Carmen Miranda would have celebrated her 111th birthday today and even now, 64 years after her passing, the ‘Brazilian Bombshell’s’ legacy has never been greater – even to the point of rivaling her own technicolor, big screen life.
New York, May 18, 1939. The mooring lines on the S.S. Uruguay had barely been tied off when Brazil’s Carmen Miranda swept down the gang plank to a throng of waiting reporters.
At 5′ 2″ and listed only sixth on the playbill, she had arrived to play Broadway with Abbott and Costello. But from those very first moments in front of the media, America would quickly learn that she was already larger than life:
“I say 20 words in English. I say ‘money, money, money’,” she began. “And I say ‘hot dog’! I say ‘yes’, ‘no’ and I say ‘money, money, money’ and I say ‘turkey sandwich’ and I say ‘grape juice’.”
Clearly, when that cruise ship anchored down in New York harbor, Carmen Miranda’s career launched her on the way to international stardom.
Today marks her birthday and now, 64 years after her passing, there’s no doubt that Carmen Miranda remains larger than life.
Her fruit-topped turbans and yards of Brazilian bling have inspired countless female impersonators and drag queens from San Francisco to Copacabana, making her one of the most imitated celebrities ever.
But lest you think that the chronicle of charismatic Carmen’s caricature is completely camp, consider:
In 1939, Carmen Miranda was at the height of her popularity as a singer and performer in Brazil when she arrived in the US as her country’s Ambassador of Good Will for the New York World’s Fair.
Her colorful costumes, with brightly laid laced skirts, heaps of jewelry, platform shoes and a turban-like orchard atop her head, reflected her love of the Afro-Brazilian Bahiana, and made the city of Bahia famous overnight. The ‘Bahian look’ as it was called, took the American fashion scene by storm, and she was chosen one of the ten most outstanding women in 1939.
Her first US film, Down Argentine Way, won an Academy Award nomination in 1941, and was just the first of many more, including Weekend in Havana, That Night in Rio, Copacabana with Groucho Marx, A Date With Judy, Springtime In The Rockies, Four Jills in a Jeep, and Scared Stiff with Dean Martin.
By 1945, Carmen Miranda made her way into America’s Top Ten of highest paid people, and by extraction was quite probably one of the wealthiest female wage earners in the world.
And, yes – even thought today Chiquita Banana has swayed decidedly Latina, – that’s Carmen Miranda, too.
Carmen’s story is both thoroughly Brazilian and a studio screenplay come to life.
From her Star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame to the recent exhibition of her life at Rio’s Museum of Contemporary Art (plus her own not-to-be-missed museum in Rio’s Zona Sul), her role as a cultural icon spanning the Americas is unique, not to be repeated until Bossa Nova’s seductive sway caught our attention in the early 60’s.
We’ve selected excerpts from a long-unaccredited biography to help you learn more about Carmen Miranda, The Brazilian Bombshell. The Lady with the Tutti Frutti Hat.
Enjoy the ride!
Author’s note: This story was orginally published by Connect Brazil February 9th 2006 under the title ’50 (more) Years of Carmen Miranda’. We have presented it again here to insure of its availability in the future.
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THE BRAZILIAN BOMBSHELL
Although she preferred to be known as a Brazilian, Maria do Carmo Miranda da Cunha – her real name – was born on February 9, 1909, outside the small town of Marco de Canavezes, near Porto, Portugal.
She came to Brazil with her mother, Dona Emilia, and her elder sister, Ollinda, when she was only 18 months old. Her father, Jose Maria, a barber, had come somewhat earlier to get settled.
The couple were to have four more children: Amaro, Cecilia, Aurora, and Oscar. (Aurora would also become a famous singer.)
Once in Brazil, father Cunhan established a very prosperous wholesale produce business, and Carmen, the oldest of five children, was enrolled at the Convent of Saint Teresinha (in Lapa, the Rio de Janeiro neighborhood where the family lived), for her education with the Sisters of Charity; the institution provided free schooling for poor girls.
Her liveliness set her off among the other children. When the Nuncio visited the school, Carmen read one of his poems, and, as a prize, was kissed on the forehead by the distinguished visitor.
At an early age, Carmen was forced to work as a clerk in a haberdasher’s and then at a ladies’ fashion shop.
Her ebullience, tact, and friendliness always made her the best salesgirl. It was then that she learned to make hats, a skill at which she became an expert; later she owned a small milliner’s business.
In her artistic career, her way with hats was to prove a major asset.
