Born on February 9, 1909 Maria do Carmo Miranda da Cunha, would eventually come to be known as Carmen Miranda. Reaching her highest prominence in the early 1940s, Carmen the “Brazilian Bombshell” epitomized the spirit, vitality and essence of Latin culture. She made her very first Hollywood film appearance in 1940 with Betty Grable in the film, Down Argentine Way and her last film in the 1953 film Scared Stiff with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Throughout her film career, she sang, danced and opened a door in the hearts of millions of fans worldwide. While her Hollywood film career was quite brief (she made only fourteen films in the US) she secured a popular icon of the 40s as “the lady in the tutti frutti hat.”
The small northern Portuguese town of Marco do Cananeses was Carmen’s birthplace, however she was brought to Brazil as a young girl and went to school at the Covenant of Saint Teresenha. Despite her education, she had leanings toward entertainment even as a young girl. Her devoutly Catholic parents did not approve of a career as an entertainer, so she kept her show-business identity under wraps. Working in a department store as a clerk, but spent most of her time on the clock entertaining coworkers with song. Off the clock she often sang for parties and festivals in the area. During one event, a passerby heard her sing and got her a weekly spot on a local radio station singing. It was also during this time that Carmen worked as a seamstress. She became very skilled and could make anything from dresses to hats to shoes. Working with milliner Madame Boss, she also began modeling the hats that she designed, which took on the traditional look of the Bahiana market women who wore baskets of fruit, vegetables and sundries on their heads. From there, she went on to display her singing talents at popular nightclubs in Brazil. Receiving her first recording contract in 1928 with RCA, she had a long-term recording contract. In the early 1930s she made her film debut in the Brazilian film, “A Voz do Carnaval.” While continuing her acting career in Brazil, she also continued recording. By 1939 she had recorded over 300 singles.
North American Way
It was at this time she became “discovered” for the American Stage and was brought to New York by Lee Schubert. Upon her arrival, the already alerted press were on hand to greet her. She remarked, “this is the golden dream of my life to come here. “Commenting on her meager understanding of English (besides speaking Portuguese, Spanish and French) by saying her vocabulary was limited to saying, “money, money, money, … hot dog. I say yes, no, and I say, money, money, money, and I say turkey sandwich and I say grape juice.”
While performing on Broadway in “Streets of Paris” and at local nightclubs after-theatre, Hollywood came calling. Her lively sambas, Carnaval marches, bubbling stage presence and her highly demanding rapid-delivery numbers completely overwhelmed and delighted audiences. Twentieth Century Fox hired her to appear in the Betty Grable film “Down Argentine Way” and was paid $20,000. She was unable to leave New York due to her theatrical engagements, so Fox filmed her scenes in the Movietone Studios in Manhattan. The New York Times said of her appearance, “Miss Miranda sings “South American Way” and a few Spanish trifles scorchingly, but we don’t see enough of her.” “Down Argentine Way” would be successful for Carmen and begin a series of films for Fox that included, “The Gang’s All Here,” “Greenwich Village,” “Springtime In The Rockies,” “Something For The Boys,” “Four Jills In A Jeep” and “Doll Face.” Shortly after her first film in Hollywood, she returned to Rio, only to find her countrymen no longer found her to be “one of them.” During performances the crowds fell silent and in some cases, boo-ed. She left Brazil disappointed and did not return for over 14 years.
In 1943, Carmen became very ill and had to have an emergency surgery for a “stomach ailment.” Her ill health set of a series of events including depression, mental exhaustion and fears of becoming sick again. She never seemed to recover from this illness and became reliant on sleeping pills and other medications to alter her moods and health. The following year she very nearly faced death with a general infection.
In 1947 she signed a film contract with Universal and appeared in their film “Copacabana” with Groucho Marx. Another echelon marked this year; she married for the first time to film producer David Sebastian. During her entire stint in Hollywood she was never romantically linked with anyone nor did she use sex as a means to get ahead in Hollywood. She admitted to leaving a lawyer in Brazil when she came to the US In 1939, but Carmen was clearly married to her role of an entertainer. “Copacabana” was box-office poison and she made appearances at the Copacabana nightclub to support the film. Hollywood became less and less interested in her character and so, she returned to the nightclub scene again, making appearances at El Rancho in Las Vegas and the London Palladium in 1948. She came back for MGM in a supporting role in “A Date With Judy” that same year, for which she received beaming notices from critics. It would be two more years before her next film appearance, “Nancy Goes To Rio” with Jane Powell and Ann Sothern. Her final film would be “Scared Stiff” with Jerry Lewis in 1953, in which he made a (terrible) spoof on her.
The Final Years
Her personal life also had its ups and downs during this time, including a rumour that she was expecting Sebastians’ baby in 1948. But at 39 years old, she miscarried and was told that was her last chance to have a baby, which she wanted desperately. Then the couple spent two months apart in 1949, but reunited with a second honeymoon in San Francisco. Moreover, throughout her career in Hollywood, her countrymen of Brazil (which they resented her heritage as “not Brazilian,” but Portuguese) decried her fame, fortune and her “Americanization.” Many Brazilians thought she made of mockery of their heritage by making them looking like over-sexed savages or ridiculous, happy fools. This added fuel to her already unstable mental and emotional state, to the point where she herself believed that she somehow betrayed the Brazilian ethos. Late in 1954 she made the trip to Brazil that she had longed for. Her doctor had ordered her rest and her fans and friends became worried about her condition. She was weak, frail, and unable to control her emotions and admittedly very tired. The two day trip was soothing. They stopped over in Lima where the star dressed as “Carmen” and put on makeup in preparation for her landing in Rio. When she arrived she was pleased to be greeted by fans and commented, “My people, I’m happy! I can’t say anything else. How good it’s to be home.” She began singing her hit song, “Boneca de Pixe (Tar Doll),” to her fans and then fainted. Under the care of Dr. Aluizio Sales, she was ordered to solitary confinement and over the course of several months, her condition improved. In April 1955, she returned to Hollywood feeling healthy, looking better than she had in years and willing to go back to the stage.
On August 5 while taping a strenuous dance number for the Jimmy Durante Show, Carmen slipped and collapsed in the final sequence and said, “I’m all out of breath.” She left the club where Durantes’ show was being taped and joined friends and family members at home for a party. She was in high spirits and despite her delicate health still she laughed and danced and toasted and sang. At two thirty in the morning she retired to her room, put on her pajamas and when walking to the bathroom, she collapsed and died. David Sebastian found her the next morning when he found her lying in her room. People who were in attendance of the party reflected later that as Carmen was dying upstairs, they were downstairs still celebrating, unaware of what was going on above them.
Services were held in California and then Sebastian and Carmen’s mother brought her body to Rio for final burial. Nearly one million people lined the streets to bid her a last farewell. She wore a simple red suit and held red rosary beads. Her family insisted the Durante Show be aired and the producer substituted a long shot and omitted her final words. However, what the public saw was a tragic image of a befallen idol on the eve of her death.
Her costumes were donated to Brazil for a “Carmen Miranda Museum.”
She overcame odds that few could, and became one of the most popular celebrities around the world. Her celebrity status happened, not because of her wild image of a English impaired Latino,” but because of her spirit and willingness to make people happy through entertainment. Those flashing eyes, her dazzling smile and her innate uniqueness that has yet to be paralleled.
Original biography written by Dawn Marie, Bombshells.Com, © 2001.
Sources: IMDB Biography of Carmen Miranda, the mini-biography on the paper doll book by Tom Tierney, The Fox Girls by James Robert Parish and Brazilian Bombshell by Martha Gil-Montero.