MIRANDA, CARMEN (Maria do Carmo Miranda da Cunha) (1909–1955) Singer, Actress
Billed as the “Brazilian Bombshell,” Carmen Miranda’s zesty singing and outrageous costumes helped make her a film star in the 1940s. On February 9, 1909, she was born in Portugal as Maria do Carmo Miranda da Cunha (though she was immediately nicknamed Carmen). When she was three, her family moved to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. She left school at 14 to work in a hat shop and soon was singing in parades. Developing an act in which she imitated popular Brazilian singers, Miranda became a favorite nightclub performer and recording artist. As tourists caught her act, word of Miranda reached the entertainment industry in the United States. At the recommendation of film star SONJA HENIE, Broadway producer Lee Shubert hired her for his revue The Streets of Paris. Miranda appeared for only six minutes, performing the song “South American Way,” but she became a sensation. When she returned home, however, she discovered that many of her old fans objected to her act, believing it made a mockery of Brazilian culture for American audiences.
Miranda came back to the United States, this time beckoned by Hollywood. Signing a contract with Twentieth Century-Fox, she made a huge impact in her first picture, Down Argentine Way (1940), reprising her song “South American Way. ”In her follow-up film, That Night in Rio (1941), her two songs—“I Yi Yi Yi Yi (I Like You Very Much)” and “Chic Chica Boom Chic”—both became major hits with American record buyers. Miranda was featured in 12 more films, usually as a supporting comic character. In her musical numbers, she became known for extravagant outfits, many of which were exaggerated versions of the costumes she had worn onstage in Brazil. She was particularly known for her seven-inch-high wedge-heel shoes and high headdresses adorned with bananas and other tropical fruit.
Perhaps her best-remembered film appearance was in The Gang’s All Here, directed by Busby Berkeley, who was famous for his musical extravaganzas. In her “The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat,”number, she entered in a cart pulled by gold oxen surrounded by 60 chorus girls playing Brazilians on a banana plantation. The act ended with Miranda standing against a backdrop covered with hundreds of bananas, making her fruit hat grow to impossible heights. The comic flamboyance of Miranda’s film appearances made her then and now a popular figure of parody, especially among cabaret performers.
Although the novelty of Miranda’s film persona started growing thin by the mid-1940s, she remained a top-draw act in theaters and nightclubs. In 1947 she married her agent, David Sebastian, who was able to book her for successful runs at London’s Palladium Theater and at Las Vegas casinos. Her health, however, began to suffer in the early 1950s, when she was diagnosed with heart problems. On August 5, 1955, the day after she taped a strenuous songand-dance routine for television’s Jimmy Durante Show, she died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 46. Her body was returned for burial in Brazil, where a national day of mourning was declared.
Gil-Montero, Martha. Brazilian Bombshell: The Biography of Carmen Miranda. New York: Donald Fine, 1989.
Thomas, Tony, and Jim Terry, with Busby Berkeley. The Busby Berkeley Book. Greenwich, Conn.: New York Graphic Society, 1973.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Carmen Miranda: Bananas Is My Business (1995). Fox Lorber, DVD/VHS, 2000/1997.
Copacabana (1947). Republic Entertainment, VHS, 1989.
Down Argentine Way (1940). Twentieth Century-Fox, VHS, 1989.