On DVD: A Quarter-Billion Cantinflas Fans Can't Be Wrong
Who's Cantinflas? You may not have heard of him, but hundreds of millions of Latinos and Latinas from Buenos Aires to Beverly Hills know him as the most famous Mexican movie star ever -- a comic figure so infused in popular Spanish-speaking culture that his name is officially an adjective and verb recognized by the Royal Spanish Academy. Think about it: A quarter of a billion people use your name in everyday conversation during your lifetime (he died in 1993). That's props. And now Sony is paying tribute of its own.
The new Cantinflas DVD collection of 11 comedies has been trumpeted and designed as if they were Chaplin classics, which, for five generations of Mexicans, is not a stretch. Cantinflas was merely a Mexican tent-vaudeville comedian who began making movies -- forming his own companies right off the bat -- in the mid-'30s. By WWII he was a star, playing a seemingly clueless Mexican peasant who always came out ahead and who actually was never quite so clueless. His comic trump card was the capacity to double-, triple and quadruple talk anyone into a dizzying fog of misunderstanding, to escape authority or responsibility, cops or women or hoods. This became known as cantinflismo, and here became the lingua of American comic Prof. Irwin Corey and a famous improv-comedy exercise at Second City called Gibberish Interpreters. For Latinos, Cantinflas's lowly nitwit obfuscations weren't just funny -- they were an inspiration, a way to turn the flood of bureaucratic BS that lower-class citizens hear everyday and drown the bigwigs with it instead.
Truth be told, the films do show their age; comedy is subjective as hell and tied to its moment like no other type of movie. (Imagine how meager the Apatow wastrel-twentysomething-guy comedy will seem in 20 or 30 years.) On top of that, Cantinflas's whole show was about the misuse of language, so subtitles have a helluva time keeping up and keeping the puns straight. But Cantinflas himself, fey and guileless, could often be hilarious, like a sixth Marx Brother raised in a chicken coop and set upon the world with absolutely nothing to lose. (He made two American films, and won a Golden Globe for the second-banana role in Around the World in 80 Days.) His Mexican scenarios sometimes had political balls; Si Yo Fuera Diputado (1952) is essentially a Mexican revisit of The Great Dictator but taking aim at Mexican politicians, not Hitler, while the Cold War farce Su Excelencia (1967) shotguns everybody in sight. Cantinflas plays the accidental representative from some piss-poor Latin nation stuck between the alignment power struggle between the capitalist-behemoth Dolaronia and the hyper-socialist Pepeslavia.
In fact, Cantinflas was always a political scarecrow in the class wars of Latin America; no one could ever really decide if he was mocking the peasantry and serving the elite, or vice-versa, or all of the above. Not that it matters now -- now, he's history, a giant in a movie tradition that unspooled when we weren't looking.