As announced last week, today’s post is dedicated to Carmen Miranda. She is widely known as ‘the lady with the Tutti-Frutti hat’, but the title does not really do justice to her talent as a singer and performer. In a sense, Carmen Miranda became a caricature of herself, but the fact remains that she was one of the greatest Brazilian singers of the 20th century.
In the 1930s, Carmen was the most successful radio singer in Brazil, scoring hit after hit. Besides being a great singer, she was also a great performer, and thus became the biggest star in the sophisticated scene of casinos in Rio de Janeiro. On several occasions, show business-related foreign guests who saw her performing assured her that she would become a smashing hit in Hollywood, but she was not in a hurry to launch an American career. It was only in 1939 that Carmen moved to the US and became the ‘Brazilian Bombshell’, first performing on Broadway and soon after in the movies which became a world-wide hit. To give a measure of her success, “by 1946 she was Hollywood's highest-paid entertainer and top female tax payer in the United States" (according to Wikipedia).
Carmen Miranda’s success is best understood in the context of Roosevelt’s ‘Good neighbor policy’, going both ways: North-American citizens were to acquire a positive, sympathetic idea of Latin America through Carmen’s generic image of ‘Latina’, and Latin American countries, Brazil in particular, could be proud of the huge success of ‘one of their own’ in the United States (although Carmen was actually born in Portugal!). But soon enough, the generic ‘Latina’ image began to look increasingly like a caricature, as obviously nobody in Brazil or elsewhere ever walked around with the lavish apparel she wore in the movies. At this point, Carmen became severely criticized in Brazil as a ‘product for gringos’, and this was a great source of sorrow for her.
All in all, in spite of her enormous success, her life in the US was not a particularly happy one, involving alcohol and heavy use of amphetamines to ‘keep the beat’, and a failed marriage in the late 1940s. She died of a heart attack in 1955, which occurred while she was recording her participation in the Jimmy Durante show; even though she was feeling unwell, she kept on performing as if nothing was happening, but later that day collapsed at home, never to wake up again.
Despite all this, Carmen Miranda must above all be remembered as the great performer and singer that she was. Here are two songs to showcase her talent. The first is ‘O que é que a baiana tem?’ (1939), a classic by Dorival Caymmi (on whom I plan to write a BMoF soon!); this is the very first time that she wears a baiana outfit in film (baiana = a female native of Bahia), which then became her trademark (in increasingly extravagant variations). Carmen grew up in Rio, and only in the late 1930s did she begin to sing the 'Bahia' songs composed by Caymmi, himself a native of Bahia. The second is ‘Disseram que eu voltei Americanizada’ (‘They said I came back Americanized’), an overt reply to the criticism she received on her first trip to Brazil in 1940, after having ‘made it’ in the US.
And just because my kids love it, I’m also going to post the famous sequence from Disney’s Los Tres Caballeros (1944, another gem from the ‘Good neighbor policy’ period) with Carmen’s sister, Aurora Miranda, as Yaya, the baiana. In the 1930s, Aurora was almost as successful as Carmen as a singer and performer, but unlike her sister at some point she chose to focus on family life (at the time, something almost incompatible with being a showbiz star). Carmen was supposed to be the one performing in the Disney movie, but at the time was she going through one of many phases of poor health, so Aurora was summoned to replace her.
(There is a great biography of Carmen Miranda by Ruy Castro, a journalist and writer with many other books on the history of Brazilian music to his name. Unfortunately, as far as I know none of his books have been translated into other languages.)