Miranda, Carmen (1909–1955)
Miranda, Carmen (1909–1955)
Brazilian singer who conquered Broadway and Hollywood during the 1940s. Name variations: Maria do Carmo Miranda da Cunha; "The Lady with the Tutti-Frutti Hat"; "The Brazilian Bombshell"; "A Pequena Notável." Born Maria do Carmo Miranda da Cunha on February 9, 1909, in the town of Marco de Canavezes near the northern city of Oporto, Portugal; died in Los Angeles, California, on August 5, 1955, and was buried in Rio de Janeiro on August 13, 1955; second of six children of José Maria Pinto da Cunha and Maria Emília Miranda da Cunha; sister ofAurora Miranda da Cunha ; married David Sebastian, on March 17, 1947.
Immigrated to Brazil (1910); made her first hit recording, "Taí" (1930); offered first starring role in a movie (1932); death of her father (June 6, 1938); signed contract with Lee Shubert to appear on Broadway (1939); became an international star in Down Argentine Way (1940); had disappointing return to Brazil (1940); was chief Latin star in Hollywood's "Good Neighbor" films (1940–1945).
O Carnaval Cantando no Rio (1932); A Voz do Carnaval (Brazil, 1933); Alô, Alô Brasil (Brazil, 1935); Estudantes (Brazil, 1935); Alô, Alô Carnaval (Brazil, 1936); Banana da Terra (Brazil, 1939); Down Argentine Way (U.S., 1940); That Night in Rio (U.S., 1941); Week-End in Havana (U.S., 1941); Springtime in the Rockies (U.S., 1942); The Gang's All Here (U.S., 1943); Four Jills in a Jeep (U.S., 1944); Greenwich Village (U.S., 1944); Something for the Boys (U.S., 1944); Doll Face (U.S., 1946); If I'm Lucky (U.S., 1946); Copacabana (U.S., 1947); A Date With Judy (U.S., 1948); Nancy Goes to Rio (U.S., 1950); Scared Stiff (U.S., 1953).
Born on February 9, 1909, in the Portuguese town of Marco de Canavezes near the northern city of Oporto, Carmen Miranda was the daughter of José Maria Pinto da Cunha and Maria Emília Miranda da Cunha . Christened Maria do Carmo Miranda da Cunha, she was the second of six children. The following year, her father immigrated to Brazil, where he found work as a barber. Along with her mother and sister, Carmen followed a few months later. They moved to a poor working-class neighborhood near the docks of Rio de Janeiro, with her mother helping to prepare and serve meals in the boarding house where they lived. Enrollment in St. Teresa School, operated as an act of charity by nuns from the St. Vincent order, gave Carmen some refuge from her family's poverty. She also had the chance to sing in school-sponsored musical and theatrical events and performed on the radio for fund-raising efforts. Her years at St. Teresa (1919–1925) provided her only formal education. In 1925, she had to quit school and find work to help support the struggling family.
For a while, she worked in a millinery shop, specializing in the design and manufacture of women's hats, but shortly Miranda also began making her way in the Brazilian entertainment business. In 1926, she appeared as an extra in a Brazilian movie and began to sing publicly. Her first break came in 1928, when friends introduced her to Josué de Barros, a famous musician who composed samba, the traditional music of Northeastern Brazil. Miranda began performing some of Josué's compositions, and by early 1929 was singing on the radio. She did so, however, under the name Carmen Miranda, apparently so that her strait-laced father would not know that his daughter had entered the scandalous world of singers, actors, and artists.
With Josué's backing, Miranda secured a contract with RCA Victor and made two records with moderate success. In so doing, she attracted the attention of another composer, Jouvert de Carvalho. Impressed by Rio de Janeiro's response to her energetic voice, Jouvert met Carmen and wrote "Taí" ("P'ra Você Gostar de Mim") for her. It became Brazil's top-selling record of 1930 and made Miranda a national sensation. When he discovered her ruse, Carmen's father was furious, but by then there was nothing that could hold back her rising fame or financial success. Her country adored the 5′1″ singer's sensuality, energy, and humor.
