I love the 1956 film Around the World in Eighty Days, a remarkable travelogue of a film by first-time producer Michael Todd, based on the terrific Jules Verne book of the same name. My kids have seen it multiple times too, and it’s become a family favorite with its action, adventure, dancing, romance and beautiful world-hopping story. One of the very best parts of the film is the manservant Passepartout, played by the popular Mexican actor Cantinflas.
But who was Cantinflas? That’s what the 2014 art house biopic Cantinflas sets out to explore. Primarily in subtitled Spanish, it offers an art-deco sensibility as we meet Mario Moreno (Oscar Jaenada), a young clown of a man who sought first a career as a boxer, then as a stage actor. It was while deflecting cat-calls from the audience one evening that a drunk tent show attendee accused Moreno of being a cantina-fly (the Spanish-language equivalent of a “barfly”). “Cantinflas? Okay, call me Cantinflas!” he says in jest, and the audience loves it.
Through a series of mishaps and a journey propelled by his ego that was certainly visually inspired by the long, slow burn of Charles Kane in the brilliant Citizen Kane, we see his gaining stature as an entertainer through the ever-increasing size of his name on the marquee and his rocky relationship with beautiful Russian dancer Valentina Ivanova (Ilse Salas).
While Moreno’s story is very entertaining, the film was more mixed, and too much of the narrative focused on Around the World in EIghty Days director Michael Todd (Michael Imperioli). Todd was a showman in the P. T. Barnum sense and his attempts to entice celebrities like Elizabeth Taylor (Barbara Mori) to cameo in the film are an entertaining counterpoint to his ongoing negotiations with MGM President John (Roger Cudney) and his sidekick, studio heavy Maurice (C. Montes-Roldan).
It’s not until Todd flies down to Mexico City to try and sell the famed Cantinflas on making a cameo appearance in Eighty Days that he finds someone who is unaffected by his charm. But John and the MGM team have scheduled a press conference where Todd is expected to announce the cast of the film. And David Niven, who is ultimately cast as the punctilious Phileas Fogg, only barely appears in Cantinflas, and that during the very end of the film where we see the slightest peek at the making of Around the World in Eighty Days.
Meanwhile, Moreno’s marriage to Ivanova is at rock-bottom and he needs something to do, so he flies up to Hollywood and surprises everyone – including Todd – by announcing he’ll be taking on the role of Passepartout, not just having a cameo in the film.
Around the World in Eighty Days famously goes on to win Academy Awards for best film, best script, best score, best cinematography and best editing, and Mario Moreno wins the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Comedy, even over such towering actors as Danny Kaye, Yul Brynner and Marlon Brando.
But people who watch Cantinflas might be surprised to find out that Moreno appeared in over 50 movies, something that was barely touched upon in the film. Moreno was an interesting character and extraordinarily popular comedian in his time, but because of the popularity of Eighty Days, that ends up too much the focus of the film.
And then there’s what must have been a hostile work environment for Mexican actors in Hollywood in the 1950’s, something that’s barely addressed at all, a significant lack in a biopic. There are maybe four or five epithets total but a quick glance at his filmography reveals that Eighty Days was almost his only Hollywood picture. Yes, there was his renewed dedication to Ivanova, but what else happened?
I enjoyed watching Cantinflas and learning more about the life of this much loved Mexican actor and comedian, and the behind-the-scenes shots of Eighty Days were a great bonus. Jaenada is very good as Cantinflas, capturing his earnest attitude and zany behavior very well. There’s just so much more that could have been included in this movie.