Cantinflas: In Sadness, We Smile
April 28, 1993 -- In the movies he was Cantinflas, a poor but happy man who had the innocence of a child. In real life he was Mario Moreno, Latin America's greatest comedian and film star. When he died in Mexico last week, the whole Spanish-speaking world was saddened, thinking about all the times he made us smile.
You may have read the obituaries, noting that thousands of Mexicans gathered to mourn his death, that he made 49 movies, that he was the faithful servant of David Niven in the 1956 classic "Around the World in 80 Days," that even Charlie Chaplin considered him "the world's greatest comedian."
But to Latinos, Cantinflas, 81, was much more. Americans loved John Wayne because he played a tough hero, but Latinos loved Cantinflas for a totally different reason: He played a humble peasant, a penniless jack-of-all-trades who used his wit and good nature to get out of impossible situations.
For a half-century, movie houses throughout the world have flashed scenes of Cantinflas teaching children valuable lessons about life. For those who grew up watching his movies, just the sight of him brought out the child in adult Latinos.
As a boy, he taught me that a poor man doesn't need money to enjoy life, that happiness is achieved by trusting your fellow man, that everyone deserves a smile. When I met him in New York in 1983, struck by the chance to speak to the idol of my youth, Moreno showed me that in real life he was as sensitive as the character he portrayed.
For Cantinflas, laughter was the solution to all the world's problems. "I keep thinking that the world needs to laugh, that no one who is laughing is capable of carrying a rifle to kill someone," he told me. "I keep thinking that happiness in the world will be achieved when there's more understanding."
The character of Cantinflas — with his arched eyebrows, funny mustache, unevenly buttoned shirt, battered hat, and baggy pants -- creates an unusually humble style of comedy, based on the typical traits of a Mexican peasant. "Cantinflas is a guy who tries to be happy and then tries to make others happy," Moreno once said. "He is a poor guy with great sentiments."
When he created the character, the word Cantinflas had no meaning. Today, it is part of the Spanish language. As a verb, cantinflear means to talk much and say little; as a noun, cantinflada is a long-winded, meaningless speech and Cantinflas means lovable clown.
Born in Mexico City on Aug. 12, 1911, the sixth son of a family of 15, Moreno grew up under the violence, famine, and epidemics caused by the Mexican Revolution. But when he was still in grammar school he fed himself by singing and dancing for money in the streets of Mexico City.
He attended agriculture school and studied medicine for three years but opted to become a bantamweight fighter, then an acrobat, and then a comic actor. "I wanted to be a doctor, but I wanted money for my family more," he said. "So I danced a little, sang a little, and talked a lot."
Moreno worked with a traveling circus, where he developed the character of Cantinflas and gained such an immense following that the name soon became a major attraction in Mexican theaters. The growth of the Mexican movie industry propelled him to international fame. Although he made a fortune, throughout his career Moreno never forgot the poverty from which he came, always giving money to agencies that would help real-life Cantinflases. Receiving honors all over the world, he brought prestige and recognition to all Latinos.
"If I was born again," he told me, "I would devote my life to giving people happiness all over again." And you will, dear Cantinflas. Your movies — the laughter they brought us and the lessons you taught us — are eternal.
Published in The Record