Carmen Miranda already had a successful nightclub act in Brazil when Hollywood ‘discovered’ her. A flamboyant performer, she dazzled audiences until changing public tastes and her own limitations forced her from the limelight.
Carmen Miranda was not merely Brazil’s gift to Hollywood: she also served the higher political purpose of aiding, abetting, and promoting, along with her own career, the good Neighbor policy launched by Franklin D. Roosevelt. This policy, designed to promote friendship between the United States and South America, came into operation just before World War II made it imperative for both the Americas to present a united front to the enemy.
It was also in the service of this new neighbourliness that Walt Disney produced his Latin American cartoon features – Saludos Amigo! (1943) and The Three Caballeros in 1945 and Orson Welles set out to make his South American film, It’s All True, which was unfortunately never completed. However, the Good Neighbor Policy never quite erased the old Latín American stereotypes: it simply elevated them to stardom by introducing them to a different and more appreciative audience.
Not that Carmen changed her act for export. There was much more to her than just a head dress, although it was that extravagant array of fruit which became her trade mark. With this occasionally rearranged for the playing of a Cuban or a Puerto Rican, all of Latin America was Carmen’s domain. Her one potential rival in the latino sweepstakes was the Dominican beauty Maria Montez, and both ladies enjoyed a period of popularitv in the early forties. Once the specific social and political conditions that made such exoticism attractive had passed they faded, in unison, from the screen.
Ironically, Carmen Miranda was a child of the Old Country. Born in a Portuguese hamlet in 1914, she was taken to Brazil when very young and took instinctively to the marchas, tangos and sambas of her adopted country. By the time North Amcricans discovered her on the Broadway stage, appearing in a revue entitled Streets of Paris in 1939, she was already a bona fide Brazilian. Indeed, no-one could fathom what Carmen was supposed to be doing on a Paris street in full Brazilian regalia. She was the final surreal touch in a motley company that included Olsen and Johnson, Abbott and Costello, the dancer Gower Champion, and the singer Jean Sablon – he, at least, was French.
The distinguished stage-designer Irene Sharaff was credited for the costumes, and Robert Alton for the direction. However, it was obvious that Miranda needed little or no help to conjure up, every evening, the image of a resplendent macaw that seemed to light up the stage of the Broadhurst Theatre to the barbarous rhythm of maracas and other unpronounceable instruments. From the scarlet slash of her mouth issued incomprehensible lyrics which her roving eyes and swaying hips transformed into lively, never vulgar, double entendres. Other than the exposed midriff, her fashion innovations included beads and bracelets in profusión, and platform shoes to increase her diminutive height. Needless to say. the fruity centre-pieces she herself – having once worked as a milliner – designed as head-dresses were beyond imitation.
It was basically the same act that Carmen had perfected through years of working in nightclubs – and radio – in Brazil: her last Brazilian movie, Banana da Terra (1938) shows it in its pristine state. In New York, executives of 20th Century-Fox took in this rather heady performance, and decided to include it as a speciality number in their first Good Neighbor musical, Down Argentine Way (1940).
Carmen had barely time for one more Broadway revue – Sons o’ Fun – before the studio put her under contract and whisked her away to California to appear in a suite of Technicolor variations on the original act. In such films as That Night in Rio, Weekend in Havana (both 1941), Springtime in the Rockies (1942), The Gang’s All Here (1943), Greenwich Village and Something for the Boys (both 1944).
In all of them, Miranda proved to be as much of an asset to 20th Century-Fox as contract stars Alice Faye and Betty Grable. Romantic she was not; but what became obvious as soon as she mastered a few well-chosen malapropisms was that Carmen was a comedienne of the first order, a perfect foil for the likes of Edward Everett Horton, William Bendix and Phil Silvers. This comic flair kept her career going, after the touristic appeal of Latin America had faded for the Yankees. In 1945, with the war over, she was assigned to – horror of horrors! – a black-and-white musical entitled Doll Face (1945), designed to promote the budding talents of Vivian Blaine and Perry Como. After one more picture of similar ilk. If I’m Lucky (1946), she left 20th Century-Fox to freelance and do personal appearances.
