As a pioneer of the cinema of Mexico, Moreno helped usher in its golden era. In addition to being a business leader, he also became involved in Mexico's tangled and often dangerous labor politics. Although he was a political conservative, his reputation as a spokesperson for the downtrodden gave his actions authenticity and became important in the early struggle against charrismo, the one-party government's practice of co-opting and controlling unions.
In 1961, Cantinflas appeared with Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson at shopping centers and supermarkets in San Antonio, Texas, to support the successful Democratic nominee to the United States House of Representatives for Texas' 20th congressional district, Henry B. Gonzalez, who defeated his Republican challenger, John W. Goode. Gonzalez was the first Hispanic elected to the Texas State Senate and as a U.S. congressman from Texas.
Moreover, his character Cantinflas, whose identity became enmeshed with his own, was examined by media critics, philosophers, and linguists, who saw him variably as a danger to Mexican society, a bourgeois puppet, a kind philanthropist, a transgressor of gender roles, a pious Catholic, a verbal innovator, and a picaresque underdog.
Mario Fortino Alfonso Moreno Reyes was born in the Santa María la Ribera neighbourhood of Mexico City, and grew up in the tough neighbourhood of Tepito. He was one of eight children born to Pedro Moreno Esquivel, an impoverished mail carrier, and María de la Soledad Reyes Guízar (from Cotija, Michoacan). The others were Pedro, José ("Pepe"), Eduardo, Esperanza, Catalina, Enrique, and Roberto.
He made it through difficult situations with the quick wit and street smarts that he would later apply in his films. His comic personality led him to a circus tent show, and from there to legitimate theatre and film.
He married Valentina Ivanova Zubareff, of Russian ethnicity, on October 27, 1936, and remained with her until her death in January 1966. A son was born to Moreno in 1961 by another woman; the child was adopted by Valentina Ivanova and was named Mario Arturo Moreno Ivanova, causing some references to erroneously refer to him as "Cantinflas' adopted son". Moreno Ivanova died on May 15, 2017, of a presumed heart attack.
He served as president of one of the Mexican actors' guild known as Asociación Nacional de Actores (ANDA, "National Association of Actors") and as first secretary general of the independent filmworkers' union Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Producción Cinematográfica (STPC). Following his retirement, Moreno devoted his life to helping others through charity and humanitarian organizations, especially those dedicated to helping children. His contributions to the Roman Catholic Church and orphanages made him a folk hero in Mexico.
He was a Freemason; He was initiated at Chilam Balam Lodge.
A lifelong smoker, Cantinflas died of lung cancer on April 20, 1993 in Mexico City. Thousands appeared on a rainy day for his funeral. The ceremony was a national event, lasting three days. His body lay in state in the Rotonda de Las Personas Ilustres (The Rotunda of Illustrious Persons, formerly known as Rotunda of Illustrious Men) and he was honored by many heads of state and the United States Senate, which held a moment of silence for him.
A 20-year legal battle followed between Mario Moreno Ivanova, Cantinflas' son and heir to his estate, and the actor's blood nephew Eduardo Moreno Laparade over the control of 34 films made by Cantinflas. The nephew claimed his uncle gave him a written notice to the rights for movies on his deathbed. Moreno Ivanova argued that he was the direct heir of Cantinflas and that the rights belonged to him. Moreno Laparade won the lawsuit twice, but Moreno Ivanova eventually triumphed after two appeals. In 2005, Mario Moreno Ivanova, Jr. won the rights to 39 films and the name.
At the same time, there was another legal battle between Columbia Pictures and Moreno Ivanova over control of these films. Columbia claimed that it had bought the rights to the 34 films four decades earlier, although the court noted several discrepancies in the papers. Moreno Ivanova wanted the rights to the films to remain his, and more generally Mexico's, as a national treasure. On June 2, 2001 the eight-year battle was resolved with Columbia retaining ownership over the 34 disputed films.
As a young man, Cantinflas performed a variety of acts in travelling tents, and it was here that he acquired the nickname "Cantinflas". According to one obituary, "Cantinflas" is a meaningless name invented to prevent his parents from knowing he was in the entertainment business, which they considered a shameful occupation. Cantinflas confirmed this version in 1992, in his last television interview.
Before starting his professional life in entertainment, he explored a number of possible careers, such as medicine and professional boxing, before joining the entertainment world as a dancer. By 1930 he was involved in Mexico City's carpa (travelling tent) circuit, performing in succession with the Ofelia, Sotelo of Azcapotzalco, and finally the Valentina carpa, where he met his future wife. At first he tried to imitate Al Jolson by smearing his face with black paint, but later separated himself to form his own identity as an impoverished slum dweller with baggy pants, a rope for a belt, and a distinctive mustache. In the tents, he danced, performed acrobatics, and performed roles related to several different professions.
