While in Journalism school, not that long ago, I was assigned to do a term paper on actor and entertainer Mario Moreno, better known as Cantinflas. The only thing I knew of him was that he appeared in a big-budget movie produced by Mike Todd based upon the famous novel by H.G. Wells called, "Around the World in 80 Days."
Cantinflas was brilliant in the star-studded movie and I was now even more intrigued to learn more about him. Yet, I was taken aback in my research at that time, to find very little written about him in English among American film history sources. The only book in English that gave me an extensive and comprehensive account of Cantinflas was a rather scholarly type of work by Latin American Studies professor, Jeffrey M. Pilcher. His book, "Cantinflas and the Chaos of Mexican Modernity published in 2001 is a gem. Well at least it was for this reporter.
To me Picher's work was like watching the PBS documentary on Freda Kahlo. Wow! A total revelation of fascinating and complex dimensions. Yet, like Kahlo and others vulnerable, poignant and very human. I was later to realize that much of what Cantinflas stood for like all mosaics of human history was filled with complexity. He was and still is a legend. (See his image on the pre-paid phone card, as testimony). A star in his own right that can easily stand next to the great ones of cinema. It is just that many Americans or rather "Norte Americanos" don't know that. The diet of most cinema, especially mass media cinema, in the USA has been limited
The meaning behind many of the nuances Cantinflas conveyed whether consciously or unconsciously was deep. And, yet, without getting too heavy, his artistry was universal. Many of his era and even before his time expressed the human condition in a humorous and heart-felt way. Think of Charlie Chaplin's "Little Tramp" character or the antics of Laurel and Hardy or Harold Loyd's "the glasses character" and you have the idea. Much of what they did went back to Vaudeville and some historians, I have read say that they can be traced to an even earlier time of the "commedia dell'arte."
Yet for 20th Century audiences, the blending of humor and social commentary seems to be at the heart of many of the "beloved" characters that were embrassed at that time by the public, not only here in America but in other places like Mexico.
Mexico has a very complicated and rich history that has been often over simplified in the minds of most Americans, especially when touching about the topic of immigration and migrant workers. Yet, what I found very difficult was the fact that so much of Mexican history is definitely linked with our own here in the USA. There is no easy, simplified way to size up Mexico and while Cantinflas might seem like a dandy comedian with a "clown-like" demeanor and poor man's attire, his contribution to the cinema is much more.
A leading scholar of Latin American Studies at the University of Minnesota, professor Pilcher specializes in the history of Mexico and its culture. He provides public lectures frequently and was most gracious when contacted for comment.
Pilcher took time from his busy schedule to respond to this reporter by saying, "one thing to keep in mind about Cantinflas is that he shows how humor can change with
historical and social context." "In the 1930s, noted Pilcher, Cantinflas performed biting
political satire, but decades later, his character was seen as more like a children's clown. Nevertheless, Cantinflas remained a popular figure," said Pilcher.
Oh and if you get the chance, check out Professor Pilcher's book "Cantinflas and The Chaos of Mexican Modernity." Also, if you like a great movie and want to see a comic genius at work check out Mike Todd's "Around the World in 80 Days," the movie even has a hit title song to catch your ear too!