Two Brazilian Charmers – Part Five: Carmen Goes Bananas

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Carmen Miranda in Hollywood (dvdtalk.com)
Carmen Miranda in Hollywood (dvdtalk.com)

A Night to Remember

As bad as the experience of being booed in Rio’s Teatro Municipal may have been for Bidu Sayão, it was nothing compared to the cold shoulder offered by her own callous countrymen to Brazil’s cultural ambassador of the war years, the exciting (and excitable) Carmen Miranda.

The flashy entertainer’s runaway success on the New York stage during the 1939-40 Broadway show season had only begun to whet the appetites of post-Depression era audiences starved for more novel and adventuresome theater fare. César Ladeira, one of Rio’s most well-known radio personalities, also found himself in the Big Apple, broadcasting the remarkable news of Carmen’s triumphant debut on the Great White Way to all of Brazil.

Accounts from that period reported that traffic had stalled outside the Broadhurst Theatre where she was appearing. In fact, the streets were virtually clogged with noisy automobiles. Carmen and her band (which included a young musician named Aloysio de Oliveira, who became not only the up-and-coming star’s interpreter and impromptu guide, but her live-in lover as well) were huddled together at an all-night restaurant, waiting for the early edition of The Daily Mirror to arrive.

The first of the headlines pronounced producer Lee Shubert’s The Streets of Paris a dud, but it praised Carmen’s participation to high heaven: “A new and grandiose star is born on Broadway!” wrote the notoriously opinionated Walter Winchell. Next, from the New York Journal-American: “Carmen Miranda stops the show!” And then, from the New York Post: “You could see the whites of her eyes from row 25!” And from theater critic Brooks Atkinson for the New York Times: “The heat that Carmen generated last night may well blow out the city’s air-conditioning system this winter!”

The final banner, however, said it all: it proclaimed Carmen Miranda to be the “Brazilian Bombshell,” the nickname she will be stuck with for the remainder of her American career. Indeed, her initial Broadway outing segued directly into Carmen’s U.S. film debut in the musical comedy Down Argentine Way, which starred Betty Grable and Don Ameche.

Down Argentine Way poster art (impawards.com)
Down Argentine Way poster art (impawards.com)

Released in early 1940, this first of several Twentieth Century-Fox productions featuring the exotic performer was an immediate smash with enchanted movie audiences. Interestingly, because of her contractual commitments (and Shubert’s refusal to let her leave for Hollywood), the studio sent a camera crew to New York in order to capture Carmen and Bando da Lua during a break in the action.

What Goes Up Must Come Down

Whether she played Argentines, Cubans, Mexicans or Brazilians, movie fans clamored for more of Carmen; and the Fox Studios wisely obliged, signing the lively songstress to a generous six-figure salary (her clashes with lecherous studio head, Darryl F. Zanuck, were a highlight of her years there) that would soon make her the highest paid female entertainer in the United States:

“Hollywood, it has treated me so nicely,” Carmen was quoted as saying, “I am ready to faint. As soon as I see Hollywood, I love it!”

But just before her West Coast film career took off in earnest, Carmen and her Bando da Lua paid a return visit to Brazil – and to the Cassino da Urca, the Rio de Janeiro nightspot that was the site of their earliest stage triumphs. Expecting to be greeted as they had been in the States, i.e., with wide-open warmth and fully appreciative affection, they could not have been more confounded by the chilly atmosphere that waited for them inside.

There have been many theories put forth for Carmen’s overly cool reception at the Urca: from the unusually stuffy society crowd present, which included the wife of conservative strongman Getúlio Vargas (allegedly, one of the singer’s former lovers but long since disproved by journalist Ruy Castro); to the range of material chosen for the affair, an innocuous combination of sambas and Carnival march favorites peppered with Tin Pan Alley pop tunes.*

A perfect example of the type of number that drew such ire from fans can be sampled in a revealing sequence from 1944’s Greenwich Village. In it, the star comes on to deliver a minor Leo Robin-Nacio Herb Brown song, “Give Me a Band and a Bandana.” Abruptly shifting gears, she slips into an ebullient rendition (complete with exaggeratedly rolled r’s) of Dorival Caymmi’s classic, “O que é que a baiana tem?” Then a minute later, she reverts back to bands and bandanas.

