Latin America
3:29 pm
Fri August 29, 2014

Cantinflas, With His Puns And Satire, Is Back (And Still Relevant)

Originally published on Fri August 29, 2014 7:40 pm

Charlie Chaplin reportedly called him the "greatest comedian alive." Mexican actor Mario Moreno, or "Cantinflas" as he was known, starred in scores of films from the 1930s up to the 1980s. In Latin America, he's a beloved icon. In the U.S., he's best known for his Golden Globe-winning turn as the ingenious valet Passepartout in Around the World in 80 Days.

A new film about the legendary comic opens in U.S. theaters this weekend and will soon premiere in Mexico.

Cantinflas is so popular, he even changed the Spanish language. There's a verb in Spanish: cantinflear. It means to talk in so many circles and puns that everyone ends up completely confused. It was the character's signature move when caught in a tight spot.

He was a scrappy, mouthy, working-class hero, with a mustache like quotation marks around his mouth. He always saved the day, and he always got the girl.

In the new movie, Cantinflas is played by Spanish actor Oscar Jaenada. True to form, the dialogue throughout the movie is filled with slang and double entendres. This is a pillar of Mexican humor, according to Gustavo Arellano, who writes the column "Ask a Mexican" for the OC Weekly in Southern California.

"When Americans think of Mexican humor, they think of the big, over-the-top pratfalls. But Mexican humor is far more complex than that," Arellano says. "I would argue far more interesting in wordplay than American has even ever tried to. And Cantinflas, with all his puns and double entendres, was the grand exemplar of that."

But will today's audiences still find him funny?

Pantelion Films, the brainchild of Lionsgate and Televisa, is banking on it. The studio has been courting the booming Latino market in the U.S. The film is mostly in Spanish — except for the scenes that take place in Hollywood where Michael Imperioli of Sopranos fame plays Mike Todd, the American producer who fights to bring Cantinflas to the U.S.

The film's producers are betting not only that audiences will still find Cantiflas funny but that they will also continue to connect with his political satire. Lead actor Jaenada says that word for word, everything Cantinflas said in his films about politics rings true today in Latin America.

Early on in the biopic, there's a scene in which a young, very poor Cantinflas goes to a fancy theater house and watches a satire about political corruption. In the audience, a bloated politician laughs raucously. "You see?" a friend leans over and tells Cantinflas. "In real life, they never admit their wrongs. But when they see them played out on a stage, they laugh." Cantinflas took that advice and ran with it.

Check out the scene of the classic 1952 Cantinflas movie If I Were a Deputy.

Cantinflas is a barber giving a haircut to a crooked government official, who is threatening him. Cantinflas starts lecturing the official about democracy. It's Cantinflas 101: going around in confusing, pun-filled circles. But the joke is on the politician. "You know what a democracy is, sir?" Cantinflas asks. "No," the corrupt politician responds. "Do you?"

"Well I don't know, sir. But I can imagine," Cantinflas says.

This is what made Cantinflas so beloved. Professor Juan Gabriel Moreno, who teaches theater at the Autonomous National University of Mexico, says Cantinflas' revenge against the rich and authorities is the revenge of Mexico itself.

Gabriel Moreno says you have to understand what was happening in Latin America at the time: So much of the continent was under abusive oligarchic dictatorships. Cantinflas was just another guy trying to survive.

And when he bamboozled a cop or a politician, Cantinflas was just doing what an entire people fantasized about doing: talking back.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Charlie Chaplin called him the greatest comedian alive. Mexican actor Mario Moreno or Cantinflas as he was known, stared in scores of films from the 1930s up until the 1980s. In the U.S. he's best known as the ingenious valet, Passepartout in "Around The World In 80 Days." His performance in the 1956 film earned him a Golden Globe. Throughout Latin America, Cantinflas is a beloved icon. And a new film about him opens in U.S. theaters this weekend and will soon premiere in Mexico. From Mexico City, NPR's Jasmine Garsd reports on the Comic's legacy.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: There's a verb in Spanish, cantinflear, it means to talk in so many circles and puns everyone ends up completely confused. The word comes from Cantinflas the character created by Mario Moreno. He was a scrappy, mouthy, working class hero with a mustache like quotation marks around his mouth. He always saved the day and he always got the girl. But the last Cantinflas movie came out more than 30 years ago, just how popular is Cantinflas today, here in his native Mexico? I went for a walk through the streets of the capital to find out. I asked a garbage man.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

