The story of Carmen Miranda on screen is of a fantastically exuberant, flashing eyed star who made the Brazilian samba known world wide.
I think Hollywood and Twentieth Century Fox could have done so much more for Carmen’s career.
Born in 1909 in Portugal, Carmen and her family soon moved to Brazil and by the age of 20 Carmen was a radio star and had made films and many records in Brazil.
Brought to Broadway in 1939, Carmen starred in STREETS OF PARIS and her colourful personality and amazing costumes caught Hollywood’s attention.She had brought her own band from Brazil, and the samba took off.
Twentieth Century Fox didn’t waste any time and filmed Carmen’s numbers for DOWN ARGENTINE WAY in New York. An instant hit with film goers,many films followed – THAT NIGHT IN RIO, WEEKEND IN HAVANA,SPRINGTIME IN THE ROCKIES,THE GANG’S ALL HERE.
But Carmen was quickly pidgeon-holed – the comic foil to Betty Grable or Alice Faye. However her musical numbers were always highlights of her films.
She was billed as a star but never carried a film.
Carmen learned English quickly and didn’t speak with much of an accent, but to Fox, she was a brand. She was given words in her dialogue to mispronounce. Her roles became repetitive and stereotyped. She could sing ballads but that wasnt the persona.
Still, Fox musicals were big and brassy and Carmen’s numbers filled the bill. Alice Faye commented:” The minute she stepped in front of the camera, she was on fire.”
Her most famous number is probably Busby Berkeley’s “The Lady With the Tutti Frutti Hat”, a marvel of color and imagination.One thing Fox didn’t spare was expense on these production numbers.
After the war, the Miranda novelty wore off and Carmen left Fox in 1947.Black and white didn’t suit Carmen though she tried in films like COPACABANA with Groucho Marx.
Even at MGM, where she was back in color in A DATE WITH JUDY and NANCY GOES TO RIO, she was still wearing the same costumes and speaking in the same broken English.
She did nightclubs and TV in the 1950s. SCARED STIFF in 1953 was her last film. She had worked so hard,she suffered a breakdown and her sister Aurora took her back to Brazil to recover. But Carmen’s husband,David Sebastian persuaded her to return to America which may have been a very bad decision .
Back on the treadmill, Carmen suffered a fatal heart attack only 12 hours after she had danced and sung on the Jimmy Durante TV Show in 1955. She was 46.
It is painful to watch the final shots of Carmen in the show (on You Tube.)
Unique and well remembered, Carmen is part of Hollywood history, but she suffered from the Hollywood syndrome. If a character is successful, don’t change it, don’t develop it.
I’m sure Carmen could have done so much more but she was locked into that unique persona and maintained it even after her film career was over.
Her funeral in Rio was a vey big event though among Brazilians there was ambivalence about her screen roles.
When I see and hear Carmen as herself, in interviews or early Brazilian footage, I feel it’s another case of a major talent not fully developed.
But, of course, Carmen and technicolor were the perfect combination. And that samba rhythm is mesmorising.