My five favourite Carmen Miranda films

Flamboyant singer and actor Carmen Miranda was the first Latin American star to be invited to imprint her hands and feet on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. To mark the publication of her new study of Miranda’s star appeal, academic Lisa Shaw chooses the Brazilian Bombshell’s five greatest films. 

Lisa Shaw
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Hello, Hello, Carnival! (Alô, alô, carnaval!, 1936)

Director Adhemar Gonzaga

This is the only Brazilian film starring Carmen Miranda that still exists in its entirety. Like the other performers, Carmen was required to provide her own costumes, and thus made full use of the dressmaking and millinery skills she had acquired when she was a sales assistant in a hat shop.

The outfits she created included the Hollywood-inspired, ultra-modern lamé trouser suits that she and her sister Aurora wore for the performance of the song ‘Cantoras do rádio’ (‘Radio Singers’). In this musical number Carmen’s varied facial expressions, darting eyes, mischievous smiles and hand gestures add a sense of theatricality to her performance. These techniques were later perfected in her Hollywood films.

 

Banana of the Land (Banana da terra, 1938)

Director Ruy Costa

This is a special film because it was the last that Carmen made in Brazil and also the first time that she wore on screen what would become her iconic baiana costume (complete with characteristic fruit-laden turban). In spite of performing just two musical numbers in the film, tellingly it is still Carmen’s name and photograph that take centre stage in the production’s publicity material.

In the only surviving scenes, she performs the now well-known song ‘O que é que a baiana tem?’ (‘What does the baiana have?’), whose lyrics make direct reference to the key elements of the traditional costume of baianas, a term which literally means ‘women from Bahia’ but more specifically refers to Afro-Brazilian women who since colonial times have sold food on the streets of Salvador and Rio de Janeiro, and to the priestesses of the Afro-Brazilian religion, candomblé, with whom these vendors are often conflated in the popular imagination.

 

Down Argentine Way (1940) 

Director Irving Cummings

Down Argentine Way was Carmen’s Hollywood debut and although her role is restricted to the performance of just three musical numbers, and she appears for fewer than five minutes on screen in all, her visual and aural impact far outstrip her screen time, and she appears as third on the bill, behind only Betty Grable and Don Ameche.

Without any introduction or contextualisation Carmen abruptly confronts Hollywood audiences in the film’s opening scene, where she appears in medium close-up singing ‘South American Way’ in a spectacular baiana costume, designed by acclaimed wardrobe artist Travis Banton. The outfit exploits to the full the potential of Technicolor, not least in its combination of bright red and gold lamé fabric, from which her turban is also made, and the abundance of golden necklaces and bracelets that adorn her body.

 

That Night in Rio (1941) 

Director Irving Cummings

In That Night in Rio, Carmen is given her first narrative role in a Hollywood production, and she gives ample proof of her excellent comic timing, as well as her singing and dancing skills.

This role establishes the key facets of what would be her linguistic performance in subsequent Hollywood narratives: regular smatterings of unintelligible ‘gibberish’ in rapid-fire Portuguese (‘translated’ for non-Lusophone audiences via her flashing eyes and exuberant hand gestures), alongside comical malapropisms and grammatical slips in fractured bursts of English.

 

The Gang’s All Here (1943)

Director Busby Berkeley

The Gang’s All Here contains one of Carmen’s most memorable screen performances, the outlandish, camp production number ‘The Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat’, in which Busby Berkeley’s trademark kaleidoscope choreography is taken to extremes (with the significant difference that, unlike Berkeley’s traditional sequences, Carmen is afforded endless close-ups and transformed into the centrepiece of the visuals), and the mise-en-scène is dominated by over-sized, swaying phallic bananas.

Carmen openly parodies her by now caricatured screen persona, singing: “I wonder why does everybody look at me/ And then begin to talk about a Christmas tree?/ I hope that means that everyone is glad to see/ The lady in the tutti-frutti hat.” She shows that she can poke fun at herself but equally that she is totally in command of her star text.

 

Carmen Miranda

Lisa Shaw charts Miranda’s transition from singer to film star, analysing how her star persona drew on performance techniques honed during her singing career. She examines shifts in Miranda’s star identity after her move to Broadway in 1939, and Hollywood a year later, with her identification as an ‘ethnic’ star emphasised by extravagant baiana costumes.

Published by Palgrave Macmillan.

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