CARMEN MIRANDA is best known as the ‘fruit-on-the-head lady’, but she deserves better. This gorgeous singer/dancer/actress was the highest-earning female entertainer in the mid 1940s, and her legacy lives on today.
Born in Portugal in 1909, Carmen was taken as a baby to Brazil when her family migrated there, but remained a Portuguese citizen all her life. From an early age she loved singing and dancing, performing at parties and festivals. Her father disapproved of her show-biz dreams, so she went into the hat-making trade as a young adult. However, she continued to sing in clubs and on radio in Brazil and developed her distinctive fruit hats, based partly on the head-dresses of black fruit sellers.
From the age of 20 onwards she scored recording deals and film appearances, sometimes with her spunky sister Aurora, with whom she had performed from an early age. Brazil embraced them as acting and singing stars and their fame spread. At age thirty, Carmen was signed up by a Hollywood studio and went on to take America by storm.
For Carmen and Aurora in their career together, check out YouTube: “Aurora Miranda”.
After appearing in stage musicals, in 1940 Carmen was signed up for the film Down Argentine Way. The movie was full of song-&-dance numbers and Carmen was its real hit, becoming branded ‘the Brazilian Bombshell’. This film established her trademarks in Hollywood: flamboyant costumes, bare midriff, exotic headgear, sexually-charged dancing, massive smiles, flashing eyes and exuberant personality.
It was partly what Carmen wanted and partly what Hollywood wanted to make of her, as the gringos’ love affair with all things Latin American took off. When she visited Brazil the same year, Carmen was heavily criticized for giving a falsely stereotypical image of her adopted country and for being too racy. Deeply upset by this, she didn’t return to Brazil for fourteen years.
Until the early 1950s, Carmen averaged one film per year, most of them box-office successes. Although most of the public loved her, she essentially played the same persona and continued to cop criticism that her dance numbers were often an amalgam of undifferentiated Latin styles. She attempted to break out from the stereotype in Copacabana, but still had to do the usual dance act. (In this, she faced a similar problem to fellow Latina, Susan Hayward.)
In 1947, she married the film’s producer, David Sebastian, but that lasted only a few months. He was selfish and violent, but Catholic Carmen wouldn’t agree to a divorce. It appears she never found happiness in affairs of heart. Tragic, especially when you think of all the joy she gave to millions.
Carmen continued to cut disks, teaming with the Andrews Sisters a few times. She made her last film in 1953, with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, but stayed busy on the nightclub circuit and television. She had been smoking and drinking heavily, and began taking ‘uppers and downers’, damaging her health. In 1955, she collapsed after a dance number on a TV show. It was a heart attack, and she died later that night after a second one, at age 46. Her body was flown back to Brazil, where there was national mourning.
Carmen has been honoured in various ways over the years. Her hand prints are in the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a square in that town is named after her, she was pictured on a US stamp in 2011, and there’s a memorabilia museum in Rio de Janeiro. Photos, cartoons and figurines of her are pursued as collectibles, and Carmen Miranda costumes are in continual demand from fancy-dress outlets. But do the borrowers really know who she was?
Check out YouTube: “Carmen Miranda is a chica chica boom chic” or her bio at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6hAYO838Cm8.
http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000544/bio (mini bios by Denny Jackson & Kenneth Chisholm)
Roddick N, 1985, Encyclopedia of Great Movies, Octopus Books, London
NOTE: When the article below was first posted, I had no idea it would attract so many Carmen Miranda searches. In response, I’ve created the above bio.
May 2012: So, Indonesia did not allow LADY GAGA to perform there.
The police chiefs said they were worried they wouldn’t be able prevent violent clashes between her fans and protestors against her. The protestors objected to her scanty on-stage costumes, her ‘vulgarity’ and her alleged bad influence on local youth.
The media typified her critics as Muslim hardliners and it’s true that much – but not all – of the criticism and agitation has come from orthodox Islamic groups. However, I know from living there that a great many moderate Indonesians would have qualms about the clash of Gaga’s dress and behaviour with the mainstream of local culture, where it’s still unusual for women to even show bare shoulders in public.
These qualms would be felt by many Christians there as well, not just Muslims. Now, I can see the case for artistic freedom but the Americanization of Indonesia has always bothered me, so personally I’m glad that Gaga has been rebuffed, which might also slightly dent her enormous ego. That said, I kinda like outrageous costumery. There’s been Madonna of course and before her, ABBA, and sixty years ago we had Carmen Miranda, who’s hard to beat even now.