When Carmen Miranda stepped off the boat from Brazil, set to star on Broadway in her first American show, her first words to reporters failed to make a good impression: “I say money, money, money, and I say hot dog. I say yes, no and I say money, money, money and I say turkey sandwich and I say grape juice.” Reporters didn’t realize that those were the few English words Miranda had learned during her travels to the states, instead focusing on her repetition of the word “money”, painting her as materialistic.
If these reporters had known more of Carmen Miranda’s background, they might have understood why she might have been preoccupied with money. Raised in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, Miranda lived with her hard-working mother and sister and had no formal training in acting, singing, or dancing, yet she managed to become the hit of Rio. Still, the success she experienced in Brazil was miniscule compared to the fame she was about to achieve.
Miranda was an instant success, and acted in 13 pictures during her short career at 20th Century Fox (she died at age 46 in 1955). In addition, Miranda sang numbers in several other films, although she didn’t play a role in the films’ storylines. Actually, Miranda was never the star of her films, as that honor almost always went to some ingénue on 20th Century Fox’s lot, but she was whom audiences remembered and talked about.
Although she was known as “The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat”, Miranda was much more, playing up both her strengths and weaknesses, and people loved her wacky costumes, exaggerated facial expressions, and butchered English [“I take a hints. I don’t have to fall in a house.”—Greenwich Village (1944)]. Six years after arriving in the US, Miranda earned a whopping $200,000, making her the highest paid women in the country.
Five of her films have now been collected into The Carmen Miranda Collection, featuring Miranda at the height of her popularity. Unfortunately, the collection doesn’t include two of Miranda’s best films, Springtime in the Rockies (1942) and Down Argentine Way (1940), but the set does include one of Miranda’s other great films, The Gang’s All Here (1943). Also included are four films that represent the major problem studio heads had in dealing with Miranda—how to fit an eccentric Brazilian with an odd fashion sense and broken English into standard Hollywood musicals.
It’s obvious in watching the films that Miranda’s presence is unnecessary to the central plots, which frequently revolves around some love-struck musical star’s attempts to hit the big time. Musical numbers are forced into the stories, as is often the case in movie musicals, and few of the numbers or performances in the films are memorable. Still, it is Miranda’s presence that makes the movies unforgettable.
In Doll Face (1946), based on the novel by famed stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, Miranda plays a musical performer in a burlesque show, the star of which (Vivian Blaine, who stars in four of the five films) is seeking to establish credibility in legitimate theater. Greenwich Village also casts Miranda as a musical performer in a low scale show that is trying to move to Broadway. Miranda is a singer with a swing band in If I’m Lucky (1946), a political comedy in which the band’s lead singer (Perry Como, star of three of the films) gets picked to run for office. Again, Miranda plays a singer with a show in The Gangs All Here.
Only in Something for the Boys (1944) does Miranda get to step out of the role of girl singer, playing a factory machinist with the ability to receive radio transmissions through the fillings in her teeth. Something for the Boys features Miranda’s most comic performance and the most improbable plot of the five films in the collection. Miranda, Blaine, and slapstick comedian Phil Silvers are cast as cousins who inherit a run-down mansion and turn it into a residence for the wives of army personnel (this being before the days of family housing on army bases). To raise money for the home, the cousins let out the 1940s’ musical battle cry, “Hey, let’s put on a show!” The production, done in the mansion’s backyard, is so extravagant that even a Las Vegas stage would be too small to contain it.
An even more extravagant backyard show is found in the best of the five films, The Gang’s All Here. The film is notable not only for Miranda’s performance but also for director Busby Berkeley’s musical numbers, including the number many film historians consider his most surreal. Centered around polka dots and circles, the numbers stars a legion of chorus girls playing with neon hula hoops, appearing as floating heads against a blue backdrop, and rolling giant cut-out circles in a sequence shown in reverse. Shot in Technicolor (only three films in the set are in color), the final musical number is one of Berkeley’s greatest, despite the fact that it does nothing to advance the plot and the supposition that it is being performed in someone’s backyard is difficult to accept.
The Gang’s All Here also stands apart from the other films due to its cast. Because 20th Century Fox’s roster of musical stars was not as deep as rival MGM’s roster, many of the same performers are used in the five films. Yet, Gang co-stars three of the studio’s best supporting players—gruff but loveable Eugene Pallette, effete Edward Everett Horton, and lanky and limber Charlotte Greenwood. While Pallette and Horton aren’t musical performers, offering comic relief instead, Greenwood’s high kicking and amusing dance number is a delight. Also co-starring in the film is legendary bandleader Benny Goodman, who joins Miranda on the bouncy song “Paducah”.
As enjoyable as all the films are, they are also dated, reflective of the time. Viewers unfamiliar with the musical styles of the period may be unfamiliar with the harmonic choral backing vocals that accompany most songs. Most off-putting, however, are the antiquated and politically incorrect positions offered. Greenwich Village is the only film to feature prominently any non-white performers. In Something, Silvers performs a cringe-worthy song in partial blackface, singing about what the slaves on the old plantation would have done.
Equally discomforting is the advice Dennis O’Keefe offers Como in Doll Face, comparing women with rugs: “They’re both better when they’re beaten regularly.” Sadly, Como’s girl in the flic is impressed with his new macho bravado and ability to boss her around.
While viewers may find such sentiments unacceptable, they can gain a better understanding of the time period that fostered such viewpoints through some of the DVD set’s extra features, most notably the documentary Carmen Miranda: The Girl from Rio. Although too long, frequently over-explaining the most simple of points, it offers interesting insights into the life and motivations of Miranda. The documentary makes clear the struggle Miranda felt in abandoning her homeland and her Brazilian fans for a country where she didn’t quite fit in. Additionally, it makes more evident the stunning beauty and angelic singing voice that Miranda possessed, both which were lost to some extent in the comic persona that was captured on film.
Other features are hit and miss. A shorter documentary about director Busby Berkeley is intriguing, while a copy of Alice Faye’s last film, an infomercial for Pfizer entitled We Still Are, is a waste of time. A deleted Miranda number from Doll Face is included in the extras, but is ruined by the voice-over commentary of historian John Clark. Clark’s insights are interesting, but being able to watch the number uninterrupted is preferable. Still photo galleries for each film provide an important historical record of the films’ production, but quickly become redundant.
Ultimately, the reason to purchase the DVD set is for the opportunity to see Carmen Miranda in top form (The Gang’s All Here alone makes the set worth owning). Those familiar with Miranda only from the countless parodies of her owe it to themselves to check out the original. And Miranda was an original—unmatched in the history of films, she was a high-voltage, samba goddess who reached off the screen and embraced her audiences, including them in her jokes with a winking grin and inviting them to enjoy the explosive energy of her singing and dancing.