As a pioneer of Mexican cinema, he helped usher in its golden era. In addition to being a business leader, he also became involved in Mexico's tangled and often dangerous labor politics. Moreover, his character Cantinflas, whose identity became enmeshed with his own, was examined by media critics, philosophers, and linguists, who saw him variably as a danger to Mexican society, a bourgeois puppet, a kind philanthropist, a transgressor of gender roles, a pious Catholic, a verbal innovator, and as an underdog.
Born in the Santa María la Redonda neighborhood of Mexico City, D.F., Mexico, as one of eight children, he was raised in the Mexico City neighborhood of Tepito. After an unsuccessful attempt to enter the U.S. through California, he became a prizefighter in his teens as a source of income. His comic personality led him to a circus tent show, and from there to legitimate theatre and film.
As a young man, Cantinflas performed a variety of acts in travelling tents. At first he tried to imitate Al Jolson by smearing his face with black paint, but later separated himself to form his own identity as an impoverished slum dweller with baggy pants, a rope for a belt, and a distinctive mustache. In the tents, he danced, performed acrobatics, and performed roles related to several different professions. It was there he acquired the stage name Cantinflas, although the origin stories differ. One story says "Cantinflas" was a meaningless name invented to prevent his parents from knowing he was in the entertainment business, which they considered a shameful occupation. Another origin story is below.
In the mid-1930s, Cantinflas met publicist and producer Santiago Reachi and subsequently partnered with him to form their own film production venture. Reachi produced, directed, and distributed, while Cantinflas acted. Cantinflas made his film debut in 1936 with No te engañes corazón before meeting Reachi, but the film received little attention. Reachi established Posa Films in 1939 with Cantinflas and another investor. Before this, Reachi produced short films that allowed him to develop the Cantinflas character, but it was in 1940 that he finally became a movie star, after shooting Ahí está el detalle ("There's the rub", literally "There lies the detail"). The phrase that gave that movie its name became a "Cantinflas" (or catchphrase) for the remainder of his career. The film was a breakthrough in Latin America.
He married Valentina Ivanova Zubareff, of Russian ethnicity, on October 27, 1936, and remained with her until her death in January 1966. A son was born to Moreno in 1961 by another woman; the child was adopted by Valentina Ivanova and was named Mario Arturo Moreno Ivanova, causing some references to erroneously refer to him as "Cantinflas' adopted son". After Ivanova passed away, he never remarried.
In 1956, Around the World in Eighty Days, his American debut, earned him a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy. Variety magazine said in 1956 that his Chaplinesque quality made a big contribution to the success of the film. The film ultimately made an unadjusted $42 million at the box office (over $355 million in 2013 dollars). While David Niven was billed as the lead in English-speaking nations, Cantinflas was billed as the lead elsewhere. As a result of the film, Cantinflas became the world's best paid actor.
The 1940s and 1950s were Cantinflas' heyday. In 1941, he rejected Mexican film companies and instead signed with Columbia Pictures, who distributed his films. Like Charlie Chaplin, Cantinflas was a social satirist. He played el pelado, an impoverished Everyman, with hopes to succeed. With mutual admiration, Cantinflas was influenced by Chaplin's earlier films and ideology. El Circo (the circus) was a "shadow" of Chaplin's silent film, The Circus and Si yo fuera diputado ("If I Were a Congressman") had many similarities with the 1940 film, The Great Dictator. Cantinflas' films, to this day, still generate revenue for Columbia Pictures. In 2000, Columbia reported in an estimated US$4 million in foreign distribution from the films.
He served as president of the Mexican actor's guild known as Asociación Nacional de Actores (ANDA, "National Association of Actors"). Following his retirement, Moreno devoted his life to helping others through charity and humanitarian organizations, especially those dedicated to helping children. His contributions to the Roman Catholic Church and orphanages made him a folk hero in Mexico.
Among the things that endeared him to his public was his comic use of language in his films; his characters (all of which were really variations of the main "Cantinflas" persona but cast in different social roles and circumstances) would strike up a normal conversation and then complicate it to the point where no one understood what they were talking about. The Cantinflas character was particularly adept at obfuscating the conversation when he owed somebody money, was courting an attractive young woman, or was trying to talk his way out of trouble with authorities, whom he managed to humiliate without their even being able to tell. This manner of talking became known as Cantinflada, and it became common parlance for Spanish speakers to say "¡estás cantinfleando!" (loosely translated as you're pulling a "Cantinflas!" or you're "Cantinflassing!") whenever someone became hard to understand in conversation. The Real Academia Española (RAE) officially included the verb cantinflear and the nouns cantinflas and cantinflada in its dictionary in 1992.
In 1993, after his death in Mexico City of lung cancer, thousands appeared on the rainy day for his funeral. The ceremony was a national event, lasting three days. His body lay in state in the Rotonda de Las Personas Ilustres (The Rotunda of Illustrious Persons) and he was honored by many heads of state and the United States Senate, which held a moment of silence for him. Although Cantinflas never achieved the same success in the United States as in Mexico, he was honored with a star in the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Moreno's life is the subject of the 2014 biographical film Cantinflas (directed by Sebastián del Amo). It stars Óscar Jaenada, who portrays a young Mario Moreno attempting to gain respect and make a living as an actor, and Michael Imperioli as Mike Todd, an American film-producer struggling to film his masterpiece. The film is centered in Moreno's personal life, and in the development of Around the World in 80 Days. The film is scheduled for release on Friday, August 29, 2014.