Childhood & Early Life
Mario Fortino Alfonso Moreno-Reyes was born 12 August, 1911 in Santa María la Ribera neighborhood of Mexico City. His father, Pedro Moreno Esquivel, was an impoverished postal carrier. His mother was María de la Soledad Reyes Guízar. He was born fourth of his parents’ eight surviving children.
In spite of the lack of resources, Mario’s parents enrolled him into a good school. However, he was more interested in watching the street plays and as he became old enough, he tried to imitate the actors.
When he turned fifteen, his parents sent him to a government agricultural school; but within nine months he ran away from there to Jalapa on the Pacific shore. Here he joined a carpa; a Mexican tent show and began his career as an actor.
However, he knew that his parents would never approve of it and so he started looking for a stage name. It is believed that one night he heard a drunken heckler shout "En la cantina, tuinflas" (In a bar, you drink). The line amused him so much that he took up Cantinflas as his stage name.
Initially Moreno was a jack-of-all-trades. During the early period, he was a dancer in the tent show, a torero bufo or a comic matador in the bull ring and a ham in the boxing ring.
Then one night, he was asked to fill in for the master of the show of the carpa. So far, his acts did not involve any kind of dialogue; but this time he had to speak. Once he entered the stage, he became so nervous that he forgot everything.
However, he knew that he had to go on and so he kept on talking rapidly, albeit nervously, saying the first thing that came to his mind. The audience took it to be his routine and started laughing; and the more they laughed the more he kept dishing up such nonsense talks.
Realizing the potential of his act, he now began working on a routine. They featured a combination of gibberish, double-talk, mispronunciation, wild exaggeration and pantomime.
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By 1930, Cantinflas became an established carpa star. For next five years, he performed in a series of carpas, where he danced, performed acrobats and also enacted roles relating to different professions. Initially, he tried to imitate American comedian Al Jason, but later developed a style of his own.
In 1935, he joined the cast of the Follies Bergère variety show. In the following year, he made his film debut with ‘No teengañescorazón’ (Don't Fool Yourself Dear), but it received little attention.
Subsequently, he met publicist and producer Santiago Reachi and in 1939, he and Reachi started ‘Posta Films’. Later in 1943, they were joined by Jacques Gelman, who became their third partner.
Meanwhile from 1939 onwards, Post Films began to produce a number of short films with the character of Cantinflas as the central one. Played by Moreno, whose stage name was also Cantinflas, the character became almost iconic.
In these films, he was portrayed as a bedraggled underdog, with scraggy moustache, pants that are always slipping down, old t-shirt or a coat, a dirty rag thrown over the shoulder and handkerchief tied around his neck. First of these films, ‘El signo de la muerte’, was released in1939.
However, it was his tenth film, ‘Ahíestá el detalle’ (There lies the detail/Here’s The Point), also centered around Cantinflas, which made him star. Released on the 11 September 1940, the film was a huge hit.
Next in 1941, he appeared as a police officer (Badge No 777) in ‘El gendarme desconocido’ (The Unknown Police Officer). By this time, he had already established himself as the peladito character of Cantinflas; yet he easily transcended from an underclass, marginalized man to the empowered public servant.
His next film, ‘Ni sangreni arena’ (Neither Blood Nor Sand), also released in 1941, was another big hit. The film broke the box office records of all Mexican films in Spanish speaking countries. The story was based on bullfighting and Moreno made a cameo appearance in it.
‘Los tresmosqueteros’ (The Three Musketeers), released in August 1942, was another of his significant films. In it, Moreno appeared as Cantinflas, who dreams that he is D’Artagnan fighting for Queen Anne. Unfortunately, the film evoked mixed response; while some say it is Moreno’s finest work, others were not much impressed.
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By now, Posta Films had started producing one or two films each year, most of which featuring Mario Moreno as Cantinflas. Then in 1956, he was offered the role of Passepartout in ‘Around the World in 80 Days’. It was his first Hollywood movie, and he costarred with David Niven.
’Pepe’, which was released in December 1960, was another of his Hollywood films. Unfortunately, the film did not do well. His humor, rooted in the Spanish, did not translate well into English. Yet, he earned a Golden Globe nomination for his role.
Much later in 1969, Moreno appeared in his third Hollywood film, ‘The Great Sex War’ as General Marcos. However, because of language barrier the American audience could never appreciate him to the extent he deserved.
In Mexico, he continued making comedy films, which were mostly produced by Columbia Films. Although the 1940s and 1950s had been his best years, he released new films consistently throughout the 1960s, slowing down in the 1970s, when he released only five films.
Cantinflas’ last film, ‘El barrendero’ (The Street Cleaner), was released in 1981. Thereafter in 1985, he made one more appearance in the Mexican television film, titled ‘México … estamoscontigo’ (Mexico, We Are With You).
In all, he had appeared in more than 45 comedy films and has been hailed as the best comedian of the time by Charlie Chaplin. In addition, he had also worked in theatres - most famous of these works being ‘Yo Colón’ (I, Columbus).
Personal Life & Legacy
While working in at the Valentinacarpa, Moreno met Valentina Ivanova Zubareff, who was of Russian ethnicity. The two got married on October 27, 1936 and remained together until her death in January 1966.
In 1961 Moreno had a son by another woman. Named, Mario Arturo Moreno Ivanova, the child was adopted by Valentina Ivanova. In many quarters he is erroneously referred as ‘Cantinflas' adopted son’.
In later years, he developed a relationship with an American woman from Houston called Joyce Jett and spent a lot of time in that city with her, away from spotlight.
Although over the years he had earned millions of dollars, he never forgot his roots. All through his life, he worked to upgrade the poorer neighborhoods of the Mexico City. At one point, he single-handedly supported 250 families and had dozens of low-cost housing units built and sold. His annual charitable donations were once estimated at $175,000.
Moreno died of lung cancer on April 20, 1993 in Mexico City. His funeral was declared a national event, lasting three days. In spite of heavy rain, thousand attended the ceremony. The United State Senate also held a moment of silence for him.
He was awarded a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6438 Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood, California on February 8, 1960.