Cantinflas, With His Puns And Satire, Is Back (And Still Relevant) Mexican actor Mario Moreno, known as Cantinflas, made dozens of films between the 1930s and 1980s. A biopic about the comic, whose humor tweaked the rich and powerful, opens in the U.S. this weekend.
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Cantinflas, With His Puns And Satire, Is Back (And Still Relevant)

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Cantinflas, With His Puns And Satire, Is Back (And Still Relevant)

Cantinflas, With His Puns And Satire, Is Back (And Still Relevant)

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Charlie Chaplin called him the greatest comedian alive. Mexican actor Mario Moreno or Cantinflas as he was known, stared in scores of films from the 1930s up until the 1980s. In the U.S. he's best known as the ingenious valet, Passepartout in "Around The World In 80 Days." His performance in the 1956 film earned him a Golden Globe. Throughout Latin America, Cantinflas is a beloved icon. And a new film about him opens in U.S. theaters this weekend and will soon premiere in Mexico. From Mexico City, NPR's Jasmine Garsd reports on the Comic's legacy.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: There's a verb in Spanish, cantinflear, it means to talk in so many circles and puns everyone ends up completely confused. The word comes from Cantinflas the character created by Mario Moreno. He was a scrappy, mouthy, working class hero with a mustache like quotation marks around his mouth. He always saved the day and he always got the girl. But the last Cantinflas movie came out more than 30 years ago, just how popular is Cantinflas today, here in his native Mexico? I went for a walk through the streets of the capital to find out. I asked a garbage man.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

(Speaking Spanish)

GARSD: He liked it when Cantinflas played a street sweeper. The fruit stand guy liked when he played a shoeshine guy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

(Speaking Spanish)

GARSD: And I asked a taxi driver, who says everything he did was just so funny.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

(Speaking Spanish)

GARSD: In the new movie Cantinflas is played by Spanish actor Oscar Jaenada. In this scene Cantinflas runs into an old buddy.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CANTINFLAS")

OSCAR JAENADA: (As Cantinflas) (Speaking Spanish)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (As Unidentified character) (Speaking Spanish)

GARSD: The dialogue is filled with slang and double entendres. Afterwards the actor's perplexed Russian wife asks him, was that Spanish you were speaking? To which he responses

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CANTINFLAS")

JAENADA: (As Cantinflas) Puro Mexicano.

GARSD: Pure Mexican.

GUSTAVO ARELLANO: Mexican's humor is some of the most complex, wonderful, intellectual humor I would argue in the world.

GARSD: Gustavo Arellano writes a column for the OC Weekly in Southern California. It's called, Ask a Mexican. So, I asked him, what makes it Cantinflas so funny?

ARELLANO: When Americans think of Mexican humor they just think of the big, over-the-top, pratfalls. But Mexican humor is far more complex than that. I would argue far more interesting in wordplay than American humor has ever even tried too. And Cantinflas in all his puns and double entendres was the grand exemplar of that.

GARSD: But will today's audiences still find him funny? Pantelion Film, the brainchild of Lions Gate and Televisa is banking on it. They've been courting the booming Latino market in the U.S. The film is mostly in Spanish except for the scenes that take place in Hollywood, where Michael Imperioli of "Sopranos" fame, plays Mike Hyde, the American producer who fights to bring Cantinflas to the U.S. The film's producers are betting not only that audiences will still find Cantinflas funny but that his political satire will resonate today as well.

JAENADA: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: Lead actor, Oscar Jaenada, says word for word everything Cantinflas says in his films about politics rings true today in Latin America. Early on in the biopic there's this scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CANTINFLAS")

JAENADA: (As Cantinflas) (Speaking Spanish)

GARSD: A young, very poor Cantinflas goes to a fancy theater house and watches a satire about political corruption. In the audience, a bloated politician laughs raucously. You see? A friend leans over and tells Cantinflas, in real life they never admit their wrongs. But when they see them played out on the stage they laugh. Cantinflas took that advice and ran with it. Here's a bit from a classic 1952 Cantinflas movie, "If I Were The Deputy."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IF I WERE THE DEPUTY")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As unknown character) (Speaking Spanish)

GARSD: Cantinflas is a barber giving a haircut to a crooked government official who's threatening him. Cantinflas starts lecturing the official about democracy. It's Cantinflas 101, going around and confusing pun filled circles. But the joke is on the politician.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IF I WERE THE DEPUTY")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As unknown character) (Speaking Spanish)

GARSD: You know what democracy is, Cantinflas asks?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IF I WERE THE DEPUTY")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As unknown character) (Speaking Spanish)

GARSD: No, the corrupt politician responds. Do you? Well I don't know sir, but I can imagine. This is what made Cantinflas so beloved. Professor Juan Gabriel Moreno teaches theater at the Autonomous National University of Mexico.

MARIO MORENO: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: He says Cantinflas is revenge against the rich and the authorities. It's the revenge of Mexico itself. He says you have to understand what was happening in Latin America at the time. So, much of the continent was under abusive oligarchic dictatorships. Cantinflas was just another guy trying to survive. And when he bamboozled a cop or a politician, he was just doing what an entire people fantasized about doing - talking back. Jasmine Garsd, NPR News, Mexico City.

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