Mario Fortino Alfonso Moreno Reyes aka Cantinflas, was born in Mexico City on August 12, 1911. Although he took on the name Cantinflas early in his career he is best remembered for playing the part of an impoverished peasant or pelado, a derogatory term used to describe a type of city bum in the 1920s. Visually he is remembered by his distinctive mustache, and in character as a campesino with his loose fitting pants held up with a rope. He was the best-known Latin American comedian at the time but earned notoriety north of the border in for his co-staring role in the 1956 film ‘Around the World in 80 days’ and is recognized as a major figure during the mid-century Golden Age of Mexican cinema.
Although the name ‘Cantinflas’ at the time was meaningless, it subsequently entered the Spanish lexicon as the verb to cantinflear or to obfuscate and talk gibberish, at which he excelled. According to one obituary the name was invented to prevent his parents from finding out that as a young man he worked in traveling tents as an entertainer, which at the time had little social merit. This is doubtful, as his family was very poor, his father was a mail carrier, and he was one of eight children. More likely it was a result of inadvertent and incoherent babbling during one of his earlier performances and a contraction of “En la cantina inflas!” [At the cantina you inflate). As he matured as an actor he became excellent at satire, punning, and parodies often with political overtones. “Everyone went to see Cantinflas talking nonsense,” said film historian Gustavo Garcia. “He was famous for talking a lot and saying nothing. It’s an art–a Mexican art.” He has been described as Woody Allen meets Charlie Chaplin.
Cantinflas had a very interesting career, early on trying boxing and dancing and supposedly even medicine. Although considered politically conservative, he was a life-long outspoken supporter of the poor and served and important role in combatting the government’s control over labor unions known as charrismo. In retirement he devoted himself to helping charities, in particular those supporting poor children such as orphanages.
He married Valentina Ivanova Zubaref, a Russian woman, whom he met in one of the traveling tents and he had one child out of wedlock that she adopted. They were married until her death in 1966. After Cantinflas’ death from lung cancer, his son and nephew, in an ironic cantinflada battle, hotly contested his will for twelve years, which his son ultimately won. His financial transactions surfaced during the proceedings, revealing ostensible money laundering during the late 1950s and 1960s, where he and his producer-business partner set up several corporations and accounts in the Grand Cayman Islands and the tiny country of Liechtenstein to avoid Mexican taxes. His estate was a mess, and at that time his contract with Columbia Pictures, and rights to his films, was also unclear. Less than two months before he died and in the midst of chemotherapy, Cantinflas signed an agreement that granted Columbia Pictures an additional 11 years of distribution rights for his final eight films.
As he continued to produce films in Hollywood his sense of humor with double-entendres and political satire was lost on his American audience and scripts were re-written to project him as a bumbling Mexican stereotype. According to historian Gustavo Garcia ‘The real conflict of Cantinflas was his fight against his own character,” Garcia said. “He always wanted to be in Hollywood. But unfortunately, his humor was extremely local. In a way, he was betraying not only Cantinflas, but the audience who loved that character.” Right before his death the family bickered over whether he should die in Mexico or the US, as they debated which court would be more favorable in determining the outcome of his estate. So “cantinfla-esque!”