The sudden transition from Carmen’s heavily accented English to free-flowing Brazilian Portuguese – and back again – is still quite jarring, even to our modern ears. One can only imagine the shock it must have engendered in Brazilian audiences at the time upon hearing this musical mishmash. In reality, she most probably gave the folks at the Urca Casino a logical representation of the kinds of tunes that bowled hard-to-please New Yorkers over.

There were other motives for her poor showing, one of them being a persistent and troublesome cold that dogged her every time she traveled by boat. Another reason was the casino’s use of an unfamiliar orchestra behind her instead of her usual six-man lineup.

These paltry explanations, however, fail to provide a truly satisfying glimpse into the ambivalent feelings conveyed by that Rio nightclub audience toward the baffled diva. Ostensibly, a common enough fate had befallen Carmen that had also been shared by Bidu Sayão, Carlos Gomes, and several other of their fellow citizens, particularly when confronted with their own notable achievements away from Brazilian soil: that of a tangible and totally unwarranted resentment for having made it big abroad without their country’s approval or consent — as if these were absolutely necessary to affirm one’s position at home, or anywhere else, for that matter.

As sociologist Roberto da Matta once observed about former soccer player Pelé, “To be successful outside of Brazil is considered a personal offense to Brazilians.” This simple yet insightful analysis was never more accurate than when applied to the seesawing musical endeavors of Carmen Miranda.

After that critically panned appearance, the dejected singer and her band withdrew for a two-month rest, a period principally taken up by the group to revamp its basic song structure into something that more closely resembled an overt form of social commentary.

Carmen and Bando da Lua, with Aloysio de Oliveira, bottom right (mec.gov.br)
Carmen and Bando da Lua, with Aloysio de Oliveira, bottom right (mec.gov.br)

With that in mind, Carmen emerged from her isolation brandishing a buoyant new number, “Disseram que eu voltei americanizada” (“They say that I came back Americanized”), in the faces of previously unresponsive patrons. A cracklingly lyrical defense of her supposed conversion to American ways — and mockery of some distinctly Brazilian ones — this cleverly written topical ditty, presented in the form of a samba-canção, was a huge hit in Rio. It accomplished the desired effect by re-catapulting the star to the top of her seaside area stomping-ground:

Disseram que voltei americanizada
Com o burro do dinheiro
Que estou muito rica,
Que não suporto mais o breque do pandeiro

E fico arrepiada ouvindo uma cuíca.
Disseram que com as mãos estou preocupada
E corre por aí, que eu sei, certo zum-zum
Que já não tenho molho, ritmo, nem nada
E dos balangandãs, já existe mais nenhum.
Mas pra cima de mim, pra que tanto veneno?
Eu posso lá ficar americanizada
Eu nasci com o samba e vivo no terreiro
Cantando a noite inteira, a velha batucada.
Nas rodas de malandro, minhas preferidas
Eu digo mesmo ‘eu te amo’ e nunca ‘I love you’
Enquanto houver Brasil, na hora das comidas
Eu sou do camarão ensopadinho com xuxu.

They say that I came back Americanized
Loaded down with money

That I am filthy rich
That I can no longer stand the sound of the pandeiro (“tambourine”)
And I bristle when I hear a cuíca
And they say that I’m always busy with my hands
And there’s a rumor going around
That I have no more spice, no more rhythm, no more anything,
And all the bangles that I used to wear don’t exist anymore, not one
But why are you throwing all this bitterness at me?
How could I come back Americanized?
I was born with the samba and live where it is played
Where it is sung all night long, that old samba beat.
In the street where the hustlers are, they are my favorites,
I still say ‘eu te amo,’ and never ‘I love you.’
As long as there is Brazil, whenever it is mealtime,
I still order shrimp soup laced with cucumbers.

(Luiz Peixoto / Vicente Paiva)

But the damage to her unshakeable self-esteem had been done. Had she really turned her back on her own people? Had she abandoned the poor favelados (“slum dwellers”) she had so sympathetically sung about, for the easy money and get-rich-quick schemes of greedy North American capitalists? Had she sold off her highly prized charms so cheaply to New York audiences for a fleeting grasp at personal gain, as they all claimed she had?

