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Vintage Funny Women Awards: Carmen Miranda

Each month I take a look at Funny Women from throughout the 20th Century – stating their case so that you may decide which to vote your favourite Vintage Funny Woman. So far we have looked at Fanny Brice, Lucille Ball, Yorkshire’s Marti Caine, Music Hall star Vesta Tilley, the great Judy Garland, Carry On star Hattie Jacques and this month it is the turn of my namesake, the ‘Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat’ Carmen Miranda.

Whenever I introduce myself to someone from my grandparents' generation they always say "Ahh you’re called Miranda like Carmen Miranda", ask me where my fruit hat is or they just launch straight into "I YiYIYI". The image of Carmen Miranda is so strong that I knew who she was from a young age as she would frequently pop up in cartoons – here is Daffy Duck with his homage to her:

 

The tiny (reportedly between 4’ 8” and 5’) Carmen Miranda was at one point the highest paid actress in Hollywood and an international singing star with outlandish costumes and millinery that blows Lady Gaga out of the water. Her rise to fame was fast and her life short, but she showed such strength of character and work ethic combined with brilliant comic timing and joie de vivre that she is a worthy contestant for our ‘Vintage Funny Women’ awards.

In 2006 BBC 4 made an excellent documentary on her life and this can be found on YouTube here:

 

Born in Portugal on the 9th February 1909 and christened Maria do Carmo Miranda da Cunha, Carmen Miranda's family emigrated to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil when she was only 10 months old. She had classic humble beginnings: her father was a barber and her mother took in washing to boost the family income. Miranda attended a convent school which was the start of her love for music, at 16 she went to work in a tie shop, entertaining the customers and work-mates with her singing.

By 1925 Miranda’s family owned a two-storey house in a respectable part of town and her mother, an excellent cook, would serve meals to the local tradesmen – one of these guests heard Miranda singing and introduced her to the composer Josué de Barros which would be the start of her career. Barros could see her potential not just as a singer, but as a personality. The early photos of her show such big, bright eyes and care-free grin – I think she resembles NCIS actress Pauley Perrette.

After four years of concerts and recitals, mentored by Barros, Miranda made her first recordings for RCA Victor in Brazil and went onto gain a recording contract. In 1930 her song ‘Tai’ became the song of the Rio Carnival and made her a nation-wide star over-night being the most famous woman in Brazil at the age of 21. During the 1930s she recorded nearly 300 songs, most in the style of the hugely popular Samba – imagine Carmen Miranda as a singing guest on Strictly! Amazing!  

Miranda started appearing in Brazilian films and documentaries in the early 1930s, initially just singing. In 1939 came the film ‘Banana-da-Terra’, where for the first time she wore a fruit-hat turban – a costume with which she would become synonymous. 

 

During the same year, the Broadway impresario Lee Shubert visited Rio de Janeiro and watched the singing star in action. He immediately invited Miranda come to New York to perform along-side Abbott and Costello in his new revue show: ‘The Streets of Paris’. She agreed but only if she could take her band with her – she highly doubted that American musicians would play her Samba rhythms properly. Brazilian President Vargas stepped in and paid for the band’s airfares in the hope that Miranda’s trip would foster relations between the hemispheres and sending her as an Ambassadress. 

Miranda’s reviews for the show were favourable and she extended her reach to the public with performing on radio shows. Despite the 1939 World’s Fair being a huge attraction in New York, the pull of Carmen Miranda kept Broadway afloat and Time Magazine called her the "oomph that stops the show”.