Her apotheosis was achieved in The Gang’s All Here directed by Busby Berkeley. Watching the film it is clear that if Carmen Miranda had never existed. Berkeley would have invented her – and vice versa. In a number called ‘The Lady With the Tutti Frutti Hat’, which pushes the premise of her act to absurd extremes, a lush banana plantation seems to sprout from Carmen’s turban: momentarily dwarfed she sambas her way into this optical illusion. For ‘Brazil’ – Ary Barroso’s definitive samba of the period – Berkeley choreographs one of his best, most daring and excessive set-pieces around her.
She had barely time for one independent, medium-budget picture before MGM grabbed her and restored the bloom of Technicolor to her cheeks. The result, Copacabana (1947), is another of Carmen Miranda’s key films, for in it she is the leading lady, and what is more mind-boggling is that she is playing a double role opposite Groucho Marx! Well, not quite, but plot complications lead her to impersonate a French nightclub star. Marx and Miranda may not be everybody’s idea of William Powell and Myrna Loy: their individual lunacies, however, never clash.
After this feat, Carmen’s two musicals for MGM – A Date With Judy (1948) and Nancy Goes To Rio (1950) – seem crushingly tame and unimaginative. Her final screen appearance in the Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis comedy mystery Scared Stiff (1953) seems almost an afterthought.
Not that Carmen lost her audience. She continued to tour all over the world, playing the London Palladium in 1948 with great success, even appearing on television. In 1955, while taping a segment of The Jimmy Durante Show, she suffered a fatal heart attack.
Her American husband took her body to Brazil and buried her in St St John the Baptist cemetery, right in the heart of her beloved Rio.
Even in his 1950s heyday, a lot of people would have thought twice before crossing a busy road to see Richard Todd. Yet he was enormously popular. With clean-cut, chiselled features you could cut your hand on, nicely proportioned shoulders and more virtue up front than a van-load of Bibles, Todd looked as if he had come off a drawing-board instead of having been born the usual way. Wisely, he made the most of what he had, which could be summed up as an inability to sit still while there was a horse to leap astride, a swollen river to swim, or a tree to vanish into.
His first big success was as a dour Scots Guards corporal in The Hasty Heart (1949, Vincent Sherman). The setting is a wartime Burma field hospital, and Todd, unknowingly, is riddled with some fatal disease. He is arrogant and dismissive, more difficult to handle than a Scots football fan at closing time, but everyone else, including fellow patient Ronald Reagan and nursing sister Patricia Neal, knows that his number is up so tolerance prevails.
Looking every inch a stage weepie – which it originally was – the story rumbles on towards a predictable climax, with Todd learning of, and coming to terms with, his condition, but not before a rather pathetic attempt to woo Miss Neal – ‘I’ve good teeth,’ he insists. Todd’s playing is in tune with the sombre mood of the piece and his faltering, change-of-heart address at the end works reasonably well, but some of the earlier writing lacks conviction.
He was another terminal case in Flesh and Blood (1951, Anthony Kimmins), a consumptive medical student who discards pushy girlfriend Ursula Howells for some peace and quiet – only to find his action has precisely the opposite effect. Miss Howells rounds on him like a demented fishwife, hollering, ‘I wish you’d die!’ to which poor Todd, semi-convulsed in yet another coughing fit splutters, ‘I’m . . . doing . . . my . . . best!’ She gets her wish, but Todd reappears as his own grandson, an even worse cad with the ladies. ‘Do you think I’d have let you kick me around all this time without adoring you’, trills Glynis Johns, pacifist daughter of an ammunitions tycoon when, after she has carried out a chequered pursuit of the rotter, he grudgingly proposes to her.
