Friday, May 11, 2007

¡Nunca me hagan eso!

When gringos talk about classic Mexican comedy, which admittedly is scarcely this side of never, nine times out of ten what they're really talking about is Mario Moreno, "Cantinflas". Not surprising as Moreno was the only one of dozens of popular Mexican comics of the 40s and 50s to break into Hollywood. Just about everyone has seen the Michael Todd version of Around the World in 80 Days at least once. But while Moreno's reputation is justly deserved, it has to be admitted that he's usually something of a mystery to non-Spanish speakers. While an extremely talented mime, most of Moreno's unparalleled popularity in Mexico and South America was due to his comically confused manner of speaking, "Cantinfleada", which is completely absent from his two Hollywood features. Coupled with the fact that Moreno's screen character was based largely on regional archetypes, it's little wonder that Cantinflas remains an enigma in the US, a kind of shorthand for "Mexican comedian".

But while Cantinflas was the unquestioned king of Mexican comedy in the 40s and 50s, the lower ranks were occupied by comedians like Germán Valdez (Tin-Tan) and Adalberto Martinez (Resortes), talented comics of far less pretension than Mario Moreno.

Then there's Antonio Espino, "Clavillazo" (roughly translated as "Pinhead"). It's an understatement to say that there's nothing pretentious or mysterious about Clavillazo. In his oversized suit and peculiar (and ubiquitous) hat, Antonio Espino walks a line between comic and clown, eager and willing to go the extra mile to get a laugh, yet at all times in admirable control of his performances. In El Castillo de los monstruos (1958), for instance, he emphasizes his grief in one scene by smashing crockery over his head, a ridiculously outsized gesture, but meticulously timed as a way to punctuate the sequence. His doubletakes are pure cartoon, often including going stiff with shock and falling backwards out of frame. For Espino, pulling funny faces and making wild getures aren't simply quick ways to get laughs; they amount to a definite performance style, comic excess as aesthetic. Clavillazo was frequently billed as "El Hombre de las Manos Elocuentes" due to his reliance on exaggerated hand gestures to punctuate dialogue. Even the simplest lines are cause for Clavillazo to throw his body into extreme poses. He's also a master of catchphrases, using a good half dozen repeatedly including "la cosa está calmada", "¡nunca me hagan eso!", and "No más!".

The most remarkable thing about Antonio Espino, though, is that although subtlety is largely absent from his performances, he's still likable, sympathetic, and at times even charming. Like Buster Keaton before him, Clavillazo is usually portrayed as an underdog who wins the girl and saves the day through sudden bursts of previously untapped courage and guile.. and often, in Clavillazo's case, sheer unmitigated gall. Thanks to Antonio Espino's evident self-awareness as a performer, his character is always something more than a pile of comedy gimmicks.

From 1951 to 1965, Antonio Espino starred in thirty-two features for virtually every studio in Mexico. He tackled every comic genre at least once including westerns, mysteries, fantasies, horror and science fiction spoofs, and situation comedies. Espino appears to have hit his peak in 1956 and 1957 when, aside from hosting a hit TV series, he produced a remarkable ten movies in two years including the horror spoofs El Fantasma de la casa roja and El Castillo de los monstruos (in which Clavillazo battles a mad scientist, a vampire, Frankenstein's monster, two wolf men, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon). In 1965, the Mexican film industry tanking, Sotomayor teamed Clavillazo with comedians Tin-Tan, Resortes, and "Loco" Valdez in Los Fantasmas burlones, a low-budget grab-bag featuring ultra-cheap ghost effects, old footage from the stars' previous films, and some of the least culturally sensitive musical numbers ever committed to film. And then, despite not the slightest hint of decline in Espino's comic gusto, he practically vanished from the screen, making only rare, fleeting appearances until his retirement in 1984. For years, Espino gave his performances everything he had and then some. Perhaps he simply wore himself out. Antonio Espino died of a heart attack in Mexico City in 1993 at the age of 83. He deserves to be better known.

I've seen eleven of Clavillazo's features and only one, The Phantom of the Red House (1956), has ever been dubbed into English (as a part of K. Gordon Murray's World of Terror package). None that I know of have ever been subtitled, something that's only slightly less true of Cantinflas's much better-known output. Of the lot, El Castillo de los monstruos is, in my opinion, the best showcase of Espino's abilities as a comic. I've included three scenes from it along with a fourth from Espino's very impressive 1958 Eastmancolor fantasy Aladino y la lámpara maravillosa. Either would have been hits on American TV or as kiddie matinee features back in the early 60s had they been dubbed. I have to assume that K. Gordon Murray couldn't secure American distribution rights to these because they're right up his alley.

In El Castillo de los monstruos excerpt #1, town undertaker Clavillazo has allowed Evangelina Elizondo the use of his humble apartment and must find lodging in the local boarding house. Unfortunately, the son of the boarding house's owner is a dangerous madman. ¡Loco!

In excerpt #2, Clavillazo serenades Elizondo with the help of a transistor radio. Even without subtitles, this is a nice scene.

Excerpt #3: In this sequence, Clavillazo finally comes face-to-mask with the monsters which include the great German Robles, star of El Vampiro (1957) and
El Ataúd del Vampiro (1958), as Count Lavud, the Mexican equivalent of getting Lugosi to reprise his role as Dracula in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Poor Evangelina has been hypnotized by the mad doctor into believing she's "Galatea".

This excerpt from
Aladino y la lámpara maravillosa is pretty much self-explanatory.

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