In a small-but-satisfying way, some of the most fun I ever had writing anything was collaborating with my pal Kip Williams on a piece for Animato in 1997 about the animated cartoons of Cantinflas. With a new (live-action) biopic of the Mexican comedy great out, it’s as good a time as any to revisit our article. It’s been available on this site for years, but here’s a version that’s a million times better than that one–or the original print version–because it includes the cartoons themselves. (Thank you, YouTube.)
The Cantinflas Chronicles
(For this issue’s column, Harry joins forces with a co-author, fellow obscure-cartoon fanatic Kip Williams.)
Until now, this column has been plenty busy covering weird, forgotten cartoons produced in the United States over the past seventy years. This issue, however, we go south of the border to take a look at the animated efforts of Mexico’s greatest film comedian, Mario Moreno (1911-1993) — better known as Cantinflas.
If we gringos remember Cantinflas at all, it’s most likely for his supporting role as Passepartout in Mike Todd’s 1956 version of Around the World in 80 Days, or perhaps for his one U.S. starring vehicle, 1960’s Pepe. (The latter film failed to give the Mexican comedian a toehold in the U.S. market, despite being quite possibly the most celebrity-packed film of all time; the cast featured Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Durante, Judy Garland, Jack Lemmon, Greer Garson, Andre Previn, Tony Curtis, Sammy Davis Jr., Janet Leigh, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Shirley Jones, Peter Lawford, Dean Martin, Hedda Hopper, Ernie Kovacs, Edward G. Robinson, Ann B. Davis, Debbie Reynolds, Cesar Romero, Joey Bishop, Bobby Darin, Billie Burke, and Jay “Dennis the Menace” North, among others.)
In Mexico, however, Cantinflas was an enduring superstar from the 1930s until the 1980s. And just like a lot of U.S comedians — Laurel and Hardy, the Three Stooges Jerry Lewis — he lent his visage and schtick to an animated series, which was variously known as Cantinflas Show, Amigo and Friends, or Cantinflas y Sus Amigos. At least those are the titles it goes by on the Spanish-language cable channel Univision, which currently airs Cantinflas cartoons as part of a Saturday morning grab-bag called La Loca Pinata.
We know nothing about the background of these shorts, and aren’t even sure when they were made (the humor and general atmosphere suggests that they’re products of the early 1970s). Most of the films make some pretense at being vaguely educational: Cantinflas usually learns some facts about world history or culture, and often delivers a moral at cartoon’s end. The titles tend to be generic enough that you can figure them out without any knowledge of Spanish — “En El Japon,” “Romeo y Julia,” “Robinson Crusoe,” “Madrid,” “Einstein,” and the like.
So are these films merely pedagogical little dramas? Far from it. The cartoon Cantinflas — an appealing, monkey-face little dude — smokes, chases girls, and drifts through history, usually with no visible means of support. Unlike his fellow time travelers Mr. Peabody and Sherman, Cantinflas is just there, with no explanation of just how he bounces from century to century and continent to continent (often more than once during the course of a single six-minute cartoon).
The cartoons’ Fleischer-like obsession with the female figure is perhaps their most distinguishing characteristic. Even when Cantinflas is busy learning about whatever country or century he finds himself in, he’s never too busy to flirt with anything in (or occasionally out of) a skirt. Abstraction of the feminine body tends toward a pipelike torso and plenty of cleavage; female faces are usually reduced to stylized, wide-eyed make-up and almost nothing else, like a Kewpie doll. There’s a fair amount of toplessness, tempered by absence of nipples.
As that suggests, these cartoons — like all the best ones — seem to have been made to tickle the funny bone of their own creators. It’s easy to imagine that they were popular with Mexican kids, but they never pander to an adult’s idea of what a child might find entertaining. And although they were presumably produced for whatever the Mexican equivalent of Saturday morning television is, they don’t have the mass-produced feel of nearly all U.S. TV animation — the artwork is limited but often quite lively, with loose, likable character designs. (Those of us without much knowledge of the Mexican cartooning tradition will probably be reminded of the work of Sergio Aragones.)
The cartoons we describe above might be deemed Cantinflas Classic. Others in the series – later ones, apparently — were produced by a couple of Yanquis known as Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera, and if you’re familiar with any H-B product of the late 1970s and early 1980s, you can pretty much envision what they’re like. Cantinflas still looks more or less like himself, but both the comedian and the films have a tired look. There’s no raunchy humor, and the quirky artwork of the earlier films is replaced by standard-issue H-B character designs. It’s a little like the difference between an Otto Messmer Felix the Cat silent cartoon and a Joe Oriolo Felix of the 1960s.