The Miranda da Cunha family soon moved to the PraÇa Quinze neighborhood. Travessa do Comercio n 13, upper floor, where Dona Emilia, aided by her children, set up a boarding house patronized by salespeople, in order to pay for the treatment Olinda was undergoing in a sanatorium in Caramulo, Portugal.
|“Look at me and tell me if I don’t have Brazil in every curve of my body.” – Carmen Miranda
THE SINGING STAR OF SOUTH AMERICA
But Carmen’s dream was to become an entertainer.
Now and then she got her photo published in a magazine, though anonymously. She began singing on local radio stations at 20.
Her first real break came in 1929, when Anibal Duarte, a native of Bahia, got her to take part in a charity festival at the National Institute of Music, where the famous composer Ernesto Nazare worked.
Carmen sang tangos, which were then all the rage, and impressed another baiano there, the guitar player, Josue de Barros, who became her mentor and took her to sing in radio programs a few times.
A few months later, Barros got her to cut a record at Brunswick, which was then beginning to operate in Brazil. But Brunswick delayed the release of the disc, so that Barros took her to RCA Victor, which was also beginning to record Brazilian performers.
At Victor, Carmen was given an audition, was approved and began recording; her first song came out in January 1930.
The Brunswick recording also appeared then, but it went largely unnoticed. Her third Victor release broke the record for Brazilian sales: 36,000 copies.
The song was “Pra voce gostar de mim (Tai),” a marcha by Joubert de Carvalho. Overnight, Carmen became a nationwide celebrity. It was during this time with RCA Victor that she assumed the theatrical name,”Carmen Miranda”.
Then came an unending string of hits. She became the sensation of Brazil – known as “The Wonderful Girl” – and her father became her business manager. On the basis of her unique personality, she developed a style that was widely imitated.
Her records were absolute best-sellers. In a period of only ten years, she cut more 78-rpm records than anyone else; one record at Brunswick, 77 at RCA Victor, 65 (129 songs) at Odeon and 16 at American Decca, totaling 313 songs.
Such was her gracefulness and vitality, as apparent in her recordings as in her live performances, that she was immediately dubbed “The Singer with the Fascinating Voice and Gestures;” later she became “The Smiling Dictatress of Samba,” and then, in 1933, the radio announcer Cesar Ladeira gave her a lasting moniker: “The Great Little Girl.”
She had become the leading woman in Brazilian radio, working at Radio Mayrink Veiga, the most popular station in the 30’s (though for a year – 1937 – she moved over to Radio Tupi).
She was the also the top star in Carnival movies, in which her performance was usually limited to singing: “Carnaval de 1932” (a semi-documentary), “A Voz do Carnaval” (1933), “Alo, Alo Brasil” (1935), “Estudantes” (1935) – the only movie in which she played a part – “Alo, Alo Carnaval” (1936) and “Banana da Terra” (1939).
In 1935, Odeon finally got her to sign a contract. This was to result in a number of hits, many of which are now classics of Brazilian pop.
Throughout her singing career, Carmen was an innovator. Though middle-class herself, she delighted in being a pioneer of the black slum music now famous as “samba”.
DISCOVERED BY THE UNITED STATES
Thanks to American movies, Carmen – who had arrived in New York in 1939, a complete unknown, risking a solid career in Brazil and South America – became a star, even though she had none of the physical traits valued by most Americans: She was short (less than five feet), dark, a Latin, and knew no more than a few heavily accented words in English.
Carmen had appeared in four Brazilian films, and while appearing at the Casino Urqua nightclub, was spotted by playwright Marc Connelly, impresario Lee Shubert and his date, Sonja Henie.
A U.S. manager, Shubert saw her act and hired her, urged by Henie. Shubert was interested in importing Carmen to Broadway, if she would learn English.
He was somewhat hesitant; though he had no doubts about Carmen’s talent, he did not know how the U.S. public would respond to a dark Latin type. The fiery Latin told Shubert “the public likes my songs in Portuguese, and if you want me, it will be on those terms.”
Shubert placed her under a three-year contract, and the toast of Brazil was on her way to success in the United States.
He hired the six-man Bando da Lua at Carmen’s request, but only after she agreed to pay the wages of three of the members out of her own money.
At that point in Carmen’s life, her ten-year-long career in Brazil, the fact that she was the most beloved woman in her country, and her prestige in Argentina – where she was known as the “Ambassadress of Samba” – none of this meant much to Shubert or the United States audiences to whom she would play.
