Few people inspired as much happiness and joy in audiences around the world than Carmen Miranda. She was, at the height of her career, the highest paid Latin American star of the time. Behind the elaborate costumes, the tutti-frutti hat and the larger than life character lay an intensely complex woman, who was deeply sensitive and never really sure of herself. Her life was well lived, short and sweet but one of intense juxtapositions.
South American Way
Although actually born in Portugal, Carmen’s family moved to Rio De Janeiro when she was little under a year old. She was born Maria do Carmo Miranda De Cuhna in 1909 and had five siblings. Her father Jose nicknamed her “Carmen” after his favourite Bizet opera and the name stuck throughout her life.
At a young age, she was sent to the convent school of Saint Terese Lisieux in Rio, where she received only a very rudimentary education. The main point of her being there was so that she was fed and clothed properly, which was the main concern of her parents. At the age of fourteen she left the convent school and went into full time work in a tie shop in Rio; this was because her elder sister Olinda had contracted Tuberculosis and urgently needed funds to pay for medical treatment back in the family’s home country of Portugal. It was during this job that her voice and talent became something of an attraction. She’d move through the store she was working in, singing and chatting to customers and entertaining colleagues with songs. She was an extraordinarily beautiful young woman and men would come into the shop just so they could say Carmen had tied a tie around their neck.
Around this time, Carmen started to date her first boyfriend, a young gentleman by the name of Mario Cuhna whose father owned Rio’s famous “Flamingo Rowing Club” and was particularly well connected in society. Carmen was only a lowly saleswoman (by the standards of the other people who frequented the club) but she won people over with her charm and talent.
Cuanto Le Gusta
In 1928, through her connections with Mario, she was introduced to the guitarist and songwriter Josue De Barros. De Barros recognised Carmen’s enormous potential as an artist and became a mentor to her, teaching her the popular Samba songs of the day. By 1929 she was ready to make her first song recordings for the RCA Victor label in Brazil. The first of these was a song entitled “Tai” by Joubert de Carvalho. This became her first smash hit the following year at 1930’s Rio Carnival and it made her a fully fledged star nationwide.
At twenty one years of age she was the most famous woman in Brazil and “Tai” went on to sell over thirty five thousand copies. The advent of the radio and a two year recording contract with RCA Records meant that her fame only increased. In an interesting turning point, just as Carmen’s star was rising, her adopted home country was going through incredible political change as the right wing politician Getulio Vargas was coming to power. His ideology was that all Brazilians should have a sense of national identity and he actively encouraged talent such as Carmen’s alongside other popular composers and musicians of the time. During the 1930s, she recorded over three hundred Samba songs and favoured Afro-Brazilian composer’s music. However, although she loved music and singing, her true ambition was to become a famous film star.
The Lady In The Tutti-Frutti Hat
Between the years 1932 and 1939, she made six Brazilian film-musicals; these were made in the very early years of “talkies” and shot using very rudimentary camera techniques. Only one of the films she shot from this time is complete and still in existence. It’s called “Alo Alo Carnaval” and this is a clip from it:
You can see how basic the camera work was, yet how Carmen makes the clip her own. Even though the camera is static, she manages to catch the eye of the viewer and hold it. This film clip is also notable as it’s the only example of Carmen performing with her sister Aurora. Here their singing the song “Cantoras do Radio”.
This is a clip from the 1939 film she made called “Banana De Terra”. In it she wears the Bahiana outfit for the first time. The story behind the outfit is that women of the Bahiana culture in Brazil and other Latin American countries would walk the streets wearing brightly coloured robes, carrying baskets of fruit on their heads. Carmen turned this into a costume idea by adapting the fruit into a head-dress, combining it with the jewellery the women would have worn.
By 1939, her fame had spread into mainstream US culture and she eventually signed a contract to star in Hollywood films proper. She stipulated that she would only sign the contract if her own band of samba musicians (called “Bando de Lau”) could accompany her; this was allowed so she signed and travelled across the USA. Her band would also have been somewhat of a safety net for her, at thirty years old this was the first time she’d travelled into the USA, and she spoke very little English so needed familiar faces and friends around her.
She made her home at 616 North Bedford Drive, Beverly Hills. It was said that she made it a place for any visiting Brazilian stars, politicians and luminaries to come and stay. With the trappings of her fame she was able to afford expensive cars (plus the accompanying car breakdown cover), to install a swimming pool, to have the place filled with expensive furniture and musical instruments – it all must have cost a fortune to insure!
