Disney’s version of The Little Mermaid is only medium-scary. Oh, sure, the undulating Ursula makes toddlers scream and the near-miss of boiling and eating your best friend the crustacean, is a bit unnerving. But for the most part, it’s about a pretty mermaid who learns (the hard way) that growing up involves pain. Now, Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid—that’s another story. In his version, the little mermaid also gives up her voice for legs, too, but it’s a bit more intense. When this aqua-maiden is told she must surrender her voice in return for legs (so she can be a human and obtain a shot at the prince—and an immortal soul to boot), she plaintively asks, “But if you take away my voice, what is left for me?” The witch responds cunningly,“Your beautiful form, your graceful walk, and your expressive eyes; surely with these you can enchain a man’s heart.” Even after being warned that walking would be like “…treading upon the points of needles or sharp knives; she bore it willingly, and stepped as lightly by the prince’s side as a soap-bubble, so that he and all who saw her wondered at her graceful-swaying movements. She was very soon arrayed in costly robes of silk and muslin, and was the most beautiful creature in the palace; but she was dumb, and could neither speak nor sing.”
Cue Carmen Miranda…
A dream is a wish your heart makes…
Born in Portugal, young Carmen (so named by her opera-loving father) and her family were transplanted to Brazil in 1910. She grew up there in poverty, leaving a Catholic charity school at 15 to earn money to help pay for a sister’s medical bills. She worked in the rag trade, first in her mother’s millinery shop, then a hat shop of her own. But, like many notable Disney princesses, Carmen craved something beyond being a poor girl.
And, like all Disney princesses, she sang as she worked, which, naturally, ticked off some (coworkers said it was distracting) and enchanted others. She would try on the hats for customers, who were noticeably disenchanted when they realized the hats didn’t look nearly as cute on them as they did on the wide-eyed, frisky teen. The folks who liked her cheerful warbling were, not too surprisingly, mostly men. Carmen loved being photographed and practiced poses, camera-ready from the get-go, begging just about anyone with a camera to snap her picture. She plucked her eyebrows, giving them exotic wings; she rouged her generous lips.
When she transferred her darling little teenaged self to a tie shop (the Brazilian equivalent, for our purposes, of Schwab’s Drug Store), a smitten gent heard her chirping and invited her to sing at a gala at the National Institute of Music. She sang her slum-born “tango” songs there and, in true fairy tale fashion, a music mogul insisted she make a record. Her test record became a hit and she groomed herself for stardom, renaming herself Carmen Miranda.
With the first Brazilian recording contract ever in her hand, she toured (under her displeased father’s watchful eye) with her band, singing sultry samba tunes. The bright-eyed, irrepressible Carmen was a snake-hipped, wiggling, waggling wonder. Small-budget, but popular films followed, and she became Brazil’s sweetheart with chart-topping songs and a passionate, common-folk following. The elite, however, frowned on the samba. Vulgar, don’t you know. Bohemian. Carmen was flying so high, she was completely unaware of such blue-nosed sniffing. Her band members recalled her as “totally positive. There was nothing false about her.” At the height of her popularity, when asked what she needed to be 100% happy, she grinned, “A good bowl of soup and the freedom to sing.”
One fateful night, in 1939, the S.S. Normandie arrived in tourist-riddled Rio de Janeiro carrying Lee Shubert, the Broadway impresario. He took one look at Carmen dancing and singing in a casino and pounced. Offered a part in his popular revue, The Streets of Paris, Carmen boldly countered with, “It’s me and the band, or nothing.” Shubert balked at the expense of dragging six Brazilian band members along to NY, but Brazil’s president, recognizing an unprecedented ‘hands across the water” set-up, fronted the bulk of the expenses. Carmen was headed for Broadway.
The girl who saved Broadway
Carmen’s New York City dockside interview, peppered with adorable halting English, was attended by amused, charmed reporters. They praised her flashing eyes, lithe, petite figure, and funny Brazilian accent. Brazilian papers, however, reported she came across as a bit of a bimbo, the first inkling (pun intended) of trouble for naïve, little Carmen. If this were a movie, minor-toned music would simmer here, and you’d think, “uh-oh; the ‘she’s doomed’ theme…”
For the show, she wore a self-made, stylized version of a Brazilian peasant headdress, a concoction of basketry and fake fruit. Her midriff was exposed (!), her flashy platform shoes added a few inches to her tiny frame—she was only 4’9” tall. (Come on, didn’t you think she was taller? Me, too!) She wiggled her way across the Great White Way and became known as “the girl who saved Broadway from the World’s Fair.” She was an instant smash and she reveled in it. Finally, her ship had come in! It was inevitable that Hollywood would beckon and Carmen hurried to answer that siren song.
In an LA minute, Hedda Hopper (Hollywood’s mad hatter gossip columnist) reported that “Miranda Fever” was sweeping the nation: “She (Carmen) has struck at the very lifeblood of the nation, the women’s style. Bonwit Teller (an upscale department store) even had a mold made that bears her Brazilian bravura. Hats, costume jewelry, shoes, dresses. They’re all inspired by the Brazilian Bombshell. Less than a year ago, Carmen Miranda was just a name. Today, she is a vogue!” (Yes, that’s really Carmen’s mannequin!)
