Encyclopedia Womannica

Leading Ladies: Carmen Miranda

Episode Summary

Carmen Miranda (1909-1955) appeared in more than 12 movies along with the era’s top billed stars. She was one of the first ambassadors of Latin American culture in the United States, though she often played stereotypical roles that brought criticism in her home country.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Leading Ladies, Activists, STEMinists,  Hometown Heroes, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, Grace Lynch, and Maddy Foley. Special thanks to Shira Atkins, Edie Allard, and Luisa Garbowit.

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan. And this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

Today’s leading lady appeared in more than 12 movies along with the era’s top billed stars. She was one of the first ambassadors of Latin American culture in the United States, though she often played stereotypical roles that brought criticism in her home country. Famous for her colorful attire and eye-catching headgear, at one point, she was the highest paid woman in Hollywood. Let’s talk about Carmen Miranda.

Carmen Miranda was born Maria do Carmo Miranda da Cunha in Portugal on February 9, 1909. When Maria was a baby, her parents immigrated to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In reference to Georges Bizet’s opera of the same name, Maria’s family gave her the nickname Carmen. It clearly stuck. 

Carmen’s strict, Roman Catholic family sent her to the Santa Teresinha convent academy for girls to be schooled by nuns. But by age 14, Carmen had to leave school and get a job in a department store to help financially support her family. Against all odds, that’s where Carmen found her way into showbiz.

When Carmen and her coworkers were on break, Carmen would casually perform popular songs as entertainment. One day, a guitarist overheard her singing and invited her to join him on a local radio show. After that, she was offered a nightclub singing job.

Her conservative father was hesitant to let her perform, but he finally allowed it as long as he could be her manager, and if she performed under a different name. The persona Carmen Miranda was born.

After some failed attempts to record and sell albums, Carmen found success with a record she produced singing a traditional Brazilian march. Many hit songs followed, and before long, Carmen was one of Brazil’s most popular celebs. In 1933, she appeared in her first movie, a Brazilian documentary called “A Voz do Carnaval.” In 1935, she starred in the comedic film “Estudantes,” which established Carmen as one of the country’s most beloved actors. All the while, she toured, performing her music throughout South America.

Just like her debut into Brazilian show business, Carmen Miranda’s introduction to the American market was a matter of being at the right place at the right time. The American theater manager Lee Shubert happened to catch Carmen’s performance at a casino in Rio and offered her a role on Broadway. So, in 1939, Carmen traveled to New York and played a recurring role performing a song in the variety show, ‘The Streets of Paris.’ The tune was a hit with American audiences -- but it was her interactions with the press offstage that really caught the public’s eye.

Carmen intentionally played up her limited experience with English, which quickly became a recurring joke in the press coverage of her work. 

Carmen’s fame grew and she soon performed in her first Hollywood movie, a 1940 romantic musical called Down Argentine Way. 

After ‘The Streets of Paris’ show closed, Carmen returned to Brazil -- but she was met with harsh criticism throughout the country for the way she stereotyped Brazilian culture for the American audience. Her film Down Argentine Way was “hissed off the screen” in Brazil, according to the press, and it was banned in Argentina for “wrongly portraying life in Buenos Aires.” 

After this scandal, Carmen knew her career couldn’t continue in her home country. She returned to the U.S. and signed an exclusive contract with 20th Century Fox in Hollywood.

Carmen took on a persona as a “Brazilian Bombshell” and started to perform musical numbers in a variety of American films. Before long, she was a household name, and the very image of South American culture for the U.S. audience -- despite the exoticized and caricatured nature of her roles. 

Carmen often wore a style of clothing called “bahiana” in Brazil, known for its bright layers of ruffled fabric and turban headpieces. She took to wearing elaborate hats adorned with fake fruit, which soon became her trademark. 

In 1943, she performed a song called “The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat” in a musical. In that number, her fruit-covered hat reached new levels of over-the-top, with a tall headpiece of fake bananas, and strawberries draping down her shoulders. Carmen’s contract with 20th Century Fox actually required her to show up in costume to some events.

Carmen served as a cultural ambassador, a role so important that the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs occasionally altered her scripts to help with President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor Policy.” That was an effort to improve the diplomatic relationship between the U.S. and South America, and to avoid further military intervention in the region. Carmen’s image was so entrenched in American media that the U.S. government believed her performances could improve the perception of a whole continent!

During World War II, Carmen was the highest-paid actress in the United States. At age 38, she got married to a Hollywood producer named David Sebastian. Some claim  that David and the film studios kept Carmen relegated to stereotyped roles.

In 1947, Carmen was cast as the romantic interest in the movie Copacabana, starring opposite Groucho Marx. Carmen played a Brazilian singer who disguised herself as a mysterious French performer.

Carmen appeared in her last movie in 1953, a comedy called Scared Stiff and subsequently  continued to perform on TV. 

After a 1955 performance singing on the Jimmy Durante Show, Carmen seemed for a moment like she was about to faint. The host rushed to help her, but Carmen managed to gather herself and walk offstage, smiling and waving.

The incident was a sign of a deeper problem. The following day, Carmen passed away in her house in Beverly Hills at age 46. 

Newspapers at the time reported that she died of a heart attack, but some later reports claimed that she was pregnant and passed away from complications due to pre-eclampsia.

The Brazilian government brought Carmen’s coffin back to her home country, where half a million people crowded the streets of Rio in her honor.

Carmen Miranda continues to have a complicated legacy both inside and outside Brazil. In 1995, a Brazilian filmmaker created a documentary called “Bananas is My Business,” exploring Carmen’s stereotyped portrayal in American media. In 2005, for the 50th anniversary of her death, several events commemorated Carmen’s work, including a film called “Carmen Miranda Forever” screened at the Rio Museum of Modern Art. 

Tune in tomorrow for the story of another Leading Lady. 

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Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator. 

Talk to you tomorrow!