Monday, February 09, 2009

100 Fantastic Years of Carmen Miranda

Today marks the 100th birthday of the legendary Carmen Miranda, the Brazilian bombshell who took Broadway and Hollywood by storm in the 1940s. A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog post about her on the 50th anniversary of her passing. Today I'm using her 100th birthday as the reason to retouch on this woman's amazing journey.

Carmen Miranda sings The Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat.
Carmen Miranda sings The Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat.

Although Carmen was born in Portugal, she spent most of her formative years in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It was there that she had become the country’s most successful entertainer.

At the height of her popularity in Brazil, someone asked Carmen what she needed to be happy. She replied: “A good bowl of soup and the freedom to sing.”

A portrait of Carmen Miranda from her Brazilian career.
A portrait of Carmen Miranda from her Brazilian career.

She made her American debut in 1939 after legendary Broadway impresario Lee Schubert saw her show in Rio de Janeiro. He immediately booked her for his Broadway review: The Streets of Paris. Carmen went to New York and became an overnight sensation.

That show marked the beginning of an 18-month string of successive Broadway reviews and nightclub acts. Although her career in the U.S. was skyrocketing, she found an entirely different reception when she returned to Brazil after finding her success in the U.S.

Carmen Miranda in Brazil.
Carmen Miranda in Brazil.

Upon her return to her home country, audiences rejected her. She had become "Americanized," they complained. She was no longer their Carmen Miranda.

The response broke Carmen's heart. It would be 14 years before she would ever return to her homeland.

Carmen sings The South American Way.
Carmen sings The South American Way.

Back in the U.S., Carmen landed a new contract with 20th Century Fox. She was starting a new life in a new country, and she took the town by storm. Six months after the fateful return trip to Brazil, Carmen's hands and feet were enshrined in cement at Grauman's Chinese Theater. Soon she would become the highest paid woman in the U.S.

By the mid 1940s, however, Carmen's novelty began to wear off. Despite Carmen's desire to expand her talents, 20th Century Fox wouldn't permit her to do anything else other than sing and dance in supporting roles.

Carmen sings Brazil.
Carmen sings Brazil.

She would later buy out her contract, dye her hair blonde, and take a lead role opposite Groucho Marx in the 1947 film Copacabana. The film was a flop. By then Carmen was unable to escape the type of roles that once made her so famous.

She went back to the nightclub circuit, but by then, she was almost a novelty act. After working two shows a night for months on end, Carmen began having problems sleeping. So she began to take a sleeping pill. Within a few years, she was taking up to 10 sleeping pills a night.

Carmen became the highest paid woman in the U.S.
Carmen became the highest paid woman in the U.S.

After a nervous breakdown, Carmen entered into a deep depression. She went back to Brazil to recuperate with her family. Doctors there put Carmen through shock treatments, which were common at the time. A few months later, she began to show signs of life again.

But her own ambition turned out to be her downfall. She returned to Hollywood in 1955 and threw herself back into the turmoil of appearances and TV guest spots.

The last recorded image of Carmen before her death at age 46.
The last recorded image of Carmen before her death at age 46.

Three months later, appearing on the Jimmy Durante Show, she collapsed suddenly while dancing and had trouble breathing. But being the trooper she was, she picked herself up and finished the show, dancing gracefully out the door.

It would be the last time the public would see Carmen Miranda alive. She died later that night. Cause of death was a heart attack. She was 46 years old.

Carmen Miranda at the height of her career
Carmen Miranda at the height of her career.

Fortunately today, Carmen Miranda continues to touch the lives of fans through her movies. Happy 100th birthday Carmen!

2 comments:

beastandbean said...

Great pics and post, James! I have never seen some of those older pics...really cool stuff!

Feliz cumpleanos a Doña Carmen! :)

Loren said...

My mom and Carmen Miranda have the same birthday? I should have gotten my mom a hat full of fruit as a gift! I love Carmen Miranda...so, thank you for this lovely tribute.