A diminutive, renowned, high-octane performer of the Spanish-speaking world, primarily in Mexican films from 1936, Cantinflas began his entertainment career at age 16 as a song-and-dance man in "carpas", variety shows staged in tents. He also performed as a circus clown, a bullfighting clown and an amateur bullfighter, and gradually developed the star persona which would serve him so well in his 50 films. His early films include his debut in "No Te Enganes Corazon/Don't Deceive Yourself, My Heart" (1936) and "El Signo de la Muerte/Sign of Death" (1939), but it was "Ahi Esta el Detalle/There Is the Detail" (1940), which began his reign as the Spanish-speaking world's most popular comic at the advent of Mexican cinema's "Golden Age".
Usually mustachioed, his dark hair tousled and often sporting an impishly perched hat, Cantinflas essentially played the "pelado", an impoverished wiseacre, who, in the tradition of the great American silent comedians, often found most of the world against him. His background as an acrobat gave him moments of Keaton-like grace, his clever yet sometimes naive go-getter style can be seen as a first cousin to Harold Lloyd, and like Chaplin, he touched the heart while defending the weak and often had trouble keeping up his pants. Cantinflas acquired the nickname, "the Mexican Charlie Chaplin", and the great actor-director, upon seeing the work of his younger Latino colleague, dubbed him "the greatest comedian in the world."
Cantinflas was, however, very much a comic of the sound era, one of his trademarks being his rapid patter line delivery as he outfoxed authority with a lengthy stream of gobbledygook. His verbal humor managed to play as well in Spain and the rest of Latin America as it did in his homeland, but its charm was all but lost in translation and doubtless became one of the reasons why Cantinflas's work has been virtually unseen in the U.S. and much of Europe. The Spanish academy, however, even accepted a verb based on his name, "cantinflear"--meaning to say nothing in the most verbose manner possible--into the lexicon.
Cantinflas's work was hardly divorced from the English-speaking world. His own favorite among his films, "Ni Sagre Ni Arena/Neither Blood nor Sand" (1941), was an obvious and highly amusing spoof of the Tyrone Power vehicle, "Blood and Sand" of earlier that same year (as well as its 1922 Rudolph Valentino predecessor). And by the mid-50s his fame from films including "Un Dia con el Diablo/A Day with the Devil" (1945) and "El Bombero Atomico/The Atom Bomb" (1951) had spread to the extent that Mike Todd cast Cantinflas in the key role of Passepartout in the lavish "Around the World in 80 Days" (1956). If this Oscar-winner, top-heavy with dozens of star cameos, doesn't hold up today, Cantinflas' briskly amusing charm as the hero's resourceful valet does. Columbia followed up with a lavish, cameo-ridden vehicle for the feisty Mexican, but "Pepe" (1960) was such a disaster critically and commercially that Cantinflas never made another US film.
Instead, Cantinflas returned to his home turf, continuing the exclusive collaboration with director Miguel M. Delgado which had begun in 1942 with "El Gendarme Desconocido/The Unknown Policeman". In a 1972 series of cartoons, "The Adventures of Cantinflas", and in features like "Un Quijote Sin Mancha/A Quixote Without a La Mancha" (1969) and "El Ministro y Yo/The Minister and Me" (1976) the gracefully aging comic still delighted his immense following. Cantinflas spent much of the 1980s involved in philanthropic work, especially for the benefit of children, and he was honored with a lifetime achievement award by the Mexican Academy of Cinemagraphic Arts and Sciences in 1988.