Nor did it make any difference that her departure in Rio’s harbor had been attended by a huge crowd, and had been assigned the mission of conquering one more province for the Empire of Samba.
Carmen made her U.S. debut at the Broadhurst Theatre with Bobby Clark in a Broadway revue, “Streets of Paris”, opening in June, 1939.
Also in the cast were ex-burlesque comedians, Abbott and Costello, Luella Bear and Gower Champion, in the chorus. The plotless, two-act conglomeration of songs, sketches, and comedy patter was compared to “Hellzapoppin” by most critics.
In baiana costume, Carmen sang a few passages from four songs – three Brazilian and one American – in a Carnival rhythm (marcha); the American song was sung in a mixture of Portuguese and fractured English.
Altogether the songs lasted only six minutes. But these were the longest six minutes in American show business; a veritable earthquake of beads and trinkets, colors and gaiety, hands and eyes, her whole body beating time to the frenetic rhythms of unheard-of music.
None of Carmen’s three solo numbers (including “South American Way”) was listed in the program, but critics and audiences alike were unanimous in their praise.
One Big Apple critic wrote: “Her face is too heavy to be beautiful, her figure is nothing to write home about, and she sings in a foreign language. Yet she is the biggest theatrical sensation of the season.”
Life Magazine echoed these sentiments, declaring: “Partly because their unusual melody and heavy accented rhythms are unlike anything ever heard in a Manhattan revue before, partly because there is not a clue to their meaning except the gay rolling of Carmen Miranda’s insinuating eyes, these songs and Miranda herself, are the outstanding hit of the show.”
“Skewering the audience with merry, mischievous eyes, Carmen Miranda performs only once, but she stops the show”, wrote Time Magazine.
During an otherwise forgettable theatrical season, further dampened by the presence of the New York World’s Fair (Carmen also danced at the Brazilian pavilion, accompanied by the Bando da Lua), it was Carmen, with her incomparable grace and rhythm, who brought life back to Broadway: she saved Broadway from the World’s Fair.
Top stars flocked to the trend-setting show, which was more popular than the city’s mayor.
Carmen’s energy was boundless. While still in “Streets,” she also did a supper show at the Waldorf’s Sert Room and an after-the-theatre show at the Versailles.
Soon, a Hollywood studio carried its equipment to Broadway largely to film her act – something that had never happened before in the history of American film – because with her five daily performances in various places, she was unable to travel to Hollywood.
So it was that Hollywood came to Carmen instead.
CARMEN IN HOLLYWOOD
The war in Europe caused the closure of the rich Continental market and film studios were trying to attract the strong Latin America market.
In 1940, when 20th Century Fox entered the bandwagon of political patriotic expediency to help foster Latin American-U.S. friendship, Darryl F. Zanuck set Carmen to guest star in “Down Argentine Way” (1940), with Don Ameche and a “rediscovered” Betty Grable.
Although the musical was set in Buenos Aires, Carmen’s number, a repeat of “South American Way,” was filmed at the Movietone Studios in Manhattan.
The volatile 31-year old was an immediate success with theatergoers in “Down Argentine Way”, which cemented her reputation as 1940’s most unique new personality.
It was a tremendous film debut! Observed the New York Times: “Miss Miranda sings ‘South American Way’ and a few Spanish trifles scorchily, but we don’t see enough of her”.
Carmen’s song style illustrated her enthusiastic method of delivering tunes, with dynamics of her flashing green eyes, rambling hips, and the facile hand movements of her speed-flowing broken English.
Coupled with oversized jewelry, platform shoes, bold colorful costumes, bare midriffs, and tropical fruit. Her flamboyant headgear compensated for her size. Carmen was only five feet two inches tall and weighed only about 100 pounds.
She was cleverly exploited by directors like Walter Lang, Irving Cummings, and Busby Berkley, ultimately proving she was more than a strictly camp icon.
In Weekend in Havana (1941), Alice Faye lands in Havana, torn between John Payne and Cesar Romero, with Carmen a nightclub performer (her usual role) with the hots for Romero.
Because of her new screen popularity, the brothers Shubert were eager to have Carmen back on Broadway. She joined Olsen and Johnson, Ella Logan, the Blackburn Twins and Joe Besser in “Sons O’ Fun,” which opened at the Winter Garden Theatre in December 1941.
She performed five numbers, including the show-stopping “Thank You, North America.”
She left the show six months later to film Springtime in the Rockies (1942), which critic Leonard Maltin describes as the near-definitive 1940’s Fox musical.”