After a trip to the northeastern states of Bahia and Pernambuco in late 1932, Carmen increasingly associated herself with the music and costumes of that region. Salvador da Bahia had been the colonial capital of Brazil, and the sugargrowing regions of the Northeast had received many of the African slaves imported by the planters. She loved the sights and sounds of the Northeast, especially the African-inspired samba and the women's traditional dress. Soon she began appearing on stage in bahiana clothing: turban, wide-starched skirt, and heavy jewelry, with a bare midriff and the typical sandals substituted by five-inch platform heels. It became her trademark, especially after she appeared in the Brazilian film Banana da Terra which featured a remarkable song-and-dance number entitled "O que é que a bahiana tem?" ("What Does the Bahian Girl Have?"). Before long, writes Martha Gil-Montero , Carmen Miranda was inseparable from the Bahian "costume, seductive gestures and tropical gaiety."
Meanwhile, she made annual trips to Argentina to perform in Buenos Aires and developed her own stage show, which drew large crowds to Rio de Janeiro's Cassino da Urca. Besides sambas, she sang and danced other Latin music, including tangos and congas. Her first starring role in a movie had been in O Carnaval Cantando no Rio (1932), followed by A Voz do Carnaval (1933), Alô, Alô Brasil and Estudantes (both 1935), Alô, Alô Carnaval (1936), and the aforementioned A Banana da Terra (1939). At this point, however, Miranda's main success came from her recordings and stage shows rather than from movies.
The next upward step in her career came in 1939. Broadway producer Lee Shubert caught her act at the Cassino da Urca and hired her to perform in The Streets of Paris. She sailed for New York on May 4, 1939, to the acclaim of her compatriots who believed she would popularize Brazilian music and culture in the United States. Although her act was brief and sung in Portuguese, she was the hit of the show, and New Yorkers received her enthusiastically. Miranda spoke a limited and exotic English but was enthusiastic about her life in the U.S.: "Money, money, money … hot dog. I say yes, no, and I say money, money, money, and I say turkey sandwich and I say grape juice." Walter Winchell dubbed her the "Brazilian Bombshell."
Later that year, Germany invaded Poland and World War II began. With Europe engulfed in the conflagration, U.S. politicians and show-business producers tried to cement American ties to
the rest of the hemisphere. When he became president in 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt had proposed that the United States be a "Good Neighbor" to Latin America. Pan-American solidarity became even more important to the U.S. during World War II. American leaders hoped to forestall Axis penetration into Latin America, including Brazil which had many citizens of German descent. In fact, the Brazilian Estado Novo government of Getúlio Vargas had quasi-fascist characteristics, although the dictator did not ally his nation with Hitler and Mussolini. Meanwhile, the U.S. entertainment industry saw its European market disappear and hoped to recoup some profits by making its movies and productions more appealing to Latin American audiences. With Nelson Rockefeller as its director, the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs established a motion-picture section, which deliberately promoted "films with Latin American themes," according to historian Allen L. Woll.
She differed from every movie musical star that Hollywood had yet discovered. Her costume was a combination of native Bahian dress and a designer's nightmare. With bare legs and midriff, she wore sweeping half-open skirts and tons of colorful costume jewelry. She introduced the turban to the American scene, and topped it with the fruits of her native Brazil.
—Allen L. Woll
Given Carmen's immense success on Broadway, it is not surprising that she caught Hollywood's attention. Aside from her potential boxoffice appeal south of the border, American movie makers were anxious to help the war effort by producing films that would strengthen the ties between the nations of the Western Hemisphere. Furthermore, swing music had passed its peak of popularity, and U.S. audiences were enthralled with Latin rhythms. Miranda fit perfectly with Hollywood's political and business needs, and Darryl Zanuck's 20th Century-Fox hired her to perform in the forthcoming Down Argentine Way (1940) with Betty Grable and Don Ameche. Zanuck sent a camera crew to New York to film Carmen's part, three song-and-dance numbers intended to give local color and authenticity to the movie. U.S. audiences loved the film, and it received several Academy Award nominations. Writes Clive Hirschhorn: "Carmen Miranda was the real hit of the show—despite the fact (or maybe because of it) that she had nothing whatsoever to do with the plot." On the other hand, no one seemed to worry about the suitability of a Brazilian singing in Portuguese and dressed as a Bahian yet posing as an Argentine. In fact, Hollywood seemed to have little understanding of Latin America at all.
On July 10, 1940, Miranda returned triumphantly to Rio de Janeiro. Clad in a dress and turban in the green and gold of the Brazilian flag, she basked in the adulation of crowds that greeted her at the docks. A few days later, she appeared in a benefit performance at the Cassino da Urca. She greeted the audience in English and performed several non-Brazilian numbers from her Broadway repertory. To her dismay, the crowd responded with catcalls and little applause. Miranda left the stage in tears and immediately canceled the remainder of her schedule at the Cassino. She had badly misread her audience, the elite of Rio, who had been led to believe that Carmen had carried Brazilian culture to the U.S. only to discover that she had returned "Americanized." In part it was her fault, but she had not anticipated the cultural nationalism of her disdainful audience. She returned to the stage a week later with a very successful new show, defying her critics with new songs such as "Disseram que Voltei Americanisada" ("They Say I Returned Americanized"). Even so, the snub by Rio's elite pained and depressed her, and Miranda delayed her next return to Brazil for several years.
