Film Reviews

The Little Mexican Tramp

The 1993 death of the great Mexican comic actor Mario Moreno, better known as "Cantinflas," was an event noted in some detail in the U.S. press, even though his work was virtually unknown outside the Spanish-speaking world. His image somehow crossed the Rio Grande, but it did so without his voice -- maybe because he was so unforgettable-looking. Despite his safe, cozy stage name, his appearance was unsettling: with his vaguely Fu Manchu-ish swatches of mustache and the hardness of his eyes, he could have played evil, rather than funny -- not a claim you could make of many Hollywood comedians, especially those of his heyday.

Moreno was compared most often to Charlie Chaplin, no doubt because with Cantinflas and the Little Tramp, each created an urban vagabond character that became larger than life. But the two personae differ as drastically as the cultures that produced them.

The Little Tramp was as honorable and downright chivalrous a character as the movies have presented. He was a knight without a portfolio, or even a horse. He was happy to tweak the noses of the rich, but he would never have taken advantage of a working-class woman's affections the way Cantinflas does in Ahi Esta el Detalle? ("That's the Point?"). Working from a darkly realistic view of the world and of human nature -- as opposed to Chaplin's idealism -- Cantinflas' chief virtue was his honesty. He didn't pretend that he was looking out for anyone but himself.

As the film begins, we see him imposing on the woman who loves him despite her better judgment. She's a servant in an upper-middle-class Mexico City household and could get canned if her employers learned she was feeding this hungry vagabundo whole chickens at a time. But that's for her to worry about, not Cantinflas, who expresses the traditional Hispanic gentleman's disdain for work. In one of his famous twistings of words, he explains to her that the Bible prohibits sweating for one's bread (his reliance on word play is one reason his comedy didn't travel -- you have to read the subtitles carefully to keep up with his puns).

The film becomes a comedy of mistaken identity and a parody of middle-class morality. The husband of the house is dementedly jealous of his attractive young wife, who is being threatened with blackmail by a former lover. The sleaze has undated love letters from her, and he says he will show them to her husband if she doesn't buy him off with her money and her body.

When the husband sneaks back into the house, hoping to catch the pair in flagrante delicto, he finds Cantinflas instead, smoking his best cigars and chugging cognac from the bottle. He takes the impudent little man to be his rival, and is only pacified when his wife announces that he is her long-estranged brother. The husband is so relieved to hear this that he declares his house to be Cantinflas', and that the maid (Cantinflas' too-generous girlfriend) is to wait on him as if he were the senor of the house. From here the plot becomes too complicated to summarize. Suffice to say that Cantinflas rides the gravy train for a while, and he becomes a far more haughty "lord" toward his girlfriend than her real employers are. He does get his comeuppance in amusing fashion and briefly lose everything, but he still lands on his feet -- and back in the kitchen. He is a perfectly shameless character.

Ahi Esta el Detalle? isn't quite as smooth as the best Hollywood farces of the era. Some of the secondary characters are amusing, but the story would collapse without the strong presence and performance of Cantinflas. Still, I'm tempted to call the MFA screening a must-see because it is a surprisingly rare chance to see one of the most famed of all film comedians at work. In fact, this is the only Cantinflas film ever subtitled in English, and this only happened recently, at the UCLA film school.

This film will be accompanied by Tender Little Pumpkins, a comedy by one of Cantinflas' rivals, Tin-Tan. It's played more broadly than the Cantinflas, but it does take us back to the glory days of the zoot suit.

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David Theis
Contact: David Theis