The one-woman Carnivale!
by David Wolfe
Her image is truly iconic. Carmen Miranda’s name conjures a vision that is synonymous with Carnivale, a fantasy of tropical extravagance. She created the look and made it her own. A turban piled high with fruit, flowers, feathers and everything but the kitchen sink. A skirt hanging from her undulating hips and rippling with ruffles and frills. Her bare shoulders and midriff always in motion. Much too much costume jewelry. Necklaces piled on top each other, oversize earrings swinging and wrists laden with bracelets to call attention to her gracefully agitated hand movements. The whole fabulous concoction of a costume is balanced precariously on sky-high platform shoes that never slow down the sprightly Samba dancing. That’s Carmen Miranda!
Pizzazzpersonified, it is understandable that Carmen’s image was captivating, colorful and slightly crazy, the perfect subject for paper dolls and coloring books. During the peak of her fame in the 1940s, two superb paper doll books were produced by Saalfied. Carmen Miranda paper dolls continue to appear years after her death. A favorite collectible was created years by Tom Tierney. In 1982 he produced a well researched and meticulously detailed book featuring her most famous costumes. That very paper doll actually makes a cameo appearance in the 1994 documentary film, “Bananas is My Business.” (Available on DVD.) Mr. Tierney’s fondness for Carmen was clear to attendees at the 2004 Paper Doll Convention in Rhode Island when he himself dressed in hilariously glamorous Miranda drag. Marilyn Henry’s beautiful die-cut book that includes many of Carmen’s costumes is currently available.
Carmen Miranda’s persona is exuberant, to put it mildly, but her life was no Carnivale. Her giddy costumes, her effervescent performances and her comic roles create the impression of a madly merry, if somewhat manic, little dynamo. The truth of her life is not so one dimensional. She had great success but it was tempered by disappointment and illness.
Although she became known throughout the world as“The Brazilian Bombshell,” Maria de Camo was born in Portugal in 1909. Her family was poor and her father, a barber, moved his family to Rio de Janiero. There his daughter grew up, left school at 15 and got a job in a hat shop. She loved to sing and while still a teen-ager, Maria rechristened herself Carmen Miranda and cut a test record for RCA Victor. It became the first of many, many hits.
The samba was considered low-class music, not unlike hip-hop today, and just as popular with the mass public. Carmen made it her own and became the known as the Queen of the Samba, a pop star equal to Madonna or Britney. She was billed as “The Remarkable Girl.”
On tour in Brazil, Carmen became enchanted with the native dress of Bahia where the women wore turbans to help balance the baskets of fruit they carried on their heads. Their skirts were simple sarongs and they wore ruffled midriff tops. Bahaians also displayed a fondness for flashy, clunky jewelry. Carmen adapted their native dress, glamourized it with plenty of sparkle and created an image that would become so identified with her that she was virtually unrecognizable when she wasn’t wearing it. In fact, many performers donned her costume and impersonated her. Milton Berle, Jerry Lewis, Bob Hope and Mickey Rooney are just some of the stars who used her look to get laughs.
When Broadway impresario Lee Shubert visited Rio in 1939, he saw Carmen doing her star turn at the Casino da Urca nightclub and immediately signed her for his new show, “Streets of Paris.” Her contract meant that for years she had to give 50% of any money she made to Shubert. Still, it wasn’t such a bad deal because she soon became the highest paid woman in America! Although she was sad to leave Brazil, Carmen thought it a wonderful opportunity not just for herself, but to introduced Brazilian music and musicians to America, a sort of Good Will Ambassadress. Carmen Miranda exploded on Broadway, creating a sensation. Her look became so fashionable that women everywhere wrapped their heads in turbans and staggered around in platform soled shoes. One New York store had a mold of her face made so all their window dummies could look exactly like the star herself.
Following eighteen months of staggering success in America, Carmen Miranda returned to Brazil where she was greeted by thousands of fans at the airport. She rightly expected her return engagement to be a triumph. It wasn’t. The press crucified her, saying she had betrayed her roots and become “Americanized.” Her opening night audience greeted her performance with icy silence instead of applause and she was heartbroken. That was beginning of her lifelong struggle to equate her stardom with the criticism that constantly came her way from her beloved Brazil.
World War II meant that the United States, cut off from European markets, focused on Latin America with FDR’s “Good Neighbor Policy.” Carmen Miranda was a major Hollywood star and the government saw her as a useful propaganda tool to cement relations between the USA and South America. What they didn’t understand was the nationalism of those Latin nations. Carmen co-starred with Betty Grable in “Down Argentine Way,” a technicolor froth that was deemed insulting to Argentina and banned in that country. “Week-end in Havana,” with Alice Faye and Don Ameche offended Brazilians because Carmen played a Cuban and it was felt that in doing so she dishonored Brazil.
Despite the criticism incurred in South America, Carmen Miranda became one of North America’s most popular personalities. Her highly charged musical numbers enlivened movies, never more than in “The Gang’s All Here.” In it, director Busby Berkley created a legendary sequence involving hundreds of chorus girls, lots of blatantly phallic bananas and featuring Carmen as“The Lady in the Tutti Fruitti Hat.” After that, she was forever so identified with bananas that the cartoon“Chiquita Banana” was based on her to promote the sale of that fruit. An astute businesswoman, Carmen cashed in on her fame with more product endorsements than any other star. She lived in high style, bringing her family from Brazil to share her lavish home in Beverly Hills. Virtually every Brazilian who came to town stayed there as her guest.
When the war ended, so did America’s fascination with Latin America. Carmen Miranda’s act never changed much and the novelty was wearing off. In an effort to reinvent herself, Carmen bleached her hair and played a dual role in “Copacabana,” a flop film produced by her new husband, David Sebastian. It was not a happy marriage. Early in her Hollywood career, Carmen had undergone plastic surgery to reshape her nose and a second operation endangered her health and brought her to the brink of death. When her movie career dried up, she didn’t slow down and continued her lifelong pattern of overwork, relying on the disastrous roller coaster sleeping pills and pep pills. Eventually, overcome with anxiety and depression, she suffered a nervous breakdown that led to shock treatments. A shell of a woman, Carmen Miranda returned again to Brazil.
Gradually she seemed to come back to life, but before she totally regained her health, she returned to the United States and her grueling performance schedule that included a guest appearance on Jimmy Durante’s tv show. During a musical number, she faltered and fell to her knees, but continued. That night, at her home, she died of heart failure. Her body was flown back to Rio where it lay in state while thousands and thousands of her fans wept and mourned her passing.
The myth of Carmen Miranda is perpetuated today whenever and wherever there is a Carnivale. Always, always, there are dozens of celebrants dancing through the streets dressed as she dressed, adorned with fruit-laden turbans, ruffled skirts and masses of costume jewelry. But it is her spirit, the fizz of her incandescent joy that makes Carmen Miranda forever the Queen of Carnivale.