Tuesday, October 19, 2004

The Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat: Some Notes on Carmen Miranda

I think a lot of “Gen-X” people like myself became acquainted with the image of 1940s film star Carmen Miranda through cartoons. Any time Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck knocked over a food cart or crashed into a waiter, they would stand up, dazed, with a stack of fruit on their heads. Then—for a few seconds—they would break into a samba dance and a “boom-chick-a-boom” song before continuing the slapstick mayhem.

Carmen Miranda’s look and sound were indeed distinctive: towering fruit-decorated headdresses and platform shoes in service of the music of her beloved Brazil. There was, of course, much more to Miranda than the image she created and Hollywood propagated. Recently, I watched a compelling documentary on Miranda by filmmaker Helena Solberg called BANANAS IS MY BUSINESS (1994). Using photos, archival footage, interviews, and fanciful re-enactments, Solberg (Brazilian herself) created both a poignant portrait of Miranda and personal memoir exploring the central question—why was Carmen Miranda’s image so compelling?

Surprisingly, Miranda was not actually Brazilian but Portuguese, born there in 1909. Her family moved to Brazil when she was just a child, becoming part of a thriving immigrant community. Miranda left school at fifteen to work in—coincidentally enough—a hat shop designing headwear for Brazil’s upper-class women. She would sing while she worked, and this would lead to her eventual “discovery” and record contract. By age twenty-one, she would have a hit record and would maintain stardom in Brazil throughout the 1930s. In 1939, for a performance in a Rio de Janeiro nightclub, Carmen concocted a flamboyant costume based on the women of Bahia: blousy, off-the-shoulder tops, long skirts, and turban-wrapped head. It was a look she would refine and maintain for the rest of her career. Both her outfit and the songs she sang were steeped in Bahia’s African roots.

It was this nightclub act that caught the eye of Broadway impresario Lee Schubert. She was immediately cast in the musical STREETS OF PARIS and sent to New York City. Miranda was a huge hit, packing in audiences every night and influencing the New York fashion scene. Hollywood took notice, of course, and she was cast in the musical DOWN ARGENTINE WAY (1940), making a splash across America.

After a heady eighteen months in the U.S., Carmen returned on Brazil to what was initially a hero’s welcome. She had conquered America, but as with many public figures, those that built them up began to tear them down. Things quickly took a nasty turn: elite society audiences (attuned to the fact that one of the “immigrant class” was representing Brazil abroad) were cold at her public performances, critics lambasted her as “Americanized”, the newspapers editorialized that she did not deserve her accolades. The general public feeling was that she was no longer, “our Carmen Miranda.” This would deeply hurt and embitter Miranda for the rest of her life. Although she would always proudly assert her Brazilian identity, Miranda soon left for Hollywood and would not return to Brazil until fourteen years later.

Miranda quickly signed a contract with 20th Century Fox and began appearing in a sting of successful Hollywood musicals, each Technicolor extravaganzas with flamboyant costumes and musical numbers. This was, by most accounts, a happy time in Miranda’s life. She bought a home and brought her family to live with her. She was also a fixture on the Hollywood social scene and a generous host to visiting Brazilian dignitaries.

It is here that Carmen’s life—and the documentary film—takes an intriguing turn. Her fame came at the height of World War II. As European markets were being closed by war, the Roosevelt administration crafted the “Good Neighbor Policy”, designed to open Latin American resources to American markets. Hollywood, long in service of the war effort, created an image of Latin American in film and cast Miranda as the “Ultimate Good Neighbor”. As one commentator in the documentary diplomatically states, “a lot of mistakes were made.” Latin Americans did not like the way they were portrayed on screen, some later questioned the effect Miranda’s character had on existing stereotypes of Latinas. She was once again an object of derision in her home country. Miranda, herself, was in a precarious situation: she was under an iron-clad contract and had to please the studio and her American fan base. This was not the first time she was used for political gain. Before her first send-off to Broadway, the Brazilian president personally pressed her into the role of “ambassador” of Brazilian culture. While Miranda embraced that role at the time, it ultimately backfired on her, as noted above. Commenting on Miranda’s “Good Neighbor” image, one Brazilian critic lamented, “Our greatest star has been occupied by a foreign country.”

Miranda became increasingly restless after the war. She was starting to tire of her act. The studio, however, had strict control of her image, and as she was still a money-maker for them, would not let her try other things. After a long struggle, she bough out her studio contract and struck out on her own. Around this time, she entered into a marriage with a man who was physically and emotionally abusive. While she was still popular in nightclubs and on the new medium of television, Miranda was ill and depressed and increasingly turned to pills to keep herself going. A full nervous breakdown followed. Miranda eventually rallied, and she continued a vigorous work schedule. While on the Jimmy Durante television show, Miranda briefly collapsed on camera. Always a trooper, she picked herself up and fined the show. She died later that night from a heart ailment—she was forty six years old. Her body was taken back to her beloved Brazil and thousands thronged the streets to get a view of her flag-draped coffin. Turned away from Brazil in life, she was welcomed with open arms in death.

Filmmaker Helena Solberg narrates, “She could never meet all the different expectations people had of her. [Miranda] had an incandescent talent and her talent was used by many to further many different ends.” Comprising complex underpinnings of race, class, and politics, Carmen Miranda’s public image overtook the fun character she initially created, ultimately trapping the woman inside it. Solberg’s film, Bananas Is My Business, celebrates Miranda and her talents, and begins to uncover the woman from beneath the iconic image.

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