Carmen’s Work Ethic
It was noted how hard Carmen worked. She always knew her lines, her dance routines were timed to perfection. She would always be ready for her takes. When she was rehearsing, she would very often keep her band members up until the very early hours of the morning to make sure everything was just right. When they were flagging and wanting to go to bed, Carmen would always insist on “one more take” to try and achieve perfection.
This almost fanatic behaviour began to lead to personal problems for Carmen. She was suffering bouts of depression and physical illness. She went to see a doctor who prescribed benzodiazepines for her to keep her “up”. She found that they worked very well, but the only issue with them was they prevented her from sleeping at night, so she was prescribed a “downer” to help her relax. Over the next few years she got into a vicious cycle of becoming addicted to both medications and on top of this had also started to drink heavily to cope, not only with the effects of what she was taking, but to be able to carry on with her workload.
During this period in Hollywood, she shot more than fifteen feature films including one for the famed Busby Berkeley in 1943called “The Gang’s All Here”:
This was one of Carmen’s most famous performances; most notable for the fact she appears at one point to be wearing a hat constructed of bananas that seems to be sixty feet high. Of course, it was camera trickery, a typical Busby Berkeley feature, high exaggeration and mimicry.
Her Personal Life
In her films, Carmen always had to play the comic sidekick. She was never allowed to be the romantic female lead. This was because at the time, even though she was successful and well respected in her own right, someone of Carmen’s Latin American race would not be allowed to become romantically involved with a white US male within a film. If she did have an on screen relationship it had to be with someone who had darker skin, for instance like Cesar Romero in the film “Weekend in Havana”.
Her personal life away from the movies was just as complicated and fraught. In 1947, when she was more or less at the height of her fame she married a failed movie producer by the name of David Sebastian. At the time, she was thirty eight years old and was motivated by the fact her she was growing older and she wanted to start a family. He, it seems, was motivated by the fact she was wealthy and would be able to provide him with the lavish lifestyle he wanted but could not make for himself.
Her family were against the marriage; it didn’t last long. Her chief reason for marrying – to start a family – was dashed when she suffered a miscarriage only a few months after the wedding. She was told after that she would never conceive again. With the sole reason for the union from her point of view, gone, there was no reason to carry on being married. Her Catholic faith prevented her from obtaining a divorce.
Carmen’s career, until the late 1940s had been relatively trouble free. There had only been one obstacle she had to overcome in the very early stages of her move to Hollywood, when the people of Brazil had become unhappy about the way she was portraying them in the films she was making. They accused her of “Americanising” them. On a visit home to Rio, the President, Getulio Vargas had arranged the streets to be lined with thousands of people to welcome her and she was to address the crowds. When she did so, instead of using a traditional Brazilian or Portuguese greeting, she spoke to the crown in American-English, and it angered them. Knowing she had to do something, she recorded a song called “Disseram que Voltei Amerincanizada” (They Say I’ve Come Back Americanized) and it won the people back over. She hadn’t forgotten where she’d come from at all.
It was after the Second World War ended that Carmen’s career ironically began to decline. During the war years, people had wanted films to cheer them up, bright musicals and happy stories. Now that was over with, films went back temporarily to being shot in black and white, and themes became darker. “Film Noir” as it was known signalled the end of Carmen’s film ambitions.
With the end of her career, her drug taking and alcohol consumption was increasing. She became more and more worn down. In 1954, she was forced to come back to Brazil to recuperate and take a complete break from performances, filming and public appearances. On the flight home, she had to be heavily sedated to sleep, but still managed to put on her favorite red suit in order to greet the thousands of people who had come to see her get off the plane when it landed in her home country.
She was taken to a hotel in Brazil, and more or less locked in a room for the best part of forty days. She was surrounded by her friends and family while she cleaned her system of all the drugs on which she had become so reliant. After her health recovered, she was keen to stay on at home and lead a more relaxed life. However, her estranged husband David had been lining up work for her back in the US. Reluctantly, she agreed to go. It was clear she wasn’t at her best. In 1955, she made this appearance on the Jimmy Durante Show:
Half way through a dance routine she appears to sink to her knees and say she’s out of breath. She’d actually had a small heart attack. This was her final public appearance. At the end of the clip, she’s seen sashaying off screen. She went home to a party with all her friends and family, she sang and danced until two in the morning, then she went up stairs to bed and died in her sleep. She was forty six years old. Until the very last moments, and even with her career in decline, she never stopped being Carmen Miranda.