Walt Disney picked Todd for three costume actioners, including an attempt at Robin Hood, during 1953-1954, as if determined, at all costs, to establish him as Errol Flynn’s successor. In The Sword and the Rose (1953, Ken Annakin) and Rob Roy the Highland Rogue (1953, Harold French) only the costumes, and Miss Rice were changed. Disney brought in his Flesh and Blood co-star Glynis Johns, plus Robin hoodlums James Robertson Justice and Michael Gough.
Todd risked being adversely compared with Errol Flynn for a second time as Raleigh to Bette Davis‘ Elizabeth in Virgin Queen (1955, Henry Koster), which did nothing for Todd, but reminded audiences how far ahead of his imitators the charismatic Flynn had been in his heyday.
Todd rose to the bait as wartime flying ace Guy Gibson in The Dambusters (1955, Michael Anderson), a pleasantly restrained performance projecting strength of character without showiness. Todd had not been an easy actor to accom- modate dialogue-wise, but the hero of the Mohne and Eder dam raids settled on his shoulders like an expensively tailored jacket, and the film, whose over-reverence for its subject was its only obvious flaw, was hugely successful.
Several factors helped to maximise its impact. There was Todd’s remarkable physical resemblance to Gibson, and Michael Redgrave’s to Dr (later Sir) Barnes Wallis, the bouncing bomb’s dogged inventor; there was the near-documentary feel of the early experimentation sequences, the squadron briefings and the raid itself; the despairing loss as well as the triumph expressed by Redgrave as the dreadful death toll becomes known, due as much to the dangers of low flying in the dark in a target zone surrounded on all sides by steep hills as to the enemy’s defending battery stations; and there was the stirring theme music by Eric Coates, impossible to hear then or now without the spirits being stirred.
Nothing much stirred watching D-Day Sixth of ]une (1956, Henry Koster), which used the Normandy landings as backdrop for a turgid love triangle involving Todd as a British colonel, Dana Wynter as his girlfriend, a cross between Mary Poppins and a toothpaste commercial, and Robert Taylor as a married Gl captain who fills in for Todd while the lad is engaging the Hun elsewhere.
Even though it means putting the china doll-like Miss Wynter in storage for a while, Todd is no shrinking violet when the call-to-arms comes. ‘I have a singular theory – the quicker more of us go, the quicker more of us’ll come back,’ he tells Miss Wynter. Her grumpy old retired defence chief dad is in agreement – ‘A bit of cold steel now is worth twenty Americans later,’ he urges, before killing himself because he is too old to kill others.
Miss Wynter’s tally falls short of twenty Americans, presumably because not enough of them looked like Robert Taylor. Their dreary, lukewarm affair has to be heard to be believed. Apologising for her father’s dismissive attitude towards LIS troops – they meet originally when Taylor is sent along to smooth out an incident involving her father and a group of Gls – Miss Wynter explains rather grandly: ‘We [meaning the British] are not much good at being thank- ful. We haven’t had an opportunity to he thank- ful to anyone, except maybe God, in several hundred years.’
Later, on a dance floor, she ticks him off: ‘Don’t be cross but would you mind awfully not calling me Honey.’ Sitting in a cafe overlooking the Thames, the watchful Taylor acknowledges the presence of the moon. Miss Wynter coos, ‘Please God, let him be looking at it,’ apparently unaware that any soldier staring at the moon is unlikely to notice an enemy sniper creeping up behind him.
In the end. Miss Wynter loses both of them. Taylor is badly wounded in action and shipped home to the USA, and Todd is killed when he trips over a land mine on the newly-liberated beachhead.
It took the filming of a real-life heroic naval incident, the escape from Chinese waters of the RN frigate Amethyst in 1949, after months of blockading, as Yangtse Incident (1957, Michael Anderson), to restore Todd’s prestige after D-Day Sixth of June. Todd played the ship’s commander, the redoubtable Commander Kerans – a part which suited his sharp-eyed, closed-mouth style comfortably – and the tension of the wait in Communist waters followed by the ship’s nimble getaway down the Yangtse River under cover of darkness, was graphically conveyed without the need to resort to expensive special effects.
