When the Mexican comedian Cantinflas shunned the film companies of his homeland and signed with Columbia Pictures in 1946, he changed the course of Latin American cinema and lifted himself to international fame.
He starred with Frank Sinatra and Debbie Reynolds, won two Golden Globe Awards, including one for his role in the 1956 best picture, "Around the World in 80 Days," all based on a simple character whose roundabout phrases and meaningless speeches confounded the wealthy and powerful.
Cantinflas, who died eight years ago, is still performing handsomely for Hollywood.
Last year, Columbia raked in an estimated $4 million in foreign distribution of the movies that Cantinflas, whose real name was Mario Moreno Reyes, made from the 1940s to the early 1980s.
But his tangled financial legacy is as confounding as any of his skits and with as many oddball characters. The studio, a subsidiary of Sony Pictures Entertainment, and Cantinflas' son are locked in a court fight in Los Angeles for control of the most popular and profitable of those films. Columbia claims that it bought the rights to 26 films four decades ago, the result of a convoluted series of Cantinflas transactions through offshore bank accounts and a British holding company.
The case, which is scheduled to resume in Los Angeles this month, has stretched out for eight years and fills 47 federal court volumes. It involves missing documents, shifting alliances and death-bed jockeying by those closest to Cantinflas in his final days.
"We're fighting for our rights," said Cantinflas' 40-year-old son, Mario Moreno Ivanova, on a recent trip to Los Angeles from his home in Mexico City. "I don't want to see Columbia, this foreign company, get the rights or become the owner of a Mexican national treasure. These films were my father's treasures--that he left me and that he left Mexico."
It might be simple to solve if only Cantinflas could say what he intended. Or would it?
Reyes--the son of a postal worker and who unsuccessfully tried to sneak across the border into California when he was a youth--got his start in the 1930s in the dusty tent shows, the carpas, of Mexico City.
At first he tried to imitate Al Jolson by smearing his face with black paint. But the audience howled once he embraced his own Latin heritage as a lowly peladito, or slum dweller, a tiny mustache at the ends of his lip, a jaunty cap over his mussed black hair, a grubby vest and a rope for a belt, which sometimes failed to keep his pants up.
Cantinflas endeared himself to the masses by satirizing those with the most influence in Mexico: police and politicians. People identified with the struggles of the winsome ragamuffin and delighted in his talent. Cantinflas could talk his way out of any scrape with speech so florid--but so empty.
"Everyone went to see Cantinflas talking nonsense," said film historian Gustavo Garcia. "He was famous for talking a lot and saying nothing. It's an art--a Mexican art."
The word "Cantinflas" has no meaning. But Cantinflas had such an effect on the Spanish-speaking world that his name became recognized by linguists.
The noun cantinflada is now defined in Spanish dictionaries as a long-winded, meaningless speech, and the verb cantinflear means to talk too much but say too little.
"To understand Cantinflas is to understand what happened in Mexico during the last century," said Gregorio Luke, a film expert and executive director of the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach.
"Cantinflas, the character, is a unique consequence of the history of Mexico."
David Maciel, head of the Chicano studies department at Cal State Dominguez Hills, said Cantinflas was "the single most important person in opening up Mexico to Hollywood. And then Hollywood just overran the Mexico cinemas."
Luke and others say Cantinflas' best films were some of his earliest, those made in the 1940s when he was poking fun at the social elite of Mexico. His wit was so foxy, his facial expressions so fanciful and his movements so fluid.
"He had this tremendous talent to make you laugh in many different ways," Luke said. "It was Woody Allen meets Charlie Chaplin in Mexico."
Cantinflas' Legal Intent Is Unclear
In Los Angeles, after eight years and more than 950 motions filed, the federal court case could be called, well, cantinflada.
"We've been waiting for months and years and years and months just to get this case tried, just to get this case started," lamented Senior U.S. District Judge William J. Rea last month.
The 81-year-old judge then smiled weakly and shook his lowered head. He chortled hoarsely, prompting the lawyers to wonder aloud whether he was laughing or sobbing.
Cantinflas' financial transactions in the late 1950s and 1960s could provoke either.
The comedian and his movie producer-business partner set up several corporations and accounts in the Grand Cayman Islands and tiny Liechtenstein.
They moved the money from Cantinflas' pictures through those accounts--presumably free from Mexican taxation.