She was back in New York by October 1940 and shortly traveled on to California, ready to continue her seven-year contract with 20th Century-Fox. Filming soon began on That Night in Rio (1941), in which she starred alongside Don Ameche and Alice Faye . It was a colorful extravaganza, wonderful escapist fare for a public anxious about the Depression and the world war. Miranda stole every scene she appeared in, personifying "a culture full of zest and charm, unclouded by intense emotion or political ambivalence," according to Cynthia Enloe . Weekend in Havana soon followed, with John Payne, Alice Faye, and Cesar Romero. Carmen's Bahian image became so widely known from those two movies that Mickey Rooney impersonated her in Babes on Broadway (1942). Some Cuban critics complained, however, that neither Carmen nor 20th Century-Fox showed any understanding of or sensitivity to the reality of Havana. Springtime in the Rockies (1942) was another propaganda piece for hemispheric unity, mixing together Carmen, Cesar Romero, U.S. stars such as Betty Grable and John Payne, and the Canadian Rockies. Wrote a critic for Time magazine: "Only the addition of an Eskimo and a penguin could have made the show still more hemispheric in scope."
Nonetheless, Miranda had become a major star. On March 23, 1941, Grauman's Chinese Theater immortalized her name as well as her hand and shoe prints on its sidewalk. Her income rose, but Miranda resented having to pay 50% to Lee Shubert, who had signed her to the original, exploitative contract. In 1942, she bought her way out of it. She also purchased a mansion in Hollywood, at 616 North Bedford Drive. It provided ample room for her family (her mother Doña Maria and sister Aurora, an aspiring actress, often lived with her) and became a gathering place for Brazilians who visited Los Angeles. For a star, she rarely frequented the Hollywood social scene, preferring the security of family and Brazilian friends. Work and worrying about work came first.
By the time Miranda starred in The Gang's All Here (1943), her Bahian image had become a caricature of itself. Director Busby Berkeley outfitted her in an outlandish banana-and-strawberry headdress and surrounded her with scantily clad dancers wearing tall bananas on their heads. Yet American audiences loved her campy performance, and she became the "Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat." Brazilians were torn between admiration for her success and bewilderment, if not resentment, at her characterization. When The Gang's All Here reached Brazil, its phallic bananas drew the wrath of Getúlio Vargas' censors.
The extravagance of her production numbers and her occasional forays onto the live stage netted Carmen Miranda a substantial income during the war. Indeed, she earned over $201,000 in 1945. This made her the highest-paid woman in the United States and placed her ninth in all of Hollywood. Talent and good fortune had raised Miranda from the poverty of her childhood in Rio. Yet the memory of those years meant that she rarely felt secure in her American prosperity. Never a classical beauty, she resorted to plastic surgery to enhance the appearance of her nose in 1943. Dissatisfied with the results, she underwent a second operation in St. Louis the following year. A resulting infection nearly killed her.
As soon as World War II ended, the U.S. saw no need to continue its Pan-American campaign. Hollywood again had access to markets in Europe and Asia, where war-weary moviegoers flooded into theaters. Because she embodied the excessive pandering to Latin American audiences during WWII, peace cut into her film opportunities. When her contract with 20th Century-Fox ended, she decided to remain independent rather than tie herself to one studio. Writes Woll, "she shuffled from studio to studio in second-rate comedies and musicals": United Artists' Copacabana (1947), MGM's A Date with Judy (1948), and Paramount's Scared Stiff (1953).
While the entertainment gossip reporters occasionally noted rumors about her romantic liaisons (including a romance with Getúlio Vargas), Miranda was surprisingly discreet about her private life. In fact, given her carefully cultivated sensuous image, her personal behavior was remarkably conservative by Hollywood standards. She refused to succumb to Darryl Zanuck's attempted seductions. Other suitors were dismayed to find that she sometimes took her mother or sister along as a chaperon. When asked about romantic interests, she claimed to be in love with an anonymous Brazilian, perhaps thinking wistfully of an early romance with Mário Miranda da Cunha. But Carmen was not willing to sacrifice her career, and perhaps feared that a Brazilian husband would have restricted her professional life in favor of traditional gender roles.