In the mid-1930s, Cantinflas met publicist and producer Santiago Reachi and subsequently partnered with him to form their own film production venture. Reachi produced, directed, and distributed, while Cantinflas acted. Cantinflas made his film debut in 1936 with No te engañes corazón (Don't Fool Yourself Dear) before meeting Reachi, but the film received little attention. Reachi established Posa Films in 1939 with two partners: Cantinflas and Fernandez. Before this, Reachi produced short films that allowed him to develop the Cantinflas character, but it was in 1940 that he finally became a movie star, after shooting Ahí está el detalle ("There's the rub", literally "There lies the detail"), with Sofía Álvarez, Joaquín Pardavé, Sara García, and Dolores Camarillo. The phrase that gave that movie its name became a "Cantinflas" (or catchphrase) for the remainder of his career. The film was a breakthrough in Latin America and was later recognized by Somos magazine as the 10th greatest film produced largely in Mexico.
In 1941, Moreno first played the role of a police officer on film in El gendarme desconocido ("The Unknown Police Officer" a play on words on "The Unknown Soldier). By this time, he had sufficiently distinguished the peladito character from the 1920s-era pelado, and his character flowed comfortably from the disenfranchised, marginalized, underclassman to the empowered public servant. The rhetoric of cantinflismo facilitated this fluidity. He would reprise the role of Agent 777 and be honored by police forces throughout Latin America for his positive portrayal of law enforcement.
Ni sangre, ni arena ("Neither Blood, nor Sand" a play on words on the bullfighter/gladiator phrase Blood and Sand), the 1941 bullfighting film, broke box-office records for Mexican-made films throughout Spanish-speaking countries. In 1942, Moreno teamed up with Reachi, Miguel M. Delgado, and Jaime Salvador to produce a series of low-quality parodies, including an interpretation of Chaplin's The Circus.
The 1940s and 1950s were Cantinflas' heyday. In 1941, Reachi, the Producer rejected Mexican Studios companies and instead paid Columbia Pictures to produce the films in its Studios in Hollywood. By this time, Cantinflas' popularity was such that he was able to lend his prestige to the cause of Mexican labor, representing the National Association of Actors in talks with President Manuel Ávila Camacho. The talks did not go well, however, and, in the resulting scandal, Moreno took his act back to the theatre.
On August 30, 1953, Cantinflas began performing his theatrical work Yo Colón ("I, Columbus") in the Teatro de los Insurgentes, the same theatre that had earlier been embroiled in a controversy over a Diego Rivera mural incorporating Cantinflas and the Virgin of Guadalupe. Critics, including the PAN and archbishop Luis María Martínez, called the mural blasphemous, and it was eventually painted without the image of the Virgin.
Yo Colón placed Cantinflas in the character of Christopher Columbus, who, while continually "discovering America", made comedic historical and contemporary observations from fresh perspectives. For the first few months, he persuaded the King and Queen of Spain to fund his voyage so that he could let his wife `drive' so she could make a wrong turn and discover Mexico instead, allowing him to also discover Jorge Negrete so that the Queen - an ardent fan - could meet him. When Negrete died just before Christmas of 1953, he changed it first to Pedro Infante until his death four years later, and then finally to Javier Solis until his death in 1966.
In 1956, Around the World in 80 Days, Cantinflas' American debut, earned him a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a musical or comedy. Variety magazine said in 1956 that his Chaplinesque quality made a big contribution to the success of the film. The film ultimately made an unadjusted $42 million at the box office (over $355 million in 2013 dollars). While David Niven was billed as the lead in English-speaking nations, Cantinflas was billed as the lead elsewhere. As a result of the film, Cantinflas became the world's best paid actor.
Moreno's second Hollywood feature, Pepe, attempted to replicate the success of his first. The film had cameo appearances by Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland and other stars. His humor, deeply rooted in the Spanish language, did not translate well for the American audience and the movie was a notorious box office disappointment. He still earned a Golden Globe nomination for his part. Later in a 1992 American interview, Moreno cited the language barrier as the biggest impediment to his making it big in the United States.
After returning to Mexico, Cantinflas starred in the comic drama El bolero de Raquel (1957), the first Cantinflas film to be distributed to the United States by Columbia Pictures. The film was followed by more Cantinflas-Reachi-Columbia productions: El analfabeto (1961), El padrecito (1963), and Su excelencia (1967). After Su excelencia, Cantinflas began to appear in a series of low-budget comedies (also directed by Miguel M. Delgado), which were produced by his own company "Cantinflas Films". These films lasted until El Barrendero, in 1982.
Like Charlie Chaplin, Cantinflas was a social satirist. He played el pelado, an impoverished Everyman, with hopes to succeed. With mutual admiration, Cantinflas was influenced by Chaplin's earlier films and ideology. El Circo (the circus) was a "shadow" of Chaplin's silent film, The Circus and Si yo fuera diputado ("If I Were a Congressman") had many similarities with the 1940 film, The Great Dictator. Cantinflas' films, to this day, still generate revenue for Columbia Pictures. In 2000, Columbia reported in an estimated US$4 million in foreign distribution from the films.
