El Rey del Barrio
Like Mario Moreno, “Cantinflas”, or Niní Marshall, “Catita”, in Argentina, Germán Valdés belongs to the pantheon of great Latin American comedians of the forties and fifties who brought to the screen a unique comic persona, based on a type of humor that was primarily oral, relied on parody and the portrayal of popular characters, used as a vehicle for amiable social satire.
Mining his experiences as a radio announcer, impersonator and comic actor in touring tent shows, or “carpas”, the character of Tin Tan initially embodied the attributes of the pachuco, the Americanized Mexican whose flamboyant fashion statements (baggy pants and long jackets) and use of Spanish and English slang turned him into an object of derision south of the border. Valdés made his film debut in the mid-forties, hitting his stride in Calabacitas tiernas, which marked the beginning of a fruitful collaboration with director Gilberto Martínez Solares and screenwriter Juan García. Calabacitas tiernas (1948) and El rey del barri are considered Tin Tan’s best films.
In El rey del barrio, Tin Tan’s pachuco characteristics and comic routine, rooted in the clash of cultures of the Mexican-U.S. border – much like the music of Lalo Guerrero and Los Lobos – morphed into that of the street-wise pícaro of Mexico City. In this comedy, Tin Tan plays a good and bad variation of the same character: during the day, he pretends to be an honest railway worker and a good father to his small child, beloved by his neighbors. At night, he shows his true colors: the head of a band of petty thieves, who would like to function with American efficiency but end up botching every robbery they attempt. Those failures allow for the great comic scenes of the film, with Tin Tan impersonating an Andalusian singer, a French painter and an Italian singing teacher, with his trademark breakneck speed delivery of Spanish, French and Italian.
Like the endearing and flirtatious con man of Calabacitas tiernas, this Tin Tan is remarkably incompetent at making an honest (and dishonest) living. His verbal skills – sprinkled with English phrases and allusions to American popular culture – and slapstick routines finally succeed in winning the heart of Carmelita (Silvia Pinal), a young neighbor whose family has fallen on hard times. Like the ending of Calabacitas tiernas, the world of this pícaro will return to its hinges only after a loving wife has roped him into the corral of domesticity. The only train he’ll ever drive will be the one for children at Chapultepec Park
In his observations on the style and meaning of Mexico’s two greatest comic actors, the famed cultural critic Carlos Monsiváis notes that the source of Tin Tan and Cantinflas’ art is based on the contrasting social worlds projected by these comedians – who, one might add, like Chaplin’s Tramp, became their characters: Tin Tan, a carefree soul, is forever aspiring to be modern and ‘hip’; while Cantinflas, an urban proletarian of natural wit, becomes the symbol of those forever marginalized. Monsiváis concludes his essay, however, by stressing their similarities: “Their social satire was launched with incredible accuracy and great insight into the sentimentalism of their audiences. Celebrated actors seemingly without anything in common, and legendary icons in different ways, Tin Tan and Cantinflas are still today the greatest reference points for a multigenerational audience who learned to laugh while watching them and who, in revering them, smile triumphantly as if they just saw them at yesterday’s fiesta”.