Miranda Rules

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On she comes:  Decked out in the most fabulous costumes imaginable, drenched in colors I could never imagine, and then…

…She starts:  Her dark eyes twinkling, her mouth, a blazing red swath, grin-splitting her face, her arms and hands, covered in big baubly bracelets and rings, sinuously twining, her legs, strong and shapely, moving whip-fast; the whole toot ensemble wrapped in a fruit cocktail incarnated—flaming oranges, neon reds, electric pinks, acid greens, screaming whites, and deep, rich blacks—not to mention those amazing, fruit-feather-frill-filled hats—setting off her entire, glittering being as a brilliant jewel.  All balanced atop a dazzling pair of gold-lamé sandals, five inches high, the heels as thick as the beams of the Brooklyn Bridge, the straps as slender as the arches of her tiny feet, and on which…

…She dances:  Fast, light, wild, breaking the bounds of flesh; yet, it’s…contained:  The knees and thighs pull in, the hips drop down and whoosh up, the torso ripples like ribbons, the feet spin, flash, flicker, in tandem, at a pace defying belief (and on those towering shoes!)…

…And I sit and watch, gobsmacked, because no human should move like this, so swiftly yet so delicately, the speed bedazzling my eyes, the rhythm stealing my breath; and I’m lost in adoration