With Betty Grable, John Payne and Cesar Romero, Carmen was in top form doing a Brazilian “Chattanooga Choo Choo.”
OUTRAGEOUSLY UNIQUE COSTUMES AND STYLE
The “lady in the tutti-fruitti hat” brought to American wartime audiences an extravagantly seductive surface: the exoticism of her native country, a sensuality tempered by caricature, and outlandish costumes and fruit-laden “hats” that have an unsuspected origin in the black slums of Brazil.
The gaudy turbans, bangles, and exposed midriffs were based on the costumes of the Baiana, the poor black women who sold fruit in Bahia.
Although, even before coming to the United States, in many of her songs, as well as in her outrageous costumes, there were Bahian elements from the beginning, it was only in late 1938 that she actually incorporated full Bahian regalia, in “Banana da Terra.”
It was as a baiana that she performed at Cassino da Urca, with the Bando da Lua.
By 1942, even though she spoke perfect English, Carmen was careful to retain the illusion of the original accent which made her famous.
Fans began to copy her style innovations, and she was imitated everywhere, both seriously and in fun.
Mickey Rooney appeared in full Miranda drag, launching into her hit song, “Mama Yo Quiero” in Babes on Broadway.
In later years, Cass Daley would mimic the Miranda mystique in “Ladies Man,” while Milton Berle and Carol Burnett on their television shows, would often camp it up in Miranda-like drag.
Still later, in nightclub acts, Mitzi Gaynor, Suzanne Somers, and Raquel Welch would parody renditions of Miranda-type songs in their acts while gussied up to fit the image.
Carmen’s younger sister, Aurora was tested by MGM, had a few club dates, but could never equal Carmen’s popularity. Aurora was a less dynamic version of her famous sister, eventually landing roles in Brazil, The Three Caballeros and Tell It To A Star.
In Phantom Lady, a film noir classic, Aurora was quite effective as a temperamental singer.
In Busby Berkley’s lavish The Gang’s All Here (1943), Carmen was a fiery Broadway entertainer who helped chorus girl Alice Faye put on a bond-selling variety show at serviceman, James Ellison’s family estate.
Berkeley’s kaleidoscopic production numbers included Carmen’s very Freudian, “The Lady in the Tutti Fruitti Hat.” Carmen then made a brief guest spot in the patriotic Four Jills in a Jeep (1944), in which she appears in a radio broadcast sequence.
Greenwich Village (1944) saw Carmen top-billed over Don Ameche and Vivian Blaine. The silly but amiable musical set in the 1920’s, was a showcase for Blaine, who Zanuck hoped would replace the departing Alice Faye.
Carmen’s final Technicolor splash was the Broadway musical, Something for the Boys (1944). Carmen was a singer, involved with Vivian Blaine, heiress of a broken down Southern plantation, who turns the mansion into a retreat for army wives.
In a hilarious comedy routine, it’s discovered that the Carborundum in one of Carmen’s tooth fillings acts as a radio transmitter.
In 1945, Carmen bought out her Fox contract and attempted more serious roles – including playing a dual role in a Marx Brothers movie – with limited success.
Newsreel clips of the time reveal her to be an accomplished painter – Carmen was truly a woman of many talents.
Over the years, Carmen met, worked with, and played with many men. Here is a list of her known (or reputed) spouses, lovers, and infatuations.
David Sebastian (husband)
Don Ameche (infatuation)
John Payne (infatuation)
Arturo de Cordova (Mexican actor)
Carlos Alberto Rocha Farias
Getúlio Vargas (President)
Aloysio de Oliveira
THE HIGHEST SALARIED WOMAN IN THE U.S.
In 1945, Carmen was making more than $200,000 annually, making her the highest salaried woman in the U.S. – the result of her combined Fox salary, radio, nightclub and recording careers.
The Miranda craze continued – Paramount had their own Miranda clone, 18-year old Olga San Juan, refreshingly partnered with Fred Astaire in “Blue Skies.”
MGM had the sparkling Lina Romay. And even Republic was grooming Herbert J. Yates protégée, Estelita Rodriquez.
Ironically, Carmen’s movie career began its descent around this time in two lackluster black and white B’s, Doll Face (1945) and If I’m Lucky (1946), both with Vivian Blaine and Perry Como.
It was certainly a comedown for the once top-level star.
