Tuesday, February 9

Brazilian Bombshell

To say that there was never anyone quite like her is a serious understatement.  From South America came Carmen Miranda whose uniqueness brought undisputed razzle-dazzle to musicals in the 1940s.  Her English was always a stretch to understand but no one could miss the flashing eyes, the gyrating hips, the toothy, welcoming smile, the rapidly moving arms and hands and of course the turbans, usually piled high with fruits or flowers. Her staccato-like delivery of a song while always moving about like a whirling dervish was memorable.  Chic chica boom chica boom

They called her the Brazilian Bombshell.  She enhanced 14 American films, 10 of them at 20th Century Fox.  In some combination her costars were usually Alice Faye, Betty Grable,  John Payne, Don Ameche, Vivian Blaine or Cesar Romero.  Sometimes her musical sequences were apart from any other action in the film... specialty numbers as they were then called.  Or perhaps she was a nightclub performer where the other stars went on a date.  Maybe she was the best pal of the leading lady.  Whatever she did, she did it with gusto.  Just put on that fruity headdress and she was ready to go.

She was more than ready to leave Brazil when she finally did.  Though she was born in Portugal (in 1909), she and her family moved to Brazil shortly after her birth.  Papa had a successful wholesale produce business and Carmen was the first of his five children.  Even in the convent she whiled away her time dreaming of a life as a singer... maybe on the radio... maybe the stage... or best of all the movies.  She got a job in a department store where she frequently broke into song while she was restocking shelves or even as she tended to customers.   

Some customer connected to show business loved her voice and her spirit and soon Carmen was doing radio.  It's likely that no one knew then that to fully appreciate the lady, you had to see her.  She had to keep her new joy to herself because her well-to-do parents would not have found it a suitable thing for their daughter to do.  Nonetheless, from the radio gig, someone heard her and soon she was signed to make records.  When she was asked to sing at a popular music festival, she had to tell her parents.  Though they were not happy, they reserved commenting.  When they heard how successful she was, how wild the crowd got, they felt they had to let her fly.

After becoming a sensation in some Rio nightclubs, it was inevitable that the movies would come calling.  By 1939 she had appeared in five films with a sixth awaiting release.  She had made over 300 recordings.  She was a national treasure.  But she wanted more, especially fame outside of Brazil and South America.  As it happened, an influential friend of hers knew Lee Shubert, the Broadway impresario, and he made a trip to Brazil to see Carmen.  He was accompanied by 20th Century Fox star and ice skater Sonia Henie and they put their heads together and quickly decided here was a star who could dazzle Broadway and Hollywood.

Shubert offered a contract provided Carmen learn English.  She agreed but countered with she must sing her songs in Portuguese because that's what her fans expected.  She became a sensation in Shubert's newest revue, Streets of Paris.  Everyone was talking about the Brazilian Bombshell with the fruit piled high upon her pretty head.

Who should come calling?  20th Century Fox must have been listening to Sonia Henie.  It's not likely that anyone expected Carmen to rival Bette Davis but she would certainly bring her own very special assets to the studio just as Henie did with her skating.  Anything to keep the boys overseas happy.  Carmen could not believe her good fortune.  She even negotiated with Fox to include her own band, Bando da Lua, in her films.  Furthermore, her contract also stipulated that there was to be no cutting away from her to reaction shots or dialogue of others while she was performing musical numbers.  Now, that's power.

Down Argentine Way (1940) was not only Carmen's entry into American movies but it also served as Betty Grable's big break.  Carmen played herself in a story that concerned a woman (Grable) on holiday in Argentina who falls for a wealthy racehorse owner.  Of course it was a lot of Technicolor hokum but it did fabulous business.  Carmen sang Bambu Bambu, Mamae Eu Quero and South America Way with gaudy delight.  Brazilians were not pleased that her first American film revolved around Argentina. 

That Night in Rio (1941) featured Ameche as twins.  One of them is married to Faye and the other is coupled with Miranda in a  nightclub act where they battle constantly.  Carmen is most festive when she sings Chica Chica Boom Chic, I Yi Yi Yi, Boa Noite and Cai Cai.  With just two films under her headdress, the public went crazy for her.

In Weekend in Havana (1941), Carmen was, guess what, a nightclub singer.  The plot features Faye arriving in Cuba and being pursued by Payne and Romero.  Pairing Carmen and Romero was rather inspired casting.  Carmen got to sing the title tune, Embolada, When I love I Love and The Nango.  This was another huge grosser, topping even Orson Welles' Citizen Kane.

The stars of "Weekend in Havana"

In case you're wondering what in the world was going on here with the popularity of such films, the same familiar plot in one Latin city after another (they never left the Fox lot), you may have forgotten about that war.  Carmen knew her career was probably limited and Fox did as well, but neither attempted to try anything different.  With the petite dynamo in her glitzy costumes, bare midriff, platform shoes and mountain-high fruit and flora, everyone's cares melted away.  When I see her in any of these films, I cannot help smiling while suspending any disbelief.  Chic chica boom chica boom.  