Among the things that endeared him to his public was his comic use of language in his films; his characters (all of which were really variations of the main "Cantinflas" persona but cast in different social roles and circumstances) would strike up a normal conversation and then complicate it to the point where no one understood what they were talking about. The Cantinflas character was particularly adept at obfuscating the conversation when he owed somebody money, was courting an attractive young woman, or was trying to talk his way out of trouble with authorities, whom he managed to humiliate without their even being able to tell. This manner of talking became known as Cantinflear, and it became common parlance for Spanish speakers to say "¡estás cantinfleando!" (loosely translated as you're pulling a "Cantinflas!" or you're "Cantinflassing!") whenever someone became hard to understand in conversation. The Real Academia Española officially included the verb, cantinflear, cantinflas and cantinflada in its dictionary in 1992.
In the visual arts, Mexican artists such as Rufino Tamayo and Diego Rivera painted Cantinflas as a symbol of the Mexican everyman. The American electronic dance music band Mindless Self Indulgence released a song about Cantinflas called "Whipstickagostop".
Cantinflas' style and the content of his films have led scholars to conclude that he influenced the many teatros that spread the message of the Chicano Movement during the 1960s-1970s in the United States, the most important of which was El Teatro Campesino. The teatro movement was an important part of the cultural renaissance that was the social counterpart of the political movement for the civil rights of Mexican Americans. Cantinflas' use of social themes and style is seen as a precursor to Chicano theater.
A cartoon series, the Cantinflas Show, was made in 1972 starring an animated Cantinflas. The show was targeted for children and was intended to be educational. The first animated version animated by Santiago Moro and his brother Jose Luis Moro for Televisa in the early 1970s (Cantinflas Show) which educated children by meeting such notable people such as Chopin, Louis Pasteur, Albert Einstein and William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet as well learning how important water and oil is and educational parodies of some of his famous movies like Su Excelencia [La Carta with incidental music from Aaron Copland's El Salón México] In the second version his character was known as "Little Amigo" and concentrated on a wide range of subjects intended to educate children, from the origin of soccer to the reasons behind the International Date Line. The second animated series animated in 1979 and dubbed in English in 1982 was a joint venture between Televisa and Hanna-Barbera and Mario Morenos voiced "Little Amigo"/Cantinflas in the Spanish version and Don Messick voiced "Little Amigo" and John Stephenson as the narrator in the English version. Both The Cantinflas Show and Amigos and Friends aired in the mid 1990s on Univision and Televisa re aired The Cantinflas Show in the mid 1990s.
Although Cantinflas never achieved the same success in the United States as in Mexico, he was honored with a star in the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He earned two Golden Globe nominations (winning one) for best actor and the Mexican Academy of Film Lifetime Achievement Award. His handprints have been imbedded onto the Paseo de las Luminarias for his work in motion pictures.
The Mario Moreno "Cantinflas" Award is handed out annually for entertainers who "represent the Latino community with the same humor and distinction as the legendary Mario Moreno "Cantinflas" and who, like Cantinflas, utilizes his power to help those most in need". Cantinflas films are distributed in North America by Laguna Films.
Moreno's life is the subject of the biographical film Cantinflas (2014, directed by Sebastian del Amo). It stars Óscar Jaenada, who portrays a young Mario Moreno attempting to gain respect and make a living as an actor, and award-winning actor Michael Imperioli as Mike Todd, an American film-producer struggling to film his masterpiece. The film is centered in Moreno's personal life, and in the development of Todd's Golden Globe Award-winning 1956 film Around the World in 80 Days.
Cantinflas is sometimes seen as a Mexican Groucho Marx character, one who uses his skill with words to puncture the pretensions of the wealthy and powerful, the police and the government. With the difference that he strongly supported democracy. Historian and author of Cantinflas and the Chaos of Mexican Modernity, writes, "Cantinflas symbolized the underdog who triumphed through trickery over more powerful opponents" and presents Cantinflas as a self-image of a transitional Mexico. Gregorio Luke, executive director of the Museum of Latin American Art said, "To understand Cantinflas is to understand what happened in Mexico during the last century".
Monsiváis interprets Moreno's portrayals in terms of the importance of the spoken word in the context of Mexico's "reigning illiteracy" (70% in 1930). Particularly in the film El analfabeto, (The Illiterate), "Cantinflas is the illiterate who takes control of the language by whatever means he can".
The journalist Salvador Novo interprets the role of Moreno's character entirely in terms of Cantinflismo: "En condensarlos: en entregar a la saludable carcajada del pueblo la esencia demagógica de su vacuo confusionismo, estriba el mérito y se asegura la gloria de este hijo cazurro de la ciudad ladina y burlona de México, que es 'Cantinflas'". ("In condensing them [the leaders of the world and of Mexico], in returning to the healthy laughter of the people the demagogic essence of their empty confusion, merit is sustained and glory is ensured for the self-contained son of the Spanish-speaking mocker of Mexico, who Cantinflas portrays.")
In his biography of the comic, scholar of Mexican culture Jeffrey M. Pilcher views Cantinflas as a metaphor for "the chaos of Mexican modernity", a modernity that was just out of reach for the majority of Mexicans: "His nonsense language eloquently expressed the contradictions of modernity as 'the palpitating moment of everything that wants to be that which it cannot be'." Likewise, "Social hierarchies, speech patterns, ethnic identities, and masculine forms of behavior all crumbled before his chaotic humor, to be reformulated in revolutionary new ways."