In arranging her own contracts, Miranda met David Sebastian, a Hollywood hanger-on and sometime producer. They fell in love, and Carmen probably also saw him as someone who could help manage her freelance career. She and David married on March 17, 1947. They were delighted when Carmen became pregnant, but the happiness ended in miscarriage in 1948. She had often talked about getting married and raising a large family, but by the late 1940s such ambitions probably meant giving up her performing career. Marital tensions led David and Carmen to separate in 1949, although they later reconciled. Some Brazilians thought the Queen of Samba should not have married a "gringo."
By 1950, the peak of Carmen Miranda's popularity had passed, but she continued to make occasional movies and perform on stage. Her European tour of 1953 was a great success, and enthusiastic crowds greeted her from Havana to Las Vegas to New York. But it was harder for her to muster the physical energy that had captivated earlier audiences, and she increasingly turned to amphetamines, sleeping pills, and alcohol to regulate her moods. Short periods of intense work gave way to long weeks of lethargy. Manic energy turned into prolonged depression. Her stamina could not sustain the hectic days and nights that she easily had tolerated 20 years earlier. In late 1953, Miranda's depression became so acute that her doctor, W.L. Marxer, prescribed a series of electric shock treatments in a Palm Springs sanitorium.
If anything, her condition worsened. Carmen's sister Aurora had returned to Brazil, and David lacked the patience to deal with someone so ill and dependent. Friends were shocked by her state. In late 1954, Aurora returned and persuaded Carmen to accompany her to Brazil for a vacation. They arrived in São Paulo on December 3, where Carmen mustered the energy to greet and briefly entertain reporters and fans. But she collapsed from the physical and emotional strain during her flight to Rio. After an absence of 14 years, Miranda spent her first weeks at home under close medical supervision. She recovered some of her strength and mental stability, cheered by the warm reception accorded her by Brazilians. Tempted to remain in Rio, she eventually rejoined David in the U.S., after a five-month absence.
Perhaps the essence of her being required that the Brazilian bombshell resurrect her career. At any rate, Carmen performed on television and in Las Vegas, where she fell on stage. A bout with pneumonia during an appearance in Havana sapped her strength. Having returned to the Hollywood life, she reverted to her compulsive schedule, disregarding her precarious health. Early in her career, Miranda had effortlessly memorized her parts; now she had memory lapses on stage. Something was wrong, but doctors could not detect its cause.
Her end came on August 5, 1955. She had taken ill while filming an appearance on the Jimmy Durante television show. Even so, at home she entertained guests until the early morning. Preparing for bed, Carmen suffered a fatal heart attack. David found her body the next day. Following a funeral mass on August 8, her body was flown to Brazil for burial in Rio de Janeiro. A nation in mourning received its daughter home. On August 13, massive crowds accompanied the procession bearing her remains to the São João Bautista Cemetery. That December, the mayor proclaimed the creation of a museum to her memory, for which David Sebastian had contributed some of her belongings. The Carmen Miranda Museum opened in 1957.
Brito, Dulce Damasceno de. O ABC de Carmen Miranda. São Paulo: Companhia Editora Nacional, 1986.
Enloe, Cynthia. Bananas, Beaches & Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics. London: Pandora, 1989.
Gil-Montero, Martha. Brazilian Bombshell: The Biography of Carmen Miranda. NY: Donald I. Fine, 1989.
Hirschhorn, Clive. The Hollywood Musical. London: Octopus Books, 1981.
Woll, Allen L. The Latin Image in American Film. 2nd ed. UCLA Latin American Studies, vol. 50. Los Angeles: UCLA Latin American Center Publications, 1980.
Barsante, Cássio Emmanuel. Carmen Miranda. Rio de Janeiro: Europa Empresa Gráfica e Editora, 1985.
Nasser, David. A Vida Trepidante de Carmen Miranda. Rio de Janeiro: Edições O Cruzeiro, 1966.
Oliveira, Aloysio de. De banda pra lua. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Record, 1983.
Queiroz, José J. Carmen Miranda: Vida, Glória, Amor e Morte. Rio de Janeiro, Companhia Brasileira de Artes Gráficas, 1956.
"Carmen Miranda: Bananas Is My Business," documentary produced (with David Meyer) and narrated for PBS by Helena Solberg , first aired in October 1995.
Kendall W. Brown , Professor of History, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah