The Americas 59.1 (2002) 122-124
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Historians of popular culture, the film industry, and social change during the era known as the "economic miracle" in Mexico will welcome the publication of Jeffrey M. Pilcher's new book. A concise and entertaining analysis of the life and times of the famously non-sensical Mexican comic Mario Moreno, also known as Cantin-flas, the work provides both an overview of Mexican politics and society between the 1930s and the mid-1990s and an in-depth examination of one man's rise to international fame and fortune through the movies. More than a mere biography of Moreno, however, Cantinflas and the Chaos of Mexican Modernity successfully uses a case study of Moreno's life to present a broader analysis of union struggles, the economic history of the film industry, and the cultural transformation of popular entertainment in mid-twentieth-century Mexico. This study will be interesting to anyone wishing to know more about specific Cantinflas' productions during Mexican cinema's "Golden Age" and will serve as a useful guide to Mexican and Latin American popular culture for those seeking a more general introduction.
Pilcher has centered his study of modern Mexican culture on Moreno and his character, Cantinflas, for several reasons. A charismatic actor and public figure, Moreno rose from obscurity as a carpas actor in 1930s Mexico City to achieve fame as the often unintelligible but nevertheless streetwise "pelado." As Cantinflas, Moreno was best known for his film achievements, including Mexico-based Gran Hotel, Ahí está el detalle, and Around the World in 80 Days, made in Hollywood. Despite subsequently starring in a string of 1970s and '80s cinematic ventures that failed miserably, Moreno nevertheless secured and retained the Mexican public's loyalty until his death in the early 1990s. To explain this paradox, Pilcher suggests that Moreno somehow personified the Mexican people's contradictory experience of modernity. In part, he says, "Cantinflas offers an excellent portrait of Mexican self-image during a transitional agrarian society to an industrial one. As a shiftless [End Page 122] migrant from the provinces, Cantinflas . . . symbolized the underdog who triumphed through trickery over more powerful opponents" (p. xvi). Indeed, Pilcher says that "by placing his films in historical context, one can gain valuable perspectives on the contested terrain of popular culture, battled over by the common people, the cultural industries, and the Mexican state" (p. xx).
To explain Moreno's evolution as comic actor, public figure, national icon, and symbol of modernity, Pilcher has organized the volume into seven chapters that move thematically and chronologically. He has focused special attention on audiences' reception of the cinematic Cantinflas to understand how, through the "multiple loops of feedback between star and society . . . Cantinflas came to personify the Mexican pueblo" (p. xxi). Moving from an analysis of the pelado's historical roots to an examination of Moreno's transition from theater to cinema, Pilcher explains how Moreno "finally arrived" with the smash courtroom farce Ahí está el detalle, which provided him, and Cantinflas, with a formula for commercial success. From Moreno's rise to fame and fortune, Pilcher shifts to examine the star's role in the film industry, showing how Moreno built on his versatility as a stage and screen actor to shift from being a "comic specializing in parodies of labor bosses into a union leader in his own right" (p. xxiv). The next sections chronicle Moreno's increasing closeness to the state's official Partido Revolucionaro Institucional (PRI), his use of film to promote national economic development projects, and his limited success in achieving stardom in Hollywood, a failure which ultimately brought him home to Mexico. Pilcher writes that "sensing that the pelado from the 1930s no longer resonated with Mexican reality three decades later, Moreno attempted to recapture his youth through a facelift and juvenile scripts, but these tactics only succeeded in making him a parody...