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The Legend of Carmen Miranda

By Lara Gabrielle Fowler

Though many outside of the classic film world might not know her name, Carmen Miranda is, nonetheless, one of the most widely recognized figures of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Her signature look, featuring an elaborate hat often made of fruit, has inspired countless imitations in popular media and introduced to American audiences to a colorful manifestation of Brazilian culture, one that has stuck with us through her films and the many incarnations of Carmen Miranda tributes and imitations.

Lucille Ball does an imitation of Carmen Miranda on an episode of I Love Lucy.

It is a bit ironic that the woman who is so strongly associated with Brazil was actually born outside of the country. Maria do Carmo Miranda da Cunha was born in 1909, in the village of Varzea da Olveha e Oliviada in northern Portugal. She moved with her family to Brazil when she was one year old, and grew up in Rio de Janeiro. She was always attracted to show business, but despite her obvious talent, she was forced to put her aspirations on hold to go to work at 14 to help pay medical bills for a sister who had contracted tuberculosis. Interestingly, one of her most notable jobs was as a hatmaker.

She was discovered in 1929 by a Brazilian composer by the name of Josue de Barros, and soon she became the first contract radio singer in Brazil. Her career rose quickly and she was a household name in Brazil by 1936, having appeared in several movies as well as her work in radio.

Her trademark outfit is based on the cultural costume of largely poor Afro-Brazilian locals from the Bahia region of Brazil. She adopted it (in a glamorized style) in 1939 for the movie Banana-da-Terra and the song she sang in the movie, “O que é que a Baiana tem?” became one of her signature songs, intended to shed a new, cheerful light on the often marginalized black Baiana population. Through her usage and popularization of this costume in the United States, and her eventual evolution into the face of Brazil to American audiences, the traditional costume of Bahia is now likely the most recognized cultural outfit of Brazil.

Baiana women in traditional costumes.

She ventured to the United States shortly after making Banana-da-Terra, and, only speaking a few words of English, was given a 4-word part in an Abbott and Costello movie entitled The Streets of Paris. Though her part was minuscule, she nonetheless received good reviews and, as in Brazil, her popularity grew quickly. She was signed to a contract at 20th Century Fox the following year and made Down Argentine Way, in which she sang two songs which would become trademarks.

(Be sure to watch the entirety of the second video–after her signature “Mamae Eu Quero,” she sings another song that is not widely known, but is one of my favorites.)

Miranda soon found herself among the most popular stars in the business. One of her best films, The Gang’s All Here, was made in 1943 and in the same year, she become one of the first Latina entertainers to have her handprints imprinted at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. By 1945, she was the highest paid actress in Hollywood.

But despite her wild popularity in the United States, her popularity in her native Brazil was beginning to decline. Audiences there felt that she was selling out to American commercialism, exploiting the culture, and forgetting her roots. In addition, Brazilian prejudice was still alive and well–and many criticized Miranda’s numbers as “too black.” Audiences in Argentina were also upset–Miranda’s film Down Argentine Way was heavily criticized for her appearance in a movie about Argentina, when she was singing in Portuguese and wearing her trademark Baiana garb. This, they argued, stereotyped South America. When Miranda returned to Brazil in 1940 for a tour, she was met with mixed to negative reactions. At one performance, the audience booed her when she began to sing “South American Way,” and this deeply affected her. She would not return to Brazil for over a decade.

Suffering from a sense of rejection at the hands of her Brazilian audience, as well as reeling from the effects of a rocky marriage to producer David Alfred Sebastian (whom she had married in 1947), Miranda began to rely heavily on drugs and alcohol. She collapsed during a performance at an Ohio club in 1953, and her doctors advised her to go somewhere where she could rest. That, to her, meant Brazil. She was apprehensive about returning, but upon her arrival she was greeted warmly, and remained in Brazil for over a year.

After her recovery, she went back to the United States and agreed to appear in a segment of the Jimmy Durante Show, but began to feel unwell before filming. During a dance number with Durante, she suddenly fell to her knees, telling Durante that she was “out of breath.” Durante, known for being a generous and demonstrative performer, offered to take her lines, but she pushed through and finished the segment. It turned out that Miranda was not simply exhausted, but had suffered a small heart attack. She suffered a larger one the next day, and she died later that day at her home in Beverly Hills.

Jimmy Durante decided to air the segment as a tribute to her and gave a heartfelt speech at the opening of the show, calling Carmen Miranda “one of the greatest performers I’ve ever known.” We are lucky that the clip survives and is on YouTube. The quality is bad, but here you may see the final performance of the great Carmen Miranda.

Many of the criticisms of Miranda’s image as a quintessential “South American” are well founded. By casting Miranda in Down Argentine Way, a movie about Argentina, the producers at 20th Century Fox expressed the idea that all of South America was homogeneous, demonstrating a lack of respect for the individual countries and cultures of the continent. This was not Miranda’s fault. This was Hollywood in the 1940s and Miranda was under contract. She had to bow to their demands, no matter how ill-advised they were, and until her contract was up, she had no choice but to cater to the commercialism of her culture and other cultures on the South American continent.

Her intense suffering at the rejection of her country, ultimately turning to drugs and alcohol to ease it, is the tragic truth of how much Brazil meant to her. I believe that it was the Brazilian public’s ultimate forgiveness of her was what enabled her to be well enough to come back to the United States for her final performance.

Thanks for reading!