(Speaking Spanish)

GARSD: He liked it when Cantinflas played a street sweeper. The fruit stand guy liked when he played a shoeshine guy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

(Speaking Spanish)

GARSD: And I asked a taxi driver, who says everything he did was just so funny.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

(Speaking Spanish)

GARSD: In the new movie Cantinflas is played by Spanish actor Oscar Jaenada. In this scene Cantinflas runs into an old buddy.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CANTINFLAS")

OSCAR JAENADA: (As Cantinflas) (Speaking Spanish)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (As Unidentified character) (Speaking Spanish)

GARSD: The dialogue is filled with slang and double entendres. Afterwards the actor's perplexed Russian wife asks him, was that Spanish you were speaking? To which he responses

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CANTINFLAS")

JAENADA: (As Cantinflas) Puro Mexicano.

GARSD: Pure Mexican.

GUSTAVO ARELLANO: Mexican's humor is some of the most complex, wonderful, intellectual humor I would argue in the world.

GARSD: Gustavo Arellano writes a column for the OC Weekly in Southern California. It's called, Ask a Mexican. So, I asked him, what makes it Cantinflas so funny?

ARELLANO: When Americans think of Mexican humor they just think of the big, over-the-top, pratfalls. But Mexican humor is far more complex than that. I would argue far more interesting in wordplay than American humor has ever even tried too. And Cantinflas in all his puns and double entendres was the grand exemplar of that.

GARSD: But will today's audiences still find him funny? Pantelion Film, the brainchild of Lions Gate and Televisa is banking on it. They've been courting the booming Latino market in the U.S. The film is mostly in Spanish except for the scenes that take place in Hollywood, where Michael Imperioli of "Sopranos" fame, plays Mike Hyde, the American producer who fights to bring Cantinflas to the U.S. The film's producers are betting not only that audiences will still find Cantinflas funny but that his political satire will resonate today as well.

JAENADA: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: Lead actor, Oscar Jaenada, says word for word everything Cantinflas says in his films about politics rings true today in Latin America. Early on in the biopic there's this scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CANTINFLAS")

JAENADA: (As Cantinflas) (Speaking Spanish)

GARSD: A young, very poor Cantinflas goes to a fancy theater house and watches a satire about political corruption. In the audience, a bloated politician laughs raucously. You see? A friend leans over and tells Cantinflas, in real life they never admit their wrongs. But when they see them played out on the stage they laugh. Cantinflas took that advice and ran with it. Here's a bit from a classic 1952 Cantinflas movie, "If I Were The Deputy."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IF I WERE THE DEPUTY")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As unknown character) (Speaking Spanish)

GARSD: Cantinflas is a barber giving a haircut to a crooked government official who's threatening him. Cantinflas starts lecturing the official about democracy. It's Cantinflas 101, going around and confusing pun filled circles. But the joke is on the politician.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IF I WERE THE DEPUTY")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As unknown character) (Speaking Spanish)

GARSD: You know what democracy is, Cantinflas asks?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IF I WERE THE DEPUTY")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As unknown character) (Speaking Spanish)

GARSD: No, the corrupt politician responds. Do you? Well I don't know sir, but I can imagine. This is what made Cantinflas so beloved. Professor Juan Gabriel Moreno teaches theater at the Autonomous National University of Mexico.

MARIO MORENO: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: He says Cantinflas is revenge against the rich and the authorities. It's the revenge of Mexico itself. He says you have to understand what was happening in Latin America at the time. So, much of the continent was under abusive oligarchic dictatorships. Cantinflas was just another guy trying to survive. And when he bamboozled a cop or a politician, he was just doing what an entire people fantasized about doing - talking back. Jasmine Garsd, NPR News, Mexico City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.