given their public monikers by audience members. For Moreno, a drunk in the audience, mistaking him for a fellow drunk, supposedly heckled him with the moniker “Cantina Fly,” which was amended to Cantiniflas. Belanos came by his name by less apocryphal means, as Chespirito, which in Spanish means “Little Shakespeare.”
“Cantinflas (2014) “is Sebastian del Amo’s second biopic of a legend of Mexican cinema. His first, “The Fantastic World of Juan Oral (2012)” was an under- distributed tribute to the surrealist-by-default who directed 35 B-movies from 1935-68. “Cantinflas” was designed for more universal appeal by combining the history of the actor’s rise to fame in Mexico with Hollywood producer Mike Todd’s efforts to sign him for a cameo role in “Around the World in 80 Days.” Outside of Oscar Jaenada’s brilliant impressions of Cantinflas’ comic routines, I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the Mexican sequences, but the Hollywood scenes are pure bull.
For one thing, Charlie Chaplin keeps popping up in the studio cafeteria. If he was indeed hanging around the United Artist studios (which he wasn’t, because he had returned to England to direct “A King in New York,” ) and had Mr. Chaplin still been active at United Artists, which he formed with Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, would he not have been interested in providing the small funding it would have taken to cover the salary required of his favorite clown to debut in a Hollywood picture? He comes off as an ineffective presence whose sole function is to endorse the Mexican comic for the North American public that may be unaware of him.
If you can accept the fraudulent with the fantastic, and ride along with the choppy editing between the Hollywood and Mexican scenes, you may well find much to enjoy in this jumbled scrapbook of a celebrity biopic.
Around the World in 80 Days (1956)
Todd finally did manage to sign Cantinflas onto what he pitched as the greatest movie the world has ever seen. His plan was to sign every international celebrity he could get for an unpaid cameo. In “Cantinflas,” we are presented with the ridiculous notion that if the Mexican comic agreed to Todd’s terms, the rest of the world would follow. What happened is that Cantinflas signed a contract with Todd, but as co-star to David Niven, not as an Indian walk-on. And the rest of the world did not follow. Although Todd managed to sign quite a few English and French personalities, it wasn’t until this circumnavigation of the globe entered the Pacific harbor of California that the stars came out in force.
“Around the World in 80 Days” did not win the 1956 Oscar for Best Picture because it was a good movie, but because it gave the public what it wanted at the time. They could stay home and watch westerns, crime shows, dramas, and comedies on television. What they wanted was an adventure, a virtual trip around the world. Ballooning through the French alps, riding trains and elephants though the jungles of India, crossing the ocean on a clipper ship, bullfighting and flamenco dancing in Spain, Kabuki theater in Japan, and clashing with Indians across the North American plains. When they plopped their asses into the movie house seats, the ticket holders were not preparing to watch a movie, but to take a trip. Pacing and plotting didn’t matter because they were not on movie time but on travel time. It didn’t matter that the actors were as inert as the cameras. It was the natural scenery exotic behavior of the natives that mattered. This was a mondo movie before mondo movies were invented. And it was designed for the whole family.
Everybody was a winner except the actors, who were posed like tourists in postcard settings. Among them, only David Niven seemed to enjoy standing about reciting his lines. Shirley Maclaine tended to retreat to the background, and poor Cantinflas was placed in the foreground, in comic situations, but was not allowed to do anything funny. It is no wonder that he hated working in Hollywood films and returned only once for 1960’s “Pepe,” a more entertaining romp with dozens celebrities in bit parts, but without the train-window scenery that made the earlier picture a hit.