Saturday 24 April 1993
CANTINFLAS was one of the most famous men in the world in the late 1950s. Like many another, he was famous for being famous. This wasn't his fault. He had the good luck to be in a hugely popular Academy Award-winning movie, and with his bowler hat, wing collar, incipient moustache and quizzical expression there was no one quite like him - which is reason enough for fame in the movies.
He had been extraordinarily popular in his native Mexico and other Latin American countries since making his film debut in 1936; he had been a prizefighter, a comic bullfighter and a circus clown. In movies the combination of pathos and slapstick had a wide appeal. He usually made one film a year and such was his popularity that the government learnt to close the pawnshops on the day his films opened. All the same, no one predicted international fame for him until Mike Todd cast him as the valet Passepartout in Around the World in 80 Days (1956), accompanying Phineas Fogg on his travels.
Todd was a flamboyant - the adjective was always used - showman, with a vivid personal way of life and several indifferent Broadway credits. In 1945 Orson Welles asked him to produce a dramatised version of the Jules Verne novel. Todd withdrew, claiming that he had no more money, but the book continued to fascinate him, and he chose it for his first venture as a movie producer. It looked a very dodgy one: he had huge ambition but no experience, and his British director, Michael Anderson, though more than capable, had not worked on a big-budget Hollywood movie. The leading man, David Niven, had once been a leading Hollywood star, but the offers had become either lean or few and far between. Todd decided to back him with an all-star cast in the minor roles, going first to Noel Coward on the assumption that, if Coward assented, everyone else would. They did: from Ronald Colman to Marlene Dietrich, from Beatrice Lillie to John Gielgud. As well as Fernandel. Fernandel had been in movies longer than Cantinflas, but it was thought that he, too, had a local appeal which wouldn't travel: but Le Petit Monde de Don Camillo (1952) changed that. Many others of his French movies were successfully exported, so that Todd begged him to play Passepartout.
Fernandel declined, saying that his English wasn't good enough. Todd looked at some of Cantinflas's comic cut-ups and offered him the role. He made a great success in it - mischievous, cunning, and wholly devoted to his master. The film's success ensured Cantinflas a niche among movie immortals. Charlie Chaplin called him 'the world's greatest comedian', doubtless because he knew that Cantinflas was called 'Mexico's Charlie Chaplin'.
While several Hollywood studios planned star vehicles for him, he returned to Mexico and made, among other films, Sube y Baja (1959, 'Ups and Downs'). This arrived in Britain early in 1961, supporting Carne's Les Tricheurs at one of the lesser art cinemas in London. It was an ingenuous but trying piece, with Cantinflas as a lift attendant who impersonates a famous athlete. He was himself - as he had not been in Mike Todd's film - trousers braced too high, double- jointed, an innocent, reminiscent of Harry Langdon or Harold Lloyd's early screen persona. Both he and the film went unremarked - which was not a good augury for the actor's big Hollywood film.
This was Pepe (1960), produced and directed at Columbia by George Sidney, with Dan Dailey and Shirley Jones as supporting cast, plus just about everyone in cameo roles - Crosby, Chevalier, Sinatra, Greer Garson, Jack Lemmon, Kim Novak etc. Cantinflas played a Mexican ranch foreman who has adventures in Hollywood, all of them witless and cliche-ridden. Hollywood didn't give Cantinflas another chance. It really wasn't his fault. Someone should have realised at the start that his English simply wasn't up to sustaining the leading role.
He continued to film in Mexico, his popularity growing with the years, and he became immensely wealthy - it was a wealth he shared with many charities and the Church.
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