Cantinflas: An Example of What Is MexicanBy: Alonso Díaz de la Vega @diazdelavega1
A version of this text was published in the April 2018 edition of the Cine Premiere magazine.
Long before hearing it from Cantinflas himself, I had already heard the phrase: “¡A sus órden’s jeeefe!” (At your service, boss.) Another one was: “It is a lack of ignorance”. When he wanted to be funny, my grandfather used to “Cantinflear” (speak like Cantinflas), but at some point, he decided to be funny all the time and we stopped understanding him. Watching Cantinflas movies I discovered not just his language, but where the language uncles, grandparents and even the concierge of my building came from. Whether they imitated some phrases or quoted of the celebrated comedian verbatim, my world, like that of many other Mexicans, sounded like the incoherent freestyle that a man invented. It is inevitable to remember now the end of Ahí está el detalle (1940, dir. Juan Bustillo Oro), when, stunned by Cantinflas’ defense during trial, lawyers and judge begin to speak like him. Prophecy? I can’t believe it’s completely conscious, but perhaps the character that influences his immediate context as much as the actor behind him would do for a whole country does not deserve another adjective.
However, Cantinflas did not invent Mexico. He was not the first to call people “changuito” or change the structure of certain words. His accent was influenced by the popular neighborhoods and his technique was an accident. The story of how during a panic attack on stage, Mario Moreno’s babbling turned him into Cantinflas is a famous one. Instead of booing him or shutting him up throwing chairs, the audience laughed and thus began a prolific, but above all revolutionary, career. In the middle of the Cold War, and in a predominantly Catholic country, Cantinflas would manage to introduce left-wing thought into films that would, on the one hand, turn him into a champion for the poor and, on the other, into a fantasy for reformist representatives.
In El padrecito (1964, dir. Miguel M. Delgado), Moreno plays Father Sebastián, a loud-mouthed and upright priest – Cantinflas in cassock, basically – who refuses to follow orders that contradict his complex vision of the world. One afternoon, during the meal with a priest who could replace Sebastian, the old man scolds the young man for teaching the children socialist ideas during catechism. His parents are asking for raises, he explains. But Sebastian does not see it as a bad thing. Supported by the socialist encyclicals of Pius XI, Leo XIII and John XXIII, the new village priest demonstrates the links between Christianity and left-wing policy. “No, it is a mistake to want to finish off the rich,” he concludes. “We must end the poor first, father”. He’s not talking about an extermination, of course, but about an equitable distribution of wealth.
In early films such as Heads or Tails (1937, dir. Arcady Boytler), Ahí está el detalle and El gendarme desconocido (1941, dir. Miguel M. Delgado), Cantinflas lived the dreams of the working class when he entered, ragged and defiant, to the houses, nightclubs and hotels of the aristocracy. Cantinflas manages to deceive a millionaire in Ahí está el detalle, earning him and a large fake family he’s never met before to access to his mansion. In El gendarme desconocido, he tries to seduce a beautiful vedette colluding with a group of thieves until she realizes that he is an undercover and incorruptible policeman. That character, agent 777, would return in two other films, El bombero atómico (1952, dir. Miguel M. Delgado) and El patrullero 777 (1978, dir. Miguel M. Delgado), not as a symbol of the current authority but of the one that was desired then – and now. The desire for social justice is echoed in films like Soy un prófugo (1946, directed by Miguel M. Delgado), where Cantinflas imagines the hard life that awaits him when he leaves prison, and Si yo fuera diputado (1952, dir. Miguel M. Delgado), where he goes from being a humble barber to a powerful but gentle politician. The comparison with The Great Dictator (1940, dir. Charles Chaplin), and with its director, Charles Chaplin, is inevitable.
Both comedians acted dozens of trades and shared a controversial orientation towards the left. In El bombero atómico and El bolero de Raquel (1957, dir. Miguel M. Delgado), Cantinflas adopts helpless little ones like Chaplin does in The Kid (1921, dir. Charles Chaplin), but physical humor is more recurrent in the Englishman than it is with the Mexican. Yes, Cantinflas danced and fought to make us laugh in many films, but more often than not, he based his humor on busy explanations of matters as different as the atom and legal medicine. Because his tirades were untranslatable, his forays into Hollywood were not what he expected.
In Around the World in 80 Days (1956, dir. Michael Anderson, John Farrow) and Pepe (1960, dir. George Sidney), Cantinflas interacted with legends such as Jack Lemmon, Kim Novak, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and Buster Keaton. Sadly, the language barrier prevented him from taking advantage of his speciality, the “Cantinfleo”, and his dance and bullfighting routines did not compare with those of the greatest Hollywood comedians.
But his mischievous national identity freed his rebelliousness and allowed him to challenge the norms of Catholic society. It is unusual to see explicit innuendo like the one used by Cantinflas in Ahí está el detalle to insinuate that they have annoyed him. His flirtatiousness was, at the time, a declaration of sexual freedom. As a union leader, it is impossible to call Moreno a virtuoso because of his closeness to the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), but it is important to see him as a figure of his time: imperfect, like everyone else, but more challenging than most. His place is indelible and his attempt to enthrone the poor, with his language and in his tricks, will always be admirable. Cantinflas will always be an example of what is Mexican.