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Miranda, Carmenfree

(09 February 1909–05 August 1955)
  • Ellis Nassour

Miranda, Carmen (09 February 1909–05 August 1955), star of stage, screen, and recordings, was born Maria do Carmo Miranda da Cunha in Marco de Canaveses, a small town in Portugal, the daughter of Jose Maria Pinto da Cunha, a barber, and Maria Emilia Miranda. Her father immigrated to Brazil in 1909, and the family followed when Miranda was three. “Carmen,” as she was always called, grew up in Rio’s Lapa waterfront district, a haven for sailors and prostitutes. At a convent school Miranda became interested in singing. She later told interviewers, “From a very early age, I knew I felt the need to be in show business.” When Olinda, the eldest daughter, died in 1923, Miranda quit school to work as a window decorator and as a salesclerk in a hat shop. She learned broken English from watching American movies, especially westerns. She modeled hats and began making them for society clients.

Miranda began singing in carnival samba parades when she was sixteen and developed an act in which she imitated Argentina and Brazil’s popular vocalists. High society considered her common and vulgar, and her sister Aurora said Miranda traveled with a “fast” artistic crowd and had a “shocking mouth.” In 1928 she was discovered by composer-guitarist Josué de Barroso. She became a successful radio singer and in 1930 was signed by RCA. Her demonstration record, “Tai,” was her first release and became an instant hit. Miranda soon became one of the largest-selling female artists in Brazil. Tourists clamored to see her stage show, “a rebellious act to assert myself apart from prevailing fashion,” in which she dressed in colorful bahianas, ruffled and billowy costumes derived from those common in Brazil’s eastern state of Bahia. At the age of twenty-four Miranda appeared with her sister Aurora in A Voz Do Carnaval (1933), the first of Miranda’s six Brazilian chanchadas (comic musicals). As early as 1934, stars Ramon Novarro and Tyrone Power saw her act and promoted her to Hollywood producers as a “vibrant bundle of fireworks.” But it was New York that beckoned first.

At the urging of Norwegian Olympic ice skater and Hollywood star Sonja Henie, Broadway impresario Lee Shubert signed Miranda after seeing her performance at the Cassino da Urca. In 1939 she became an overnight sensation in the revue Streets of Paris, costarring with film and vaudeville comic Bobby Clark and with comedy duo Abbott and Costello. Influential columnist Walter Winchell dubbed Miranda the “Brazilian Bombshell.” Darryl Zanuck of 20th Century–Fox signed her. Miranda’s Hollywood debut was Down Argentine Way (1940), which starred Betty Grable as a rich American in love with a horsebreeder, played by Don Ameche. Brilliantly decked out as, in one writer’s description, “a bird of paradise,” Miranda stole the film, singing Al Dubin and Jimmy McHugh’s “South American Way.”

In That Night in Rio (1941), a story of mistaken identities costarring Alice Faye and Ameche, Miranda introduced Harry Warren and Mack Gordon’s “I, Yi, Yi, Yi, Yi” and “Chic Chica Boom Chic,” both of which became bestselling records. During a scene for Week-end in Havana (1941), after a quick change for a dance number with Cesar Romero, Miranda was photographed sans undergarment during a dashing spin. The incident was quickly laughed off on the set, but a photo in Confidential magazine created quite a scandal. On completion of the film Miranda in 1941 returned to New York to record for Decca Records. She created pandemonium on Broadway in November 1941, when she starred opposite Olsen and Johnson in the critically and commercially successful Sons o’ Fun. A year later she resumed her film career.

In her fourteen films Miranda—sexy, naughty, and fantastically and hilariously overdressed—literally burst from the screen. Only 5′ 3″, she wore seven-inch “elevator” wedges. She claimed to wear them “so that when I dance with big men, I can see over their shoulder. I don’t want them flirting with other girls.” In spite of her quick delivery of broken English, she established a love affair with the camera, and when she danced (and how she managed to dance in those platform shoes remains a mystery) it seemed she was flirting with the men in the audience. Her ebullient routines were marked by constant movement of hands and arms adorned with pounds of bracelets. Her Technicolor outfits were always topped with an exotic turban or a gigantic headdress stacked with bananas, other tropical fruits, flowers, and tiny umbrellas.