Some likely consider Springtime in the Rockies (1942) to be Carmen's best film.  In addition to Payne, Grable and Romero, it featured zany Charlotte Greenwood, Jackie Gleason and Harry James (Grable's future husband) and his orchestra along with his favorite canary, Helen Forrest.  A definite highlight is her singing I Had the Craziest Dream.  The familiar plot has Grable and Payne scrapping over his womanizing, all while trying to mount a show.  Carmen is Payne's secretary.  Her comedic skills by this time were as amusing as her musical numbers.  Most of the lead cast sings Pan American Jubilee and Carmen sings the tongue-twister O Tic Tac do Meu Coracao.

And here, join John Payne in watching her sing the popular Chattanooga Choo Choo in Portuguese:

The Gang's All Here (1943) is about performers who want to put on a war bond show.  Carmen and Faye slugged it out over the same man.  It was a slight story but contained several big production numbers, most especially The Lady in the Tutti Fruitti Hat.  Her other songs were Brazil and You Discover You're in New York.

She was top-billed in Greenwich Village (1944) which concerned itself with a classical composer (Ameche) who becomes involved with performers who are attempting to put on a show.  Not again!  Her songs were Give Me a Band and a Bandana, I Like to be Loved by You and I'm Just Wild about Harry.  These and other popular songs sung by others didn't help elevate this one to the levels of her prior movies.

Her colorful singing and dancing to Samba Boogie in 1944s Something for the Boys didn't gear the film to rock box office records.  In Four Jills and a Jeep, also 1944, she, Grable, Faye, Martha Raye and others played themselves as performers who visit the boys overseas.  In 1945 she made Doll Face, about a stripper (Vivian Blaine) looking for some culture.  Carmen enthusiastically sang Chico, Chico but she was billed fourth, a sure sign that her career was beginning to ebb.  Despite some recent films that were not as stellar as her earlier ones, she was listed as the highest-paid woman in the U.S. in 1945.

A lack of Technicolor hampered 1946s If I'm Lucky.  Blaine again was the star and Harry James and his band joined the proceedings, but it, too, with Carmen billed fourth, lacked the luster of previous outings. 

With the war over, Fox didn't have as much use for Carmen Miranda and as was often the case for contract players, she was unceremoniously dumped.  She went to United Artists to make Copacabana (1947) starring Groucho Marx (without his brothers) and Steve Cochran.  Carmen played two roles in a nightclub story that tanked at the box office. 

Carmen, who had never dated much or had much of a social life, upped and married Copacabana's producer, David Sebastian, with little fanfare.  More attention, however, came after the marriage when it was reported a number of times that he abused her.  He also made sure she worked hard in singing engagements anywhere he could find them for her.  Most people found it sad because she was always very well liked in the Hollywood community.

At MGM she had a small role in A Date with Judy (1948) as a dance instructor who innocently involves Wallace Beery in marital mishaps.  Her role was flashy and fun but most of the attention went to Jane Powell and Elizabeth Taylor.  Her show-stopping numbers (Yipsee I-O and Ca-Room Pa Pa) were the only reasons for watching another costarring Powell film, Nancy Goes to Rio (1950). 

In 1953 she made her final film, Scared Stiff, starring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.  She played a singer (doing two numbers, Bongo Bingo and Enchiladas, both with the boys) but her role was not part of the main thrust of the story (a haunted house).

She and Sebastian separated and reconciled a number of times but despite it being an unsatisfactory union, she would not have divorced him due to her Catholicism.  He had her touring nonstop and she began popping uppers and downers like M&Ms. 

In early 1955 she was taping a mambo number on Ed Sullivan's show and she slipped and fell, stating she was out of breath.  Nonetheless, she attended a party that night.  When she came home, she collapsed and died of a heart attack.  She was 46 years old and an autopsy revealed she was pregnant.  Her body was returned to Rio where a million people lined the streets to bid her tchau.

Next posting:
A sad Hollywood story


  1. What a tragic end for such a talented, loved actress:(

  2. She was more than ready to leave Brazil when she finally did. Though she was born in Portugal (in 1909), she and her family moved to Brazil shortly after her birth. Papa had a successful wholesale produce business and Carmen was the first of his five children.

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  3. Her last performance was on a Jimmy Durante TV show. I was so crazy about her when I was young. I did read the biography written by her sister. If it is true she was pregnant when she died that it the saddest thing I ever heard as having a child would have changed her life for sure and she so deserved it for the joy she brought to so many. Dear Carmen surely worked herself to an early ending. So sad ...