Carmen Miranda: The Lady with the Glamorous Fruit Hat

The year was 1939, Brazil’s President, Getúlio Vargas, was facing the downfall of the coffee industry. Once one of the leading coffee industries, not only in Brazil and all South America, but the entire world, President Vargas knew he had to get it back on track. In May of the same year, he had learned that one of his country’s biggest stars, Carmen Miranda was about to set sail and expand her popularity to the United States. He realized that if her popularity took off there, then Brazil’s coffee crisis could possibly cease. President Vargas approached Carmen and she accepted the request to represent her home country proudly and become a goodwill ambassador. From then on, not only did she help save her country’s coffee business, she became a national treasure in Brazil and around the world.

Carmen Miranda was born Maria do Carmo Miranda de Cunha in Varzea de Ovelha e Aliviada, Portugal on the 9th February 1909, as the second of six children, to Jose Cunha and Maria Miranda. At the age of one, Carmen, her older sister Olinda, and their mother emigrated to Brazil, where her father had moved the prior year. From an early age, she was introduced to music from her father who had profound love of opera, so much to the point that it inspired Carmen to pursue an interest in the entertainment industry. However, her father protested the thought of his daughter entering such profession where as her mother stood by her daughter’s decision, and as a result, was beaten by her husband.

Carmen Miranda with her mother
Carmen Miranda with her mother, Maria Miranda, in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1933.

Despite her father’s disapproval towards pursuing a career in entertainment, Miranda went ahead and followed her dream. In 1929, she recorded her first single “Não vá Simbora” with fellow Brazilian composer, Josué de Barros. After recording a few more singles, she was offered to sign with record label RCA, who would change her image and promote her to wider audiences. Miranda’s fame began to grow in her home country because she was performing her music in the popular Brazilian musical genre of Samba. In 1932, she added another occupation to her already budding career: movie star. Her first movie was, “O Carnaval Cantado no Rio” where she had a musical cameo. As the 1930s went on, Miranda was starring in many major motion pictures in Brazil. Although she had no speaking roles, she was branded, “the most popular figure in Brazilian cinema.”

A color video of Carmen Miranda performing her 1941 song ‘Chica Chica Boom Chic’ in the film ‘That Night in Rio’.

Finally, in 1935, for the film “Estudantes” she was given a speaking role. In 1939, in the film “Banana-da-Terra”, she wore for the first time, what would become her trademark, the fruit hat. In the same year, she caught the eye of American theatre owner Lee Shubert, after performing at Rio de Janeiro’s Cassino da Urca. He approached her with an eight-year contract to perform “The Streets of Paris” on New York’s Broadway. She agreed under one condition, to allow her band to travel with her to the US. Shubert declined initially, saying that there were plenty of musicians in New York to replace them. In response, she declined until Shubert agreed to her demands. In the end, he agreed to have six members of her band to play, but he did not pay for the band’s travel. President Getúlio Vargas and the Brazilian government paid for Miranda and her band’s way to New York. With this move it helped promote Brazilian culture and also helped boost Brazil’s coffee economy, as Miranda was also chosen to be a goodwill ambassador from her home country to the United States. Carmen Miranda was on her way to becoming an international star.

Carmen Miranda in 1939 alongside American comedy duo, Abbott and Costello, in a photo taken to promote the show The Streets of Paris
Carmen Miranda in 1939 alongside American comedy duo, Abbott and Costello, in a photo taken to promote the show “The Streets of Paris” which starred starred them all.

She arrived in the US on the 18th May 1939 and debuted on “The Streets of Paris” show on the 19th June 1939. Although she only had a small part, she received rave reviews. Miranda’s fame grew rapidly, and she won the fandom of many Americans, so much so that she was able to meet, and be formally acquainted to then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Similarly to President Vargas in Brazil, President Roosevelt felt her popularity and image could be used to be a spokesperson for his Good Neighbor Policy to strengthen the relationship between the US and Latin America. Her rise in fame since her debut on Broadway and her association with President Roosevelt caught the eye of popular Hollywood directors. They offered her more speaking roles and made her a lead star in many of their films; she became a box office hit in the US.

President Franklin Roosevelt of the United States sitting at a table with President Vargas of Brazil
President of Brazil, Getúlio Vargas, sitting with US President Franklin D. Roosevelt at a banquet in Rio de Janiero, Brazil in December 1936.

Many people back in Brazil disapproved of her portrayal of what they called a “caricature”. Some native Brazilians felt that Carmen represented their country as full of scantily clad, Latina bimbos. Other criticisms she received from her fellow Brazilians was that she was too “Americanized”. For example, for one of her first concerts since returning home in 1940, she was greeted to a great sea of applause. However, once she spoke and greeted them in English, the crowd went silent and then began to boo her, which caused her great pain and she left the stage early. In response to her country’s resentment, she recorded a song “Disseram que voltei Americanizada” (They said I’ve come back too Americanized”) and did not return to Brazil for fourteen years. Other Latin Americans felt that Hollywood used her as the primary “Latino/Latina voice” and did not represent other countries in Latin America, using her as a stereotype.

Despite the criticism in Latin America, Miranda had continued success in the United States. Throughout the 1940s she was considered one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, raking millions and millions of dollars at the box office, attending many award shows, gaining more and more fans each year. In 1946, her contract with Fox Studios ended, and she decided to pursue a career in entertainment without a big studio behind her. She was only afforded black and white films, while her previous films were in color. She performed in her last film “Scared Stiff” in 1953, which again did not garner any interest from audiences, thus ending her film career.

Carmen Miranda performing in her last film “Scared Stiff” which featured the likes of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. This was released in April 1953.

On August 4, 1955, after performing for The Jimmy Durante Show, she collapsed and died of a fatal heart attack in the hallway of her residence in Los Angeles, California. Regardless of their early disdain of Miranda during the peak of career in the US, Brazil welcomed her back home for a state funeral which was attended by over half a million people in Rio de Janeiro.

Here you can watch the Jimmy Durante Show in which Carmen Miranda performs for the last time. She collapsed and died of a heart attack later on that day (4 August 1955)

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