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.