Said Blaine about their four films together to writer Stuart Oderman: “We both had our separate images. I sat in the picture window, sang the song and kissed the pretty boy, and she was the lady with the fruit on the top of her head. I don’t know if she minded doing that type of thing. Maybe that was all she could do and maybe she knew it. But I’ll say this for Carmen Miranda: she was a marvelous person with a great sense of humor and she supported her family back home. She was very good to all of them.”
The war was over, and the south-of-the border neighbor policy had melted away. 20th Century Fox was switching to other musical formats which did not require Carmen’s special brand of performing.
She moved over to Universal, but with the studio’s merger into Universal International, the contract was terminated.
On March 17th, 1947, she married film producer David Sebastian at the Church of Good Shepard in Beverly Hills. They met on the set of Copacabana (1947), in which Sebastian was one of the associate producers.
When agent Groucho Marx negotiates a deal requiring a pair of nightclub entertainers, he prevailed upon Carmen to accept both jobs, as a veiled blond chanteuse, and as a spirited spitfire. Carmen exuded her usual bushels of energy.
Carmen kept busy with club and PR tours until MGM’s A Date With Judy (1948) with Jane Powell and Elizabeth Taylor as teen sisters involved in family shenanigans.
Dance instructress Carmen innocently causes their father, Wallace Beery, some marital problems.
MGM dusted off Nancy Goes to Rio (1950), a zestful remake of a Deanna Durbin-Kay Francis vehicle, It’s a Date. It co-starred Jane Powell and Ann Sothern, with Carmen providing the local color in the Rio sequences.
She then turned to more café dates, including the London Palladium, the El Rancho Vegas, and New York’s Copacabana.
Carmen’s final film covered familiar ground again, a Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis entry, Paramount’s Scared Stiff (1953), set in a haunted Cuban mansion. It was an inferior rehash of the Bob Hope-Paulette Goddard starrer, The Ghost Breakers.
The story was given a slight overhaul with Carmen caught up in the comics’ antics. The only bright spot was Lewis’ impersonation of her.
CARMEN’S HOLLYWOOD LEGACY
In 1941, Carmen Miranda was invited to leave her hand and high-heeled foot prints at Hollywood’s Chinese Theatre; she was the first Latin-American to do so.
In 1946, no woman paid more in income tax than Carmen. In 1951, she became the highest-paid entertainer.
In 1960, her name was to be posthumously inscribed in a sidewalk star on Hollywood Boulevard’s Walk of Fame.
GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN
Late in 1954, after 14 years abroad, she went back to Brazil for reasons of health.
She had been married to the American, David Sebastian, since 1947; the couple had no children and more than their share of marital strife.
In Brazil, she was give a warm welcome and honored by many tributes. Four months later, she returned to the U.S. to work.
On August 4th, 1955, while taping a strenuous mambo number on Jimmy Durante’s television show, Carmen slipped to one foot during the final sequence and reportedly said, “I’m all out of breath.”
Later that evening after attending a party with husband, Sebastian, she returned to their Beverly Hills home, where she fainted and died of a massive heart attack.
The shock was enormous.
A physician who had been treating her for a slight case of bronchitis since her recent return from Brazil (after an absence of fifteen years) said she had seemed in good health.
Following a Catholic service in Hollywood, Sebastian and Carmen’s mother (who lived with them) accompanied her body to Rio for burial.
News of her death made headlines around the world; it struck Brazilians like a bolt out of the blue.
Over 100,000 mourners came to see her embalmed body in Rio de Janeiro’s City Hall. More than one million heart-broken fans came to her funeral in Rio’s Sao Joao Batista Cemetary. Though she had not performed in Brazil since 1940, she had not been forgotten.
CARMEN MIRANDA’S INFLUENCE
To date, only two Brazilians have unquestionably and durably attained the status of world-scale icons, famous beyond the boundaries of specific nations and groups: Carmen Miranda and Pele.
Over forty years after her death, Carmen remains an icon and a landmark presence; time has only added to her stature.
So it was that when, in the Carnival of 1995, Bidu Sayao – Brazil’s only opera singer of international fame – was honored by the Beija Flor Samba School, she made a point of riding her triumphal float in baiana dress, to pay tribute to her unforgettable friend, Carmen Miranda.
The dynamic Carmen Miranda was the forerunner for the eccentric female singer so popular with international audiences.
It’s a trend presently popularized by the styles of Bette Midler, Madonna, and Cyndi Lauper.
The effervescent Carmen was great fun, and never ceased to share with us her dynamic personality.
The most adored good will ambassador Latin America ever exported to Hollywood will be fondly remembered.