April 21, 2011
The allusion to Carmen Miranda on this week’s episode of “Modern Family” got us to thinking about her for the first time in recent memory. Our first reaction was to wonder how many people in, say, their 40s or less who were watching that show would have known who Carmen Miranda was. When she was in her heyday, there was no need to ask; she was very popular — with good reason — and she was very successful.
Carmen Miranda was part of the good-natured entertainment milieu that appealed to mass audiences in the 1940s and 1950s. It was appropriate that her last appearance was on a Jimmy Durante television show, because she and Durante epitomized the gentle, wholesome fare that fit the mood of many people in that era.
Carmen Miranda died in 1955, shortly after suffering a heart attack during a live broadcast of Durante’s show, but it’s an indication of her appeal that the writers on “Modern Family” felt secure in paying homage to her more than 55 years later with no need for an explanation.
Carmen Miranda was born in Portugal in 1909, but she grew up in Brazil. She began performing at an early age, although financial stresses on her family led her to a short-lived but profitable career as a milliner. She continued to pursue her musical career, though, and before she came to the United States in 1939, she was already established as a star on radio, recordings, and film. She ultimately made 14 Hollywood movies and at one point was the highest-paid woman in the industry. She also made occasional appearances in the variety-show format that was a staple in early American television.
Carmen Miranda sang and danced either barefoot or in sandals, wearing wildly colorful costumes that included enormous head-dresses that often were composed of fruit – an image that is still emulated by drag peformers. She was the inspiration for Chiquita Banana, the cartoon character created by Dik Browne as the logo for a banana company. (Browne was the unseen “angel” who drew cartoons to illustrate the televised sermons of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, and later created the popular comic strip Hagar the Horrible.)
Carmen Miranda was subject to some criticism in Brazil during her lifetime on the grounds that she had become too Americanized and was presenting an inaccurate image of Brazilian culture. She was so upset by this evaluation of her work that she stayed away from Brazil for many years. Now, however, she is memorialized by museums in both Brazil and Portugal. She is also the namesake of Carmen Miranda Square at the intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Orange Drive, across from Grauman’s Chinese Theater.
Her personal life was not happy; she had one unsuccessful marriage and, because she was a Catholic, would not divorce her husband after they separated. She kept up a hectic schedule and probably damaged her health with drugs, cigarettes, and tobacco.
If you’re old enough — as we are — to remember Carmen Miranda, there is no doubt in your mind about her legacy. When you think of her, you smile.
You can see and hear Carmen Miranda sing her iconic “The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti” hat in THIS SCENE from the 1943 Busby Berkeley musical “The Gang’s All Here.”