Carmen’s film costumes became more and more outrageous, more flamboyant and fun. Everyone from Mickey Rooney to Bugs Bunny showed up in Miranda-inspired get-ups. Carmen became an icon.
Co-star Alice Faye said, “She took the town by storm. She was so vivacious. There was no one like her.” On-screen lover Caesar Romero (better known to contemporary audiences as the hokey Joker in the 1960’s Batman TV show), recalled her as “endearingly adorable and wonderful.”
Lifelong friend Jeanne Allen said of Carmen, “She would go to a party…and all of a sudden, it was like golden glitter all over the room. She had magic. Everyone wanted to marry her, but she didn’t want to lose her freedom.”
Good Neighbor policy
FDR, no slouch in the public relations department, pegged Carmen as a terrific way to promote and foster strategic political ties between North and South America, and she became a de factor ambassador. Carmen, who passionately loved Brazil, was more than happy to appear in that guise in all sorts of events. After several blazingly successful movies, Carmen eagerly accepted an invitation to return to Brazil and cement her success with her countrymen. (Cue disaster music.)
The airfield and streetside reception Carmen received was astounding, cheering mobs everywhere. Riding high on waves of adulation (see how I’m weaving back in the mermaid motif?), Carmen was invited to perform at a presidential gala. She opened with her sure-fire hit: “The South American Way”…a samba-esque song that gently spoofs how Americans view Latin America. The audience sat in stony silence.
She sang a few other songs to a very hostile room full of insulted rich society snobs. To make sure she didn’t miss the point, they switched from the silent treatment to open mockery. Brazilian journalists joined the chorus of abuse, claiming she was no longer “their Carmen,” that she had become Americanized and was misrepresenting her country by singing songs from the slums. Carmen was humiliated and devastated, especially as she made no secret of her adoration of her home country. She sang her response, a song that cried, “As long as there’s a Brazil, my heart is in my homeland.” Even though she left Brazil and didn’t return for 14 years, she never stopped craving acceptance, approval, and understanding from her countrymen.
At her Graumann’s Chinese Theater footprints ceremony, Carmen was asked by a Portuguese reporter how she felt. She insisted, in her native language, that this was “the happiest moment of her life.” She wistfully assured the Brazilian radio audience that the whole time she was there, “I am thinking of you. I send you my love and kisses.”
“A pearl lost in the ocean can only be found in the sea” (Miranda song)
The year was 1946, and Carmen was the highest paid women in Hollywood. Latin American-inspired color schemes, platform shoes, piles of jangling jewelry, and exposed midriffs were nationwide fads.
But, as is so often the case, the one-trick pony yearned for novelty. Fox chief Daryl Zanuck held the reins and he knew audiences wanted Carmen to stay “Carmen.” We all know what happens when an icon wants to crawl off the pedestal (“Garbo Laughs!” ‘Nuf said.). In a later interview, an obviously defensive and dispirited Carmen declared, “bananas is my business” when asked why she didn’t branch out into other sorts of film roles. Now her blinged-out platforms cut like knives.
An ill-considered, hasty marriage and a miscarriage only sealed the deal on Carmen’s flagging spirits. The rotter beat her, but her religion forbade divorce. (Note the blonde tresses!)
Pills and booze enabled the exhausted, beleaguered Carmen to perform twice nightly in her very vigorous nightclub act. Her flogged spirit finally collapsed in a massive nervous breakdown. Pictures of her at this time show a hollow-eyed, grimly festooned wraith. Her doctor ordered electric shock treatment and an immediate return to Brazil.
In almost complete solitude, Carmen’s spirit and body slowly began to heal. The sparkle and flash returned to her luminous green eyes as she heard the language of her youth, inhaled the fragrances of native flowers. She floated happily in the balmy waters of familial love and tribal acceptance. She was home.
Alas, she didn’t stay there. She returned, God knows why, to America to resume her showbiz career, strapping on the headdresses and platforms.
Despite suffering an on-air heart attack while dancing on Jimmy Durante’s live TV show, she somehow gracefully exited in her over-laden costume. She died that night at home at only 46 years old. Her body was laid to rest in Brazil, mourned and mobbed by thousands.
One final tribute stated: “Carmen carried her country in her luggage and taught people who had no idea of our existence to adore our music and our rhythm. Brazil will always have an unpayable debt to Carmen Miranda.” (So do Johnnies-Come-Lately like Charro and countless drag queens.)
What can we learn from Carmen? Maybe just how important it is to hang onto who you are and make sure you know just what you need to do so. Carmen, like so many other displaced novelty acts (paging Pocahontas…), vainly struggled to remain herself while playing a increasingly unnatural, limiting role for her exploiters. The cost of this sort of masquerade on non-native soil? Usually your soul. Andersen’s mermaid died, too.
To see Carmen in vibrant, beautiful action, visit my You Tube channel at KayStarStyle…or just click here for my Carmen playlist! http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL2B5169D4846FCF7F