Writer John Kobal observed that Miranda “chewed the English language around until it came out sounding like an ancient Inca dialect.” Nonetheless she imbued the pervasive wartime escapism with an unflagging pace and became one of the country’s highest-paid entertainers. She became the first mainstream camp icon since Mae West in the 1930s. Her exaggerated mannerisms, costumes, and headdresses became a staple of female impersonators. Women adopted her hairstyles, and turbans became the rage, especially among female wartime defense factory workers. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, pushing his Good Neighbor policy, named Miranda Latin America’s Ambassador of Good Will.

In The Gang’s All Here (1943), directed by Busby Berkeley, Miranda sang Leo Robin and Harry Warren’s “The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat” in a typical Berkeley extravaganza. Surrounded by sixty scantily clad “native” girls, a banana-bedecked Miranda entered on a cart pulled by gold-painted oxen. Her headdress was further exaggerated by a surrealistic backdrop of bananas that soared to the heavens. Miranda then made four films in quick succession: Springtime in the Rockies (1942), Four Jills in a Jeep, in which she was sent to cheer the troops, Something for the Boys, and Greenwich Village, in which she added tropical spice to Manhattan (all 1944).

In 1943 Miranda underwent cosmetic surgery on her nose, which turned out disastrously. Throughout her career she experienced bouts of depression, culminating in a nervous breakdown. And though she never drank, she suffered a series of liver ailments. She took a leave of absence to recover her health. On her return nearly a year later, her crown of bananas began to wear thin, and Miranda became captive to formula routines in lackluster musicals. She was even briefly rejected by the Brazilian public, who found her sketches insulting. After she appeared in two more Fox films (Doll Face; If I’m Lucky, both 1946), Zanuck decided not to renew her contract. Miranda and her agent David Sebastain decided to rethink her career. She made the independent Copacabana (1947), in which she was paired with Groucho Marx, but the film was not a great success.

In March 1947, after a long trail of lovers and fiancés and after declaring “I need a man to sustain me,” Miranda married Sebastain (they had no children). MGM signed her in 1948 for A Date with Judy, in which she costarred with Jane Powell, Elizabeth Taylor, and Wallace Beery. Beery was her dance partner, and Miranda appeared without her usual headdresses and bahianas but rather in plain yet flattering clothes. Though A Date with Judy was one of the top-grossing films of the year, it proved not very profitable for Miranda’s career. That spring she journeyed to Britain for a ten-week sold-out engagement at London’s Palladium.

In the summer of 1950 Miranda appeared with Mickey Rooney, Jack Dempsey, Rudy Vallee, and George Burns on the Hadacol Caravan, a tour sponsored by the cough elixir and TV game show sponsor that traveled 4,000 miles through the South on a special train. Also in 1950 Miranda appeared in the film Nancy Goes to Rio. Sebastain booked Miranda for top-dollar engagements at Las Vegas’s El Rancho Hotel and Casino (1950) and Desert Inn (1951). She made guest appearances with Milton Berle on his NBC TV show “Texaco Star Theatre.” In 1953 Miranda undertook a European tour to great acclaim.

After what proved to be her last film, Scared Stiff (1953), Miranda was diagnosed with a heart ailment. In 1954, seriously ill, she returned to Brazil. On a trip to Havana in July 1955 Miranda contracted a mild case of pneumonia. She returned to Hollywood at the end of the month to rest. However, incapable of refusing any offer that might further her career, she performed a demanding routine during a taping of the “Jimmy Durante Show,” against her doctor’s orders. While dancing with Eddie Jackson she suddenly became short of breath but refused medical attention. Her husband discovered her body the next morning; she had suffered a fatal heart attack. More than 4,000 people attended her funeral in Hollywood. Her body was then returned to Brazil, where a day of national mourning was declared. On the Rio de Janeiro oceanfront there is a small but impressive museum containing some of Miranda’s costumes, jewels, and career memorabilia. Thanks to film revivals and videos of her movies and countless parodies in films and TV commercials, Miranda and her unique style are well remembered.

Bibliography

Martha Gil-Montero, Brazilian Bombshell (1989), is a biography available in English. Abel Cardoso, Jr., Carmen Miranda: A Cantora do Brasil (1978), is in Portuguese. Anecdotes and scenes from her memorable production numbers appear in several Hollywood print anthologies, including John Kobal, Gotta Sing Gotta Dance: A Pictorial History of Film Musicals (1970), and Tony Thomas and Jim Terry with Busby Berkeley, The Busby Berkeley Book (1973). In 1994 Miranda was the subject of the documentary film Carmen Miranda, Bananas Is My Business, directed by Helena Solberg and written by Solberg and David Meyer. An obituary is in the New York Times, 9 Aug. 1955.