He earned wide popularity with his stage and film persona Cantinflas, usually portrayed as an impoverished campesino slumdweller of pelado origin. The character came to be associated with the national identity of Mexico, and allowed Moreno to establish a long, successful film career that included a foray into Hollywood. Charlie Chaplin once called him "the greatest comedian in the world", and Moreno is often referred to as the "Charlie Chaplin of Mexico".
As a pioneer of the cinema of Mexico, Moreno helped usher in its golden era. His success, as part of Mexico's cinematic blossoming, helped establish Mexico as the entertainment capital of Latin America. In addition to being a business leader, he also became involved in Mexico's tangled and often dangerous labor politics. Although he was himself politically conservative, his reputation as a spokesperson for the downtrodden gave his actions authenticity and became important in the early struggle against charrismo, the one-party government's practice of coopting and controlling unions.
Moreover, his character Cantinflas, whose identity became enmeshed with his own, was examined by media critics, philosophers, and linguists, who saw him variably as a danger to Mexican society, a bourgeois puppet, a kind philanthropist, a venture capitalist, a transgressor of gender roles, a pious Catholic, a verbal innovator, and a picaresque underdog. His character Cantinflas, in attempting to encompass the identity of an entire nation, developed the contradictions and complexities inherent in any attempt to epitomize a country as complex and contradictory as Mexico.
He married Valentina Ivanova Zubareff, of Russian ethnicity, on October 27, 1936, and remained with her until her death in January, 1966. A son was born to Moreno in 1961 by another woman; the child was adopted by Valentina Ivanova and was named Mario Arturo Moreno Ivanova, causing some references to erroneously refer to him as "Cantinflas' adopted son."
He served as president of the Mexican actor's guild known as Asociación Nacional de Actores (ANDA, "National Association of Actors") and as first secretary general of the independent filmworkers' union Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Producción Cinematográfica (STPC).
Following his retirement, Moreno devoted his life to helping others through charity and humanitarian organizations, especially those dedicated to helping children. His contributions to the Roman Catholic Church and orphanages made him a folk hero in Mexico.
In 1993, after his death in Mexico City from lung cancer, thousands appeared on the rainy day for his funeral. The ceremony was a national event, lasting three days. His body lay in state in the Rotonda de los Hombres Ilustres (Rotunda of Distinguished Men) and he was honored by many heads of state and the United States Senate, which held a moment of silence for him.
After his death, a 14-year legal battle ensued between Mario Moreno Ivanova, Cantinflas' son and heir to his estate, and the actor's blood nephew, Eduardo Moreno Laparade over the control of 34 of films made by Cantinflas. The nephew claimed his uncle gave him a written notice to the rights for movies on his deathbed. Moreno Ivanova argued he is the direct heir of Cantinflas and the rights belong to him. Moreno Laparade won the lawsuit twice, but Moreno Ivanova eventually triumphed after two appeals. In 2006, Mario Moreno Ivanova, Jr. won rights to 39 films and name.
At the same time, another legal battle ensued between Columbia Pictures and Moreno Ivanova over control of these films. Columbia claims that it bought the rights to the 34 films four decades ago with the court noting several discrepancies in the papers. Moreno Ivanova wanted the rights to the films to remain his and more generally, Mexico's, as a national treasure. On June 2, 2001 the eight year battle was resolved with Columbia retaining ownership over the 34 disputed films.
Cantinflas has relatives in Houston, Texas and Miami, Florida.
Before starting his professional life in entertainment, he explored a number of possible careers, such as medicine and professional boxing, before joining the entertainment world as a dancer. By 1930 he was involved in Mexico City's carpa (travelling tent) circuit, performing in succession with the Ofelia, Sotelo of Azcapotzalco, and finally the Valentina carpa, where he met his future wife. At first he tried to imitate Al Jolson by smearing his face with black paint, but later separated himself to form his own identity as an impoverished slum dweller with baggy pants, a rope for a belt, and a distinct mustache. In the tents, he danced, performed acrobatics, and performed in the roles of several different professions.
