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San Miguel’s Motel Movie Star

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Back in 1963 Mexican comedian and movie star, Cantinflas, came to town to film a movie.  Like many folks before and since, Cantinflas fell in love with the city and started buying real estate including a hacienda and a large tract of land, both by the mirador on the way up to the mall on the Real de Queretaro.

Cantinflas, born Mario Moreno Reyes in Mexico City back in 1911, started out performing in a circus.  He changed his stage name to Cantinflas, to keep his work secret from his parents who considered being a performer immoral.

Cantinflas had a gift for both word play and physical comedy propelling him into theater then films.  Even Charlie Chaplin commented he was the world’s best comedian.  His career zenith was in the 1950s when he won the best actor Golden Globe for his performance in Around the World in 80 Days and was, at the time, the world’s highest paid actor.

I’ve now seen many of his movies on Saturday nights when visiting pals as the movies still appear on local channels.  I’m very surprised he never worked with Lucille Ball who was his equal in physical comedy, the same age and at her artistic zenith at the same time.  Both specialized in playing naïve characters thrust into outlandish situations based on physical exploits.  Lucy ended each I Love Lucy returning to Ricky and starting all over the next week.  Meanwhile, Cantinflas ends each movie where his occupation may be fireman, priest or cop, by being brave and attracting the love of his female lead only to start over in a new occupation/female lead for the next film.

I’m surprised the business-savvy Desi Arnaz never put the two together but perhaps it was Lucille that felt one strong leading man with an accent was enough for her.

If you can, watch his “The Little Priest” filmed here in San Miguel de Allende.  The plot is silly fun plus you get to see a lot of San Miguel de Allende looking vastly different just a short time ago though you can likely pinpoint every exterior shot in centro.

Cantinflas was not movie-star good looking being short, slight and sponsoring the world’s oddest mustache.  However he had both charisma and an impish charm, that combined with his intricate word play, makes him a joy to watch even a century after his birth.

Cantinflas married young to a Russian he stay married to.  Though they never had kids, he had a son in middle age with another woman the couple raised as their own.  A film on his marriage and time in Hollywood was released in 2014 aptly named Cantinflas.

While in San Miguel de Allende he bought the hacienda La Purisma.  Today it is the Mission hotel featuring a mini-museum to Cantinflas in the lobby and his statue in the gardens.

Cantinflas is probably better remembered for the hotel down the street, by the mirador.  He bought a house (now the reception area) to make his summer home and residence for his mother eventually adding 24 bungalows for his movie pals like Delores del Rio and Maria Felix to stay in.  Like many of his famous friends Maria Felix is featured in a mural at the reception desk not far from Cantinflas’ screening room.

On my first visit to town I stayed at the hotel.  Upon entering a ten year old girl asked to carry my luggage and I declined being mortified at the thought.  I quickly saw the error of my ways as carrying the bag up the mountain side to my room was exhausting.

I awoke at dawn the next morning to the bell clangs of a very drunk young man slamming his chest into the steeple’s bell of the adjacent chapel.  We exchanged pleasantries and he pantomimed how his wife had a baby that morning so the bells welcomed the new soul.  It was probably the most pleasant way I’ve ever woken up!

When Cantinflas’ mother died, he sold the property and it became La Ermita Hotel, named for the adjacent chapel, currently on the market for around four million dollars.

Following his retirement, Cantinflas devoted his life to helping others, especially children, through contributions to the Church and orphanages making him a folk hero in Mexico.  Cantinflas died in 1993.

Cantinflas’ real estate legacy in San Miguel de Allende has fared better here than his beach home in Acapulco.  It stands abandoned and in decay, frequented by social media folks that swim in his now derelict pools and post images of it.

by Joseph Toone

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