In Danger Within (1959, Don Chaffey), a wartime POW drama, Todd was a paratroop colonel who heads the obligatory escape committee, plagued on this occasion by the presence of a mysterious traitor. He appeared against type in Never Let Go (1960, John Guillerman), as a seedy cosmetics salesman whose car is nicked by sadistic Birmingham car-thief Peter Sellers. In the conflict that follows, Todd is the underdog but he comes through in a way that Sellers could never have anticipated. This was an intriguing – but not altogether successful – pairing of two stars playing outside their familiar selves.
By the early 1960s, he was beginning to run out of steam. He played a Gary Cooper-style lawman in The Hellions (1961, Ken Annakin), urging the inhabitants of a remote 19th-century South African township to find their backbone and repel Lionel Jeffries’ outlaw gang. In The Longest Day (1962, Ken Annakin) he risked re- minding us of his earlier Normandy landings caper, in a small role as a British Army major, again refreshingly brisk and stiff-upper-lip among hordes of laconic Americans.
In one of his later films, Asylum (1972, Roy Ward Baker), a modest Amicus horror compilation, Todd’s was the first story, a loony tale in which he and lover-doll Barbara Parkins bump off and dismember his troublesome wife, Sylvia Sims. He packages the assortment of odd limbs in neat brown paper packs, and stores them in a freezer till he can get around to final disposal. But the victim refuses to rest in pieces. Like a well- drilled football squad, the gory parcels gang up to inflict a nasty surprise on Todd and his girlfriend.
Mary Pickford, America’s Sweetheart, whose golden curls, comic capers and winsome smile enraptured early filmgoers, became the first powerful women to emerge in Hollywood–on and offscreen. As a young thesp, she was directed by D.W. Griffith at Biograph Studios and, in just two years (1909-10), made 77 films and became an international star. Beneath the curls schemed the brains of a shrewd businesswoman. In 1919, at 27, she co-founded United Artists with Griffith, Charlie Chaplin and husband Douglas Fairbanks.
Pickford practically invented screen acting–legendary director George Cukor once called her the first Method actress because she eschewed the broad, melodramatic gestures common at the time. Just as important, she was a true pioneer behind the scenes, demanding–and getting–salaries commensurate with her box-office appeal (million-dollar-plus). In the process, she showed women from Barbra Streisand to Madonna there was more to show biz than singing and acting.
The Last Word: “The little girl made me. I wasn’t waiting for the little girl to kill me.” – Mary Pickford, after retiring from the screen (when her youthfulness finally evaporated, at the precocious age of 41) and becoming a full-time producer.
Classic Directors: Anthony Mann
Anthony Mann was an often underrated director who introduced perceptive insights into his high, wide and handsome treatments of outdoor spectaculars, notably Westerns, war films and historical epics.
During the 1960s he had a fascination with sheer size, his El Cid (1961) and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1963) rank as two of the most intelligent grand-scale spectacles ever made.
Arriving in Hollywood via Broadway and the theatre, he directed his first film, Dr Broadway, in 1942 for Paramount. In the 1950s he established the style that was apparent in all his subsequent work: the analysis of men of action under stress. His Westerns and film adventures with JAMES STEWART – plus a succcssful change of pace for both in The Glenn Miller Story (1954) – were especially notable. He died while directing the spy melodrama, A Dandy in Aspic (1968), which was completed by its leading actor LAURENCE HARVEY.
Other key films include
Strange Impersonation (1946),
Devil’s Doorway (1950)
Winchester 73 (1950)
The Tall Target (1950)
Bend of the River (1951)
The Far Country (1955)
Strategic Air Command (1955)
The Man from Laramie (1955)
The Tin Star (1957)
Man ofthe West (1958)
The Heroes of Telemark (1965)
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