Media figures and intellectuals fleshed out the definition and applications of cantinflismo in subsequent publications. Monsiváis interprets it in the context of the left-leaning presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas, calling it a "mock[ery] of proletariat discourse from glorious senselessness". But perhaps the contemporary writer Miguel del Río's elaboration is the most eloquent:
In the mid-1930s, Cantinflas met Russian producer Jacques Gelman and subsequently partnered with him to form their own film production venture. Gelman produced, directed, and distributed, while Cantinflas acted. Cantinflas made his film debut in 1936 with No te engañes corazón but the film received little attention. He established Posa Films in 1939, producing short films that allowed him to develop the Cantinflas character, but it was in 1940 that he finally became a movie star, after shooting Ahí está el detalle ("There's the rub", literally "There lies the detail"). The phrase that gave that movie its name became a Cantinflas catch phrase for the rest of his career. The film was a breakthrough in Latin America and was later recognized by Somos magazine as the 10th greatest film produced largely in Mexico.
In 1941 Moreno first played the role of a police officer on film in El gendarme desconocido ("The unknown police officer" a play of words on "The Unknown Soldier). By this time he had sufficiently distinguished the peladito character from the 1920s-era pelado, and his character flowed comfortably from the disenfranchised, marginalized, underclassman to the empowered public servant. The political nature of the rhetoric of cantinflismo facilitated this fluidity. He would reprise the role of Agent 777 and be honored by police forces throughout Latin America for his positive portrayal of law enforcement.
Ni sangre, ni arena ("Neither Blood, nor Sand" a play on words on the bullfighter/gladiator phrase "Blood and Sand"), the 1941 satirical film on bullfighting, broke box-office records for Mexican-made films throughout Spanish-speaking countries. In 1942, Moreno teamed up with Miguel M. Delgado and Jaime Salvador to produce a series of low-quality parodies, including an interpretation of Chaplin's The Circus.
The 1940s and 1950s were Cantinflas' heyday. In 1946, he rejected Mexican film companies and instead signed with Columbia Pictures. By this time, his popularity was such that he was able to lend his prestige to the cause of Mexican labor, representing the National Association of Actors in talks with President Manuel Ávila Camacho. The talks did not go well, however, and, in the resulting scandal, Moreno took his act back to the theatre.
On August 30, 1953, Cantinflas began performing his theatrical work Yo Colón ("I, Columbus") in the Teatro de los Insurgentes, the same theatre that had earlier been embroiled in a controversy over a Diego Rivera mural incorporating Cantinflas and the Virgin of Guadalupe. Critics, including the PAN and archbishop Luis María Martínez, called the mural blasphemous, and it was eventually painted without the image of the Virgin.
Yo Colón placed Cantinflas in the character of Christopher Columbus, who, while continually "discovering America", made comical historical and contemporary observations from fresh perspectives. The jokes changed nightly, and Moreno continued to employ his word games and double entendres to jab at politicians.
In 1956, Around the World in Eighty Days, Cantinflas' American debut earned him a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a musical or comedy. Variety magazine said in 1956 that his Chaplinesque quality made a big contribution to the success of the film. The film ultimately made an unadjusted $42 million dollars at the box office. While Niven was billed as the lead in English-speaking nations, Cantinflas was billed as the lead elsewhere. As a result of the film, Cantinflas became the world's most highly paid actor.
Moreno's second Hollywood feature, Pepe, attempted to replicate the success of his first. The film had cameo appearances by Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, and other stars. His humor, deeply rooted in the Spanish language, did not translate well for the American audience and the movie was a notorious box office disappointment. He still earned a Golden Globe nomination for his part. Later in a 1992 American interview, Moreno cited the language barrier as the biggest impediment to his making it big in the United States.
After returning to Mexico, Cantinflas created his own company, Cantinflas Films and continued making movies until his last, El Barrendero, in 1982.
