Cantinflas and the Chaos of Mexican Modernity

JEFFREY M. PILCHER: Wilmington, DE: SR Books, 2001.

"Cantinflas," as he was known to his adoring public, was the comic alter ego of Mario Moreno, Mexico's most famous comedian and movie star. Moreno's film career lasted from 1936 to 1981 and encompassed a total of 42 feature films made in Mexico and Hollywood. He was the most popular movie star of the 1940s, the "golden age" of Mexican film-making. Pilcher's book, a biography in tandem of Mario Moreno and Cantinflas, is divided into an introduction, seven chronological chapters, and a conclusion, following the career of Mario Moreno and the development of Cantinflas from his early days in street theater (including the historical background and precursors of his comedic style), through his successful film career, his participation in labor disputes, his relationships with prominent government officials, and the international, class, and cultural proliferation and limitations of his Mexican character.

Moreno began his career in 1930, in itinerant tent theaters in working class neighborhoods of Mexico City and the provinces, playing the pelado, the stock character who represented Mexico's lower classes, hiding his low self-esteem behind a belligerent image. With his baggy pants hung low on his hips, his shirt and hair disheveled, and his sparse whiskers, Cantinflas presented himself as the racially-mixed, rural-born, migrant to the big city who, in his confusion about urban ways, makes fun of urbane people and institutions. Moreno is said to have stumbled upon his trademark comedic circumlocutions by accident. Having forgotten his lines, Moreno began babbling whatever came into his mind. The audience found Cantinflas's extemporaneous, incoherent verbiage funnier than the jokes that Moreno had forgotten, and he used the style for the rest of his career. Eventually, Cantinflas's characteristic speech was acknowledged by the highest authorities of the Spanish language when the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language added "the verb cantinflear, meaning to talk a lot without saying anything" (p. xviii) to its dictionary.

Although Cantinflas is often compared to another comic hero of the downtrodden, Charlie Chaplin, Pilcher regards Cantinflas as something of a Mexican Groucho Marx character, one who uses his skill with words to puncture the pretensions of the wealthy and powerful. But in contrast to the Marx Brothers' team of salaried writers, Mario Moreno consistently refused to pay good screenwriters to write films for Cantinflas. While he remained true to his roots in tent theater, Moreno's character resonated deeply in the Mexican soul, and Cantinflas's intimacy with the national psyche made the character something of a co-creation with the Mexican masses. This degree of national identification was also a limitation that makes his comedy less accessible to international audiences. Pilcher sympathetically explains the social and historical context of Cantinflas's jokes, the wordplay involving characteristically bawdy puns, and the reasons why Mexicans found Cantinflas so uproariously funny, especially in the early years. It is often said that a joke that needs explaining is not funny to begin with, but Pilcher proves that this is not always the case. His skillful explications of the context and meanings of Cantinflas's humor tells us a great deal that is worth knowing about twentieth-century Mexico, while communicating much of the humor as well.

What Pilcher calls a dual biography of Moreno and Cantinflas has a broader meaning as well. As Moreno became rich and successful, his relationship with his character Cantinflas developed its own contradictions, which mirrored the relationship between society and government in Mexico. In Pilcher's words, "The tensions that existed between the millionaire comedian and his working-class character mirrored the social contradictions of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which employed populist rhetoric to legitimize the co-optation of the popular sectors while following an economic program of 'trickle-down' development favoring wealthy capitalists" (p. 211). Pilcher's book is a success on many levels and a welcome addition to the history of modern Mexico.

Donald F. Stevens Drexel University

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