Monday, March 21, 2011

Guest Post: Jonathan Lyons on Cantinflas & Bullfighting

[post 113]

Jonathan Lyons is a top-notch 3D animator, with major credits working for, amongst others, ILM and Imagemovers Digital. Yes, you've seen his work, and you can see his demo reels here.  Most recently he worked on Pirates of the Caribbean 4 — On Stranger Tides and, better yet, just finished his own short film, Floyd the Android, already entered into several film festivals. Jonathan is an aficionado of physical comedy who has graciously shared his insights and enthusiasms with this blog's readers on several occasions.  And to top it off, he has recently launched his own blog, Comedy for Animators, which I can't recommend highly enough.  Great stuff, with very specific and valuable analysis of the movement details essential to understanding physical comedy.  Definitely check it out!  — jt

I’m sure that some time ago I must have seen the 1956 version of Around the World in 80 Days.   But when I recently watched it on Netflix, I recalled virtually nothing about it.   Although it features numerous cameos by famous actors, for me it was primarily an opportunity to sample the work of Cantinflas, the legendary Mexican dancer, actor, and comedian.  He plays Passepartout, the gentleman's gentleman to Phileas Fogg (David Niven).   Passepartout is French for “goes everywhere.”

Cantinflas was the stage name of Fortino Mario Alfonso Moreno Reyes (1911-1993).  He began his entertainment career as a dancer, performing with Mexican carpa (traveling tent) shows.  He made his film debut in 1936, in No te engañes corazón .  His 1941 bullfighting film Ni sangre, ni arena (Neither Blood nor Sand) broke box office records.  The title is a play on the gladiator phrase “Blood and Sand.”   His work in “Around the World in 80 Days” was nominated for an Academy Award, but it was followed by Pepe, a box office flop.

He admitted the language barrier was too much to overcome.  It is a shame his work is not more accessible.   The DVD of the film included a commentary track by a film historian, who had nothing much to say about Cantinflas, unfortunately.

Charles Chaplin once called Cantinflas “the world’s greatest comedian."   From my viewing of Around the World in 80 Days, I must say that he stands well in the company of great film comedians. His appearance simulates Chaplin, but he chases women like Harpo Marx.  It is during the visit to Spain that he really shines.   Visiting a flamenco club, he can’t help but take the dance floor with a beautiful Senorita.  His dance is quite skilled, and just a touch eccentric.   Despite his shabby clothing and small stature, he becomes quite a powerful and sensual partner.  He snatches the red tablecloth from the local strongman’s table, and performs some matador moves with the woman acting as the bull.

The strongman is so impressed he insists Passepartout take on a real bull in the arena the next day.
The bullfight was the very first sequence shot for the film, and it was given lavish attention.  Of the many set pieces created to bring the world into the theater with the very wide angle Todd AO lenses, this is the best.  Filmed in the town of Chinchon, it features all the 6500 inhabitants, plus 3500 extras.  All fully costumed.  While many scenes feature long shots of beautiful landscapes, this scene also stands out for Passepartout and his interaction with the locals.

The bullfighters parade in, with Cantinflas scurrying along at the end, doing his best imitation of the toreadors proud stride.   A famous matador takes his bow before the Mayor and his wife, and they release the bull.  The excellent footage of the bullfight shows the audience how this should look.  It becomes clear that once a bullfighter can fool the bull with the cape, it becomes a matter of style.  Finally, turning his back on the bull is the ultimate act of courage. 

The frightened Passepartout is then pushed into the ring, claiming this is the first time he’s seen a real bull.  (Cantinflas was actually a bullfighting aficionado).  His first tremulous steps sideways before the bull, and the first passes of the animal, eventually lead to moments of flare.  When the bull steps on the cape and Passepartout loses it, the other bullfighters step forward, like rodeo clowns to help, but  Passepartout doesn’t back down, and it is now clear that despite the comedy, this is a real bull, and this is a real bullfight. 

The danger of a wild animal makes this a unique piece of comedy.   If Chaplin wanted a bullfight, it would probably involve a pantomime bull and 60 takes to rehearse.  In Buster Keaton’s “Go West” when he wanted a bull to charge at him, they mounted the camera on a fake bull, and ran it toward him while he casually walked out of the way unaware of the “danger.”  Of course it’s hard to top Bugs Bunny’s bullfighting turn in “Bully for Bugs.”

In my superficial research on this topic, I checked out Wikipedia for “Bullfighting.”  In among all the information I found this:

Comic bullfighting
This section requires expansion.
Comical spectacles based on bullfighting, called espectáculos cómico-taurinos or charlotadas, are still popular in Spain and Mexico, with troupes like El empastre or El bombero torero.[14]

Ay Caramba! That sounds like fun.   As the explorer of the fringes of physical comedy, this is right up my alley.

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