Maggie Van Ostrand
Super Star, Super Man
Mareno Reyes was the sixth son of 15 children, who became a world-wide
cinema super star, was married to the same woman for over 30 years,
and made enormous financial contributions to the Mexican poor. You
may not think you know of him, but you do. He was known as Cantinflas.
Photo Courtesy Amauta Spanish School, Cusco, Peru
There are two stories about how he chose that name. One story is that
his family regarded show business as less than respectable, and so
he changed his name in order to avoid bringing shame upon them. The
other is that, at one of his first nightclub engagements, a heckler
taunted him with, "En la cantina, tu inflas!" ("In the bar room, you
drink!"). For some reason, this taunt amused him, and he shortened
it into Cantinflas.
began his career when he was 16 years old, as a song-and-dance man
in "carpas," variety shows performed in tents. He appeared in Vera
Cruz, Jalapa, and Mexico. He was also a circus clown, and a bullfighting
clown whose job it was to divert the bull's attention from a fallen
matador, as well as an amateur bullfighter. In addition, he found
work as a singer, boxer, shoeshine boy, and ticket taker, all of which
experience he would use in film roles.
His early films include "No Te Enganes Corazon/Don't Deceive Yourself,
My Heart" (1936) and "El Signo de la Muerte/Sign of Death" (1939),
but it was "Ahi Esta el Detalle/There Is the Detail" (1940), which
began his reign as the Spanish-speaking world's most popular comic.
Usually sporting double daubs of mustache juxtaposed with the outer
edges of his upper lip like a pair of hairy apostrophes, his dark
and curly mane was tousled, and he sometimes sported a hat perched
at an impish angle. Cantinflas essentially played the "pelado", an
impoverished, bumbling simpleton, who found himself fighting the rest
of the world in order to achieve justice.
His characters defended the weak, touched our hearts, and had a problem
keeping their pants up.
Charlie Chaplin himself, upon seeing the work of his younger Mexican
colleague, called him "the greatest comedian in the world."
One of Cantinflas' trademarks was his rapid talk as he outsmarted
authorities with a lengthy stream of chatter that sounded like gibberish.
He was Inspector Clouseau long before Peter Sellers.
In his honor, the Spanish Academy created a verb, cantinflear, the
meaning of which is to talk rapidly, yet what you're saying doesn't
make any sense.
Two dramatic films of Vincent Blasco Ibanez' 1913 definitive bullfighting
novel, "Blood and Sand," had already hit the American silver screen
-- the Rudolph Valentino-Nita Naldi version in 1922 and the Tyrone
Power-Rita Hayworth version in 1941, and Cantinflas simply was unable
to resist making his own satirical interpretation, which became the
personal favorite of all his 50 films. "Ni Sagre Ni Arena/Neither
Blood nor Sand" (1941), was a riotous, hilarious spoof of both the
Tyrone Power and Rudolph Valentino versions.
Cantinflas was every Saturday Night Live regular, The Three Stooges,
and all seven dwarves squeezed into one little Mexican man, whose
energy level surpassed the octane level in PemEx.
the mid-50s his fame from films including "Un Dia con el Diablo/A
Day with the Devil" (1945) and "El Bombero Atomico/The Atom Bomb"
(1951) had spread over the world. It got the attention of Hollywood
producer, Mike Todd.
Todd cast Cantinflas in the pivotal role of Passepartout, bicycle-riding,
resourceful, comic valet to David Niven's rigidly snobby character,
Phineas Fogg, in the lavish production of "Around the World in 80
Days" (1956). Cantinflas' performance ranked among the most memorable
in this film, which was the very first to ever use cameo roles. Cameos
included Red Skelton, Marlene Dietrich, Noel Coward, Shirley MacLaine,
Jose Greco, Ronald Colman, Buster Keaton, Beatrice Lilly, and Frank
Sinatra, among others of equal fame. Not to mention that it was narrated
by Edward R. Murrow.
For his portrayal of Passepartout, Cantinflas was awarded the coveted
Golden Globe by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.
Cantinflas followed this triumph with another lavish, cameo-ridden
vehicle, "Pepe" (1960), which was neither a financial nor a commercial
success. Although he made various U.S. television appearances ("Ed
Sullivan Show," mystery guest on "What's My Line?"), he never made
another U.S. film.
Instead, Cantinflas returned home to Mexico, continuing his collaboration
with director Miguel M. Delgado which had begun in 1942 with "El Gendarme
Desconocido/The Unknown Policeman".
In a 1972 series of cartoons, "The Adventures of Cantinflas", and
in features like "Un Quijote Sin Mancha/A Quixote Without a La Mancha"
(1969) and "El Ministro y Yo/The Minister and Me" (1976) the gracefully
aging comic still delighted his immense following.
spent much of the 1980s involved in philanthropic work, especially
for the benefit of children, and he was honored with a lifetime achievement
award by the Mexican Academy of Cinemagraphic Arts and Sciences in
Cantinflas, who died a multi-millionaire at the age of 83, never forgot
where he came from. Much of his money was given over to charitable
work, including high-quality, low-income housing for Mexico City's
poor. He was hailed as a national hero, and a lengthy period of official
His adopted son, Mario Arturo Moreno Ivanova, a graduate of Betty
Ford Clinic, was once wed to a former Miss Guanajuato, who wrote a
tell-all book about their marriage. After his father's death, Moreno
Ivanova became involved in a twelve-year, multiple-party struggle
over the rights to the Cantinflas films.
It is sad that the son did not share his father's sense of irony,
as when he made the pithy comment:
"El mundo debería reír más. Pero después de haber comido." (The world
should laugh more. But after having eaten.) -- Cantinflas
Copyright Maggie Van Ostrand
"A Balloon In Cactus"
April 28, 2006 column
the World in 80 Days" (1956).
and the Chaos of Mexican Modernity