Herewith, capsule reviews of four Cantinflas animated extravaganzas. Take note that Kip speaks only some Spanish, and Harry’s knowledge of the language is so rudimentary that he has trouble following Speedy Gonzales cartoons. Would we like these cartoons more or less if we always knew exactly what was going on? We may never know.
Cantinflas watches as a female tour guide escorts a group of tourists through exhibits featuring the pre-Columbian history of his land, starting with stylized indios carving their stone gods. There’s a nudie cutie who seems to be modelling, but they ignore her: the natives carve gods, and Cantinflas idolizes himself. The tourists are duly impressed by the ancient gods, all except for an obvious Yankee who keeps saying “I don’t believe it.” Each time he does, Cantinflas gives the idol a “Lights, Camera: Action!” cue, and another whammy is put on the doubting gringo. It’s a mere inconvenience when a divine rain shrinks his clothes, but when the god of the dead reduces him to a skeleton, his doubtfulness becomes truly inexplicable. When he’s still unconvinced by a rain of fishes, the agriculture god pulls out the big weapon: _salsa picante_ on a taco turns the doubting skeleton into a flaming believer, and when he bows to the old gods, another rain restores him. His clothes are still shrunk: for humility? Cantinflas delivers some moral, but the real lesson here is: REVERE THE ANCIENT ONES! OR ELSE!
The title barely hints at the ground this short epic covers: beginning in the fog of England, we see the start of the Suffragist movement, jumping ahead to the “mod” scene of London’s Carnaby Street where Cantinflas (here’s an archetypal 1960s joke) just can’t tell the girls from the boys, because they parade about in near-identical pairs. A brief detour to the Garden of Eden, where little big-nosed Adam succumbs to kewpie-cute (and naked) Eve’s apple while the angel is lighting his sword. Now we finally cut to Egypt, where Cleopatra, with an ultra-stylized birdish face that denotes ultimate femininity in this series, parades her beauty, and bathes (naked, of course) in leche de burra. Cantinflas drinks a little from an ewer, and sprouts big ears. Taking a break from Asterix, Julio Cesar enters and is promptly smitten with Cleo’s minimalist features. He woos her on a barge, scrubs her back in the bath, and gives her horsie rides until he collapses. It doesn’t take Sigmundo Freud to see why Caesar promptly sails away. His place is taken by Marco Antonio. Regretfully, my Spanish is not up to the task of translating the complex moral Cantinflas gives us, so I don’t know what I have learned from this cartoon, but it’s a real favorite of mine.
This holiday mini-special has it all: Music, merriment, tradition, tobacco products, and a much healthier dose of religion than you’d see in a stateside production. As Cantinflas trudges through the snow, Santa passes by; Cantinflas, mistaking him for a cab driver, hops a ride on his sleigh. We then segue into a series of Christmassy interludes starring Cantinflas and a troupe of toy-like, brightly garbed children — the general effect is one of Disneyland’s It’s a Small World ride gone haywire. They chirp festive songs, bash open a pinata, and engage in the Mexican ritual of taking a figurine of the Virgin Mary from house to house, seeking shelter. An adorable, well-scrubbed Baby Jesus makes a cameo appearance; Cantinflas serenades him on the trumpet. Towards the end, Santa reappears to parcel out gifts to the boys and girls, so Cantinflas puts out the cigarette he’s been smoking and feigns goo-goo noises in order to get a present. The kids then form a choir to sing a snippet of the Hallelujah Chorus, and the cartoon closes with Cantinflas’s heartfelt, bilingual seasons’ greetings: “Feliz Navidad, Merry Christmas, and Happy New York! (sic)”
SUPER AGENTE 777
Years before Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, Cantinflas starred in his own racy James Bond parody. As the film opens in swinging London, our hero accidentally makes a pass at a kilted Scotsman. Next, he spots a couple of sexy British policewomen and introduces himself as a Mexican secret agent. Instantly swoony, the lady cops cry — in English — “Mexico! The land of romance!” and plaster him with smooches. (Except for that line, these British law enforcers speak mostly in what seems to be a mocking approximation of Cockney-accented Spanish.) From there on, the plot gets increasingly difficult to discern. Senor Flas and a ravishing, purple-haired female spy get sent to Paris, apparently on a mission to discover what happened to the Venus de Milo’s arms. They visit the Lido and the Louvre and discuss French culture and Greek art; one suspects that this is mostly an excuse to show dancing girls and topless statues. Eventually, Cantinflas finds Venus’s arms and reassembles her — it turns out that she’s swinging a baseball bat. The triumphant agent says something suggestive to his co-spy — just what, I’m not sure, but he assures her that it’s “muy carnale.” She responds by shouting “Darling!” and jumping him, and this confusing but amusing spoof irises out.