None of these charges were true, of course, but the negative aspersions that continued to be cast at Carmen while she was holed up in Rio would only serve to strengthen her iron-willed resolve to pin her future career hopes on wartime America.

"The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat," from The Gang's All Here, 1943 (mec.gov.br)
“The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat,” from 1943 (mec.gov.br)

Disappointingly, the remainder of her Hollywood-film output would consist of a mixed-bag of garish Technicolor spectacles (That Night in Rio, 1941; Weekend in Havana, 1941; Springtime in the Rockies, 1942; Greenwich Village, 1944), ridiculous tutti-frutti headgear (The Gang’s All Here, 1943), and uninspired comedic romps (Four Jills in a Jeep, 1944; Something for the Boys, 1944; Doll Face and If I’m Lucky, 1946; Copacabana with comedian Groucho Marx, 1947; A Date With Judy and Nancy Goes to Rio, 1948), culminating in an ignoble guest effort in the 1953 Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis haunted-house spoof Scared Stiff.

While they proved financially lucrative at the box office, these projects were eminently unworthy of her talents, which extended past her familiar, hip-swinging milieu to fashioning and designing her own elaborate wardrobe, footwear and headgear.

In spite of the risk to her carefully constructed stage image, the mid-career tradeoff of her Latin-based musical livelihood for the uncertainty of Los Angeles’ fickle film community was a chance that Carmen Miranda was only too willing to take, and never given enough credit for having done so.

In giving up her uniquely Brazilian identity for an all-purpose, stereotypical compilation of ersatz Latinate femininity, she acquired a definitive degree of international recognition — along with a hefty amount of notoriety, as that infamous snapshot of Carmen without her underpants would plainly reveal.

Moreover, the drastic modulation of her inbred Brazilianness, mingled with the bland indifference her compatriots had detachedly shown her at Cassino da Urca in Rio, deeply affected Carmen’s inner psyche and helped to erode what little pride she had left in her American accomplishments.

David Sebastian and Carmen, Los Angeles 1955 (Corbis, Vogue)
David Sebastian and Carmen, Los Angeles 1955 (Corbis, Vogue)

These, in turn, would serve as the absorbing subject matter of numerous posthumous books, articles, and publications — in addition to a revelatory cinematic study, Carmen Miranda: Bananas Is My Business (1994), by Brazilian filmmaker Helena Solberg about the entertainer’s later life struggles. Highlighted by a whirlwind 1947 marriage to minor American movie producer David Sebastian; a longtime dependence on uppers and downers; an abortion and miscarriage; alcohol abuse; depression; hypochondria; electroshock therapy, and more, Carmen’s mounting personal misfortunes would combine to bring about her complete mental and physical breakdown sometime in late 1954.

The prescribed method of treatment involved a four-month period of rest and recuperation in Brazil — her first trip there in fourteen years, spent reacquainting herself with relatives and old friends, and slipping in and out of seclusion at the Copacabana Palace Hotel in Rio de Janeiro.

She returned soon after to the U.S. to quickly resume her busy nightclub and television schedule — too quickly, some would say later (thanks to her husband David and his persistent transcontinental phone calls urging her to come back), leading to a silent heart attack as she finished taping a strenuous dance sequence for The Jimmy Durante Show on August 4, 1955.*

Later on at her Beverly Hills mansion, in the early morning hours of August 5, her lifeless body was found. She had expired prematurely at 46, the victim of cardiac arrest due to occlusion of the coronary arteries.

(End of Part Five)

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes


* A December 1954 interview for the magazine Manchete had Carmen reporting that her most requested floor numbers were the songs “Mamãe eu quero” (“I Want My Mama”) – parodied in 1941’s Babes on Broadway by none other than a youthfully vigorous Mickey Rooney in drag – “Tico-tico no fubá,” “Delicado,” and “Chiquita banana,” in that order.

* Footage from the TV episode clearly shows Carmen’s knees buckling out from under her, as she impulsively grabs hold of comedian Durante’s hand to steady herself and keep her body from stumbling. It was a jaw-dropping moment, guaranteed to make one blanch at the thought of what would come next.

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