Like Charlie Chaplin, Cantinflas was a social satirist. He played el pelado, an impoverished Everyman, with hopes to succeed. With mutual admiration, Cantinflas was influenced by Chaplin's earlier films and ideology. El Circo (the circus) was a "shadow" of Chaplin's silent film, The Circus and Si yo fuera diputado ("If I Were a Congressman") had many similarities with the 1940 film, The Great Dictator.
Cantinflas' films, to this day, still generate revenue for Columbia Pictures. In 2000, Columbia reported in an estimated USD$4 million in foreign distribution from the films.
Among the things that endeared him to his public was his comic use of language in his films; his characters (all of which were really variations of the main "Cantinflas" persona but cast in different social roles and circumstances) would strike up a normal conversation and then complicate it to the point where no one understood what they were talking about. The Cantinflas character was particularly adept at obfuscating the conversation when he owed somebody money, was courting an attractive young woman, or was trying to talk his way out of trouble with authorities, whom he managed to humiliate without their even being able to tell. This manner of talking became known as Cantinfleada, and it became common parlance for Spanish speakers to say "¡estás cantinfleando!" (loosely translated as you're pulling a "Cantinflas!" or you're "Cantinflassing!") whenever someone became hard to understand in conversation. The Real Academia Española officially included the verb cantinflear, cantinflas, and cantinflada in its dictionary in 1992.
In the visual arts, Mexican artists such as Rufino Tamayo and Diego Rivera painted Cantinflas as a symbol of the Mexican everyman. The American EDM band Mindless Self Indulgence released a song about Cantinflas called "Whipstickagostop".
Cantinflas' style and the content of his films have led scholars to conclude that he influenced the many teatros that spread the message of the Chicano Movement during the 1960s-1970s in the United States, the most important of which was El Teatro Campesino. The teatro movement was an important part of the cultural renaissance that was the social counterpart of the political movement for the civil rights of Mexican Americans. Cantinflas' use of social themes and style is seen as a precursor to Chicano theater.
A cartoon series, the Cantinflas Show, was made in the 1970s starring an animated Cantinflas. The show was targeted for children and was intended to be educational. The animated character was known as "Little Amigo" and concentrated on a wide range of subjects intended to educate children, from the origin of soccer to the reasons behind the International Date Line.
Although Cantinflas never achieved the same success in the United States as in Mexico, he was honored with a star in the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He earned two Golden Globe nominations (winning one) for best actor and the Mexican Academy of Film Lifetime Achievement Award.
The Mario Moreno "Cantinflas" Award is handed out annually for entertainers who "represent the Latino community with the same humor and distinction as the legendary Mario Moreno "Cantinflas" and who, like Cantinflas, utilizes his power to help those most in need."
Cantinflas films are distributed in North America by Laguna Films
For his part, Monsiváis interprets the Moreno's portrayals in terms of the importance of the spoken word in the context of Mexico's "reigning illiteracy" (70% in 1930). Particularly in the film El Analfabeto, (The Illiterate), "Cantinflas is the illiterate who takes control of the language by whatever means he can."
The journalist Salvador Novo interprets the role of Moreno's character entirely in terms of Cantinflismo: "En condensarlos: en entregar a la saludable carcajada del pueblo la esencia demagógica de su vacuo confusionismo, estriba el mérito y se asegura la gloria de este hijo cazurro de la ciudad ladina y burlona de México, que es Cantinflas". ("In condensing them [the leaders of the world and of Mexico], in the giving back to the healthy laughter of the people the demagogic state of their empty confusion, merit is sustained and glory is ensured for the self-contained son of the Spanish-speaking mocker of Mexico, who is Cantinflas.")
