Cantinflas was a popular and prolific Mexican performer who appeared in more than 50 films between 1937 and 1982--though most of them were never released above the border. American audiences would largely only know him as Passepartout in the 1956 version of Around the World in 80 Days. He has often been described as Mexico's answer to Charlie Chaplin, and there are some parallels between Chaplin's Tramp persona and the character Cantinflas cultivates. He is a little lazy, a bit of a skirt chaser, tricky, and most of all, gentle. His humor isn't mean spirited, and the actor always stayed in touch with the common man.
The 1949 feature El mago (The Magician) was my first exposure to Cantinflas, and it's easy to see why he was so popular. The movie isn't great--in fact, I didn't honestly laugh all that much--but there is an easygoing charm in its familiar plot and the way it doesn't take itself all that seriously. Cantinflas is working for the Alter Ego Agency, a company that provides doppelgangers for people so they can perform some other function while having their own lives continue unabated. In this case, a fortune teller needs to take a vacation, so he hires an imposter to cover his business while he is gone. When the assigned imposter would rather hang out with his girlfriend, he hires Cantinflas to sub for him. Poor timing, because it just so happens that the magician is an imposter himself. He is a prince in exile, and his father has just died. Noblemen who want to restore the prince to the throne, as well as assassins who would rather see his wicked cousin rule, come looking for the prince. Of course, they mistake Cantinflas for their quarry. To further complicate things, a gang of bank robbers want to kidnap the fortune teller so he can give them information about the future that might help them be more successful, and a beautiful woman is also coming on to the prince for reasons unknown.
With so much going on in the plot, one would expect El mago to get fired up to a feverish, madcap pitch, but it never quite does. Cantinflas takes his time with the situations, ambling through the comedic set-ups. His perfomance style is full of puns and nonsense words, and the jokes actually come through well in the English translation (even if some of them lose their cultural poignancy). When Cantinflas gets in over his head, his common defense is to say a lot without saying anything, letting the people around him fill in the gaps. In one memorable scene, he does this with a man speaking French!
It's all harmless and not at all difficult to sit through. It's like cotton candy, and akin to a lot of the standard B-comedies Hollywood was also churning out at the time. Things get slightly better in the last twenty minutes when Cantinflas is whisked off to his new country. Events in El mago take a turn for the absurd, as the freshly crowned king auditions women for his private stage show as if he were grading animals. The comedian shows a real facility for physical comedy in a dance number that made me wonder where the slapstick was up until now. The closest we got was him getting drunk with the gangsters and the night ending in a brawl.
El mago is a hard movie to hate, but it's surprisingly not that easy to recommend at the same time. It is what it is. Kind of fun with a few good jokes, but maybe a little long to be this tepid. It doesn't exactly excite me enough to want to see more Cantinflas movies, which may not be good for the studio releasing this, as they are starting a whole line of the actor's comedies (and I even have another one in my review queue). I'm sure they want you to collect them all, but I can't see doing more than sampling one or two.
Why not normal English subtitles? What is this serving? If the studio is intent on just targeting the Spanish-speaking audience, then why Closed Caption it at all?