The Life and Influence of Carmen Miranda
By: Connor Hogsten, Joe Passariello,
Michael Morris, and Thomas Cole
Carmen Miranda was a larger than life character, explosion of color, and movement of hope not only in Brazil, but internationally, used as a symbol in the United States’s Good Neighbor Policy during WWII to promote foreign relationships in the south, she has resonated throughout history and exemplified everything Americans thought of Latin America at the time. While widely accepted throughout American culture and successful in promoting U.S. diplomatic relationships, she created a widely distorted view of Brazilian culture personifying stereotypes on Broadway and television that weren’t even of Brazil (Carmen Miranda BBC Documentary). As a result, she witnessed a substantial amount of backlash and negativity towards herself and her music in her home country, Brazil, who feared she had become a sell out in the United States.
Carmen Miranda was born on February 9th, 1909 in Marco de Canaveses, Portugal. In 1910, Miranda, along with her two sisters and mother immigrated to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Until the age 14 she attended Convent of Saint Therese of Lisieux for girls, however due to monetary issues she left school to work as model in a department store. Growing up in a strict Roman Catholic household brought some restrictions for which is the reason why she got the name “Carmen Miranda.” Her father helped influence her in the art of singing and acting in which he was a fan of theater and the performance arts. Some of her accolades include being the first South American to earn a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and she would later record more than 100 records, appear in five films, and conduct nine sold-out South American tours throughout her career (Thomas Garcia). She would later die of a heart attack (supposedly caused by preeclampsia) in August, 1955 in her home of Beverly Hills, California.
Miranda’s career catapulted in 1929 when she met composer Josue de Barros who promoted and recorded her very first album. By the next year she rose to superstardom upon the release of the popular song ‘Tai’. Her success following this song began her strong career in which she remained one of the most heralded singers in Brazil, which lasted throughout the 1930’s. During 1933 she signed a two year contract with an American conglomerate music record label now known as RCA Records. This contract made her the first contract singer in the radio industry history of Brazil, and also began her crossover appeal in the United States. Miranda was frequently seen wearing her recognizable fruit hats, which was new and refreshing to her many American fans. Her outrageous costumes matched with her incredible voice, helped make her one of the highest-earning women in the Hollywood, during the 1940’s (Garcia-Navarro). During her reign, Miranda was seen a symbol of hope for so many Brazilians. She was one of the first very successful entertainers, who was able to bring her crossover appeal to an entirely new nation outside of her home country of Brazil. She inspired so many individuals with her charismatic personality, and proved that someone with the right aura was capable of being an international star, no matter their uproots.
The 1930’s also saw the rise of Miranda’s acting career, which had strong ties to the musical genre and carnival traditions. It wasn’t until the late 1930’s that she brought her talents to New York City where she quickly stole the hearts of theatre goers, with her magnetic South American personality. The combination of good looks, swift dance moves, and soothing voice made her a favorite in two different areas of entertainment, something that had not been done by many others. Despite all of her accolades and success, this was not to say that all views surrounding Miranda were positive. There was definitely a sense of fear that engulfed her career. Many Brazilians believed that her exotic behavior was a bit exaggerated, and did not show Brazil in the best light. Many Americans only semblance of knowledge of Brazil came via Miranda’s performances, so many feared that it was not the best portrayal of Brazil’s unique traditions and values. Not only was their fear that their beloved country was not being showcased properly, but many Brazilians also feared of her “selling out” once she became a household name in America. They believed she had forgotten her roots to pursue a better life in another country, and that she was not going to come back. Despite some of these shortcomings, her influence in America was undeniable as she was described as, “…one of the formative personalities of postwar American life, influencing not only fashion but the gestures of a generation” (Perrone & Dunn).
During her rise in notoriety, the world was engulfed in turmoil. There were lots of feelings of resentment and fear towards the United States coming from Latin America during the time of Carmen Miranda’s beginnings. In 1933, president Roosevelt enacted the “Good Neighbor Policy” in an attempt to warm relations in the region. It was also an attempt to gain allies throughout the Americas as the US feared the rise and spread of Nazism and fascism in South America, potentially leading towards another world war. While this policy began with terminating various military occupations throughout South America, it also included a very well executed cultural exchange. A cultural exchange that Carmen Miranda quickly became the face of.
Part of this exchange was to change the how the average American perceived South Americans. This was done with multiple CBS radio broadcasts, such as Viva America and Hello Americans. Carmen herself was featured in Hello Americans’ first episode, which spoke of the history of Samba and she also sang the song “No Tabuleiro da Baiana”. She also took part in several broadway shows in the late 30’s and early 40’s, to which she received widespread praise in the states. She was also featured in several Walt Disney films such as Saludo Amigos and The Three Callaberos. These movies were widely regarded as hits in the States and not only skyrocketed her appeal, but also created a broadened interest in hope for stronger ties between the U.S. and Latin American culture. While she was considered to have twisted the view of Brazilian culture back in her home country, she, and the Good Neighbour policy arguably gave Americans the initial exposure to that culture.
During the 12 year tenure of the Good Neighbour policy, it was widely considered a success. Not only due to the direct actions by the U.S. Government, but also due to entertainers like Carmen Miranda that introduced a culture once considered alien to the majority of Americans. This policy eventually came to a close in 1945 as the Cold War began ramping up in intensity and the U.S. shifted its focus from relationship building to fighting and containing the communist movements of Latin America. As the Good Neighbour policy ended, Miranda’s career began to decline. Her films started to be featured on cheaper black and white film, she started having increasingly less significant parts in films until her last film Scared Stiff which debuted in 1953.
Feelings towards Carmen Miranda remain controversial even today, both loved and disliked throughout much of Latin America. The beginning of her career was characterized as a symbol of hope for many Brazilians and Central/South Americans as she was the first icon to take her talents abroad and more specifically to the United States. This proved to the citizens of Brazil that no matter your socioeconomic status or racial background, with talent your limits were nonexistent. Towards the latter period of her career however, these feelings of pride in Carmen Miranda would change drastically throughout Brazil and much of South America. The roles she portrayed in television by 20th Century Fox and Broadway theater sought to develop Latin American stereotypes still in existence today. From the lavish outfits she wore to the ditsy characters she played, Central and South Americans feared that they had been completely misrepresented in America resenting their once pride and joy, Carmen Miranda. On the other hand, she was adored throughout the United States. She proved very successful in introducing Americans to what they thought illustrated Latin American culture. The Good Neighbor Policy was meant to increase trade between the U.S. and South American countries during a time when fear of another war in Europe would require the expansion and fostering of improved U.S. foreign relationships elsewhere. Carmen Miranda, proved to be just the propaganda figurehead that President Roosevelt was looking for.
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