In his biography of the comic, the scholar of Mexican culture Jeffrey M. Pilcher views Cantinflas as a metaphor for "the chaos of Mexican modernity", a modernity that was just out of reach for the majority of Mexicans: "His nonsense language eloquently expressed the contradictions of modernity as 'the palpitating moment of everything that wants to be that which it cannot be'." Likewise, "Social hierarchies, speech patterns, ethnic identities, and masculine forms of behavior all crumbled before his chaotic humor, to be reformulated in revolutionary new ways."
|Cinema of the United States|
|1956||Michael Anderson||Around the World in Eighty Days||Passepartout|
|Cinema of Mexico|
|1981||Miguel M. Delgado||El barrendero||Napoleón|
|1977||Miguel M. Delgado||El patrullero 777||Diógenes Bravo|
|1975||Miguel M. Delgado||El ministro y yo||Mateo Melgarejo|
|1973||Miguel M. Delgado||Conserje en condominio||Úrsulo|
|1972||Roberto Gavaldón||Don Quijote cabalga de nuevo||Sancho Panza|
|1970||Miguel M. Delgado||El profe||Sócrates García|
|1969||Miguel M. Delgado||Un Quijote sin mancha||Justo Leal, Aventado|
|1968||Miguel M. Delgado||Por mis pistolas||Fidencio Barrenillo|
|1966||Miguel M. Delgado||Su excelencia||Lopitos|
|1965||Miguel M. Delgado||El señor doctor||Salvador Medina|
|1964||Miguel M. Delgado||El padrecito||Sebastián|
|1963||Miguel M. Delgado||Entrega inmediata||Feliciano Calloso|
|1962||Miguel M. Delgado||El extra||Rogaciano|
|1960||Miguel M. Delgado||El analfabeto||Inocencio Prieto y Calvo|
|1958||Miguel M. Delgado||Sube y baja||Cantinflas|
|1958||Tulio Demicheli||Ama a tus prójimo||Cantinflas|
|1956||Miguel M. Delgado||El bolero de Raquel||Cantinflas|
|1954||Miguel M. Delgado||Abajo el telón||Cantinflas|
|1953||Miguel M. Delgado||Caballero a la medida||Cantinflas|
|1952||Miguel M. Delgado||El señor fotógrafo||Cantinflas|
|1951||Miguel M. Delgado||Lluvia de estrellas||Cantinflas|
|1951||Miguel M. Delgado||Si yo fuera diputado||Cantinflas|
|1950||Miguel M. Delgado||El bombero atómico||Cantinflas|
|1950||Miguel M. Delgado||El siete machos||Margarito|
|1949||Miguel M. Delgado||Puerta, joven (El Portero)||Cantinflas|
|1948||Miguel M. Delgado||El mago||Cantinflas|
|1948||Miguel M. Delgado||El supersabio||Cantinflas|
|1947||Miguel M. Delgado||¡A volar joven!||Cantinflas|
|1946||Miguel M. Delgado||Soy un prófugo||Cantinflas|
|1945||Miguel M. Delgado||Un día con el Diablo||Cantinflas|
|1944||Miguel M. Delgado||Gran Hotel||Cantinflas|
|1943||Miguel M. Delgado||Romeo y Julieta||Romeo de Montesco|
|1942||Miguel M. Delgado||El circo||Cantinflas|
|1942||Miguel M. Delgado||Los tres mosqueteros||Cantinflas / D'Artagnan|
|1941||Carlos Villatoro||Carnaval en el trópico||Cameo|
|1941||Alejandro Galindo||Ni sangre, ni arena||El Chato / Manuel Márquez "Manolete"|
|1941||Miguel M. Delgado||El gendarme desconocido||Badge Number 777|
|1940||Juan Bustillo Oro||Ahí está el detalle||Cantinflas / "Leonardo del Paso"|
|1940||Carlos Toussaint||Cantinflas y su prima (short)||Cantinflas|
|1940||Fernando Rivera||Cantinflas ruletero (short)||Cantinflas|
|1940||Fernando Rivera||Cantinflas boxeador (short)||Cantinflas|
|1939||Fernando Rivera||Jengibre contra Dinamita (short)||Cantinflas|
|1939||Fernando Rivera||Siempre listo en las tinieblas (short)||Cantinflas|
|1939||Chano Urueta||El signo de la muerte||Cantinflas|
|1937||Arcady Boytler||Águila o sol||Polito Sol|
|1937||Arcady Boytler||¡Así es mi tierra!||El Tejón|
|1936||Miguel Contreras Torres||No te engañes corazón||—|