The following year she signed a film contract with 20th Century Fox, her first film being ‘Down Argentine Way’. As she was already under contact to a New York night club she had to film her songs there and this is why she does not interact with the other actors. Bette Grable and Don Ameche go into a club on a Los Angeles sound stage and then we are in a club in New York: 

 

Miranda’s popularity blew up and quickly she way juggling a film career with Broadway shows and a recording contract with Decca Records. She continued her work as an Ambassadress and helped foster the Good Neighbour Policy set up by Roosevelt. She designed her own hats, costumes (Saks 5th Avenue designed a range in homage to her in 1939) and the six inch cork wedge heels that she was always seen wearing – even at home according to her friends. Miranda’s musicians reported that she was very professional and they would rehearse for hours on end until they got a number right; she was a perfectionist. She was so busy that she found it hard to keep up and so, like so many stars of this era, she was put on Benzedrine (an ‘upper’) and sleeping pills to help her manage.

A string of movies followed and in each her part increased from initially just appearing as a featured singing star to actually getting involved in the plot – always as the kooky side-kick. If she was ever given a love interest it would be with a fellow Latin actor, although the US had taken her to their hearts, they were not ready to see her get together with an American. She was told to ‘ham up’ her accent and create a caricature of herself – in actual fact her English was very good. All of these facts meant that her popularity was in decline back home in Brazil.

In 1940 she performed at a charity concert back in Brazil organised by the First Lady, Darci Vargas. She greeted the audience in English with "Hey Guys!" and was meant with stony silence. Throughout her performance, the Brazilian elite sat in the audience began to boo her – they felt, as we would say in modern terms, that she had ‘sold out’ and was mocking Brazil. This incident devastated Miranda and, although she replied by releasing the song: “Disseram que Voltei Americanizada”, “They Say I’ve Come Back Americanized” she did not return to Brazil for over 14 years.

She returned to an adoring America and was the first Latina to have her hands in the cement outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and she was one of the most in demand performers to entertain the troops. Here are some of her most famous performances in film: 

 

Here is one of my favourite costumes – the lighthouse lights up towards the end!

Sadly by the end of the war, America’s appetite for silly, camp and joyous Technicolor movies was at an end; the black and white era of Film Noir was on the rise and Carmen Miranda had become passé. Her last two films were made in black and white and the budgets were lower, leaving her movie career to fizzle out. She was having a rocky time in her personal life which included a short lived marriage, miscarriage, reported domestic abuse, depression, drug dependency as well as heavy smoking and alcohol abuse.

She continued to have success as a recording star and as a live performer, touring both nationally and internationally. It was during a European tour that she collapsed with exhaustion and sent home to Brazil to recuperate. This time she received a warm reception and she remained there for several months before returning to the United States on 4th April 1955. She performed in both Las Vegas and Cuba before taking more time off to recover from a bronchial ailment.

On 4th August 1955 Carmen Miranda appeared in a segment of ‘The Jimmy Durante Show’, during which her legs buckle during a dance segment.  She had reported that she felt unwell before shooting but agreed to continue despite Durante offering that they replace her.

 

At the end of the recording, Miranda went home where her friends greeted her (she was always surrounded by family and friends wherever she lived) and they stayed up singing and drinking until 2am when she took herself to bed. At 4am she suffered a fatal heart attack; she was 46 years old.

Miranda’s body was flown back to Rio de Janeiro and the government declared a period of national mourning. This news footage shows the sheer amount of people on the streets for the return of her body, lying in state and her funeral:

 

More than half a million walked with her body to its final resting place. It is reminiscent of the scenes in ‘Evita’ when Eva Peron passes and we have only experienced similar here with the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.

Carmen Miranda was a strong, creative, funny woman. She was in charge of her career until her career became in charge of her leading her to a dependency on drugs to help her manage. Although apparently always surrounded by friends and family (she moved her mother into her Hollywood home and had her sister’s family close by) in documentaries her friends report she was lonely in later life and wished she had had children. This problem with work-life balance is something that has sadly come up several times with our Vintage Funny Women retrospectives.
 

I think she is a worthy competitor for our Vintage Funny Woman mantle but if you have other ideas please contact me  with suggestions of future nominees on twitter @MirandaDawe

Miranda Dawe is an actress, singer and stand up comedienne, as well as being one of the semi-finalists in the Funny Women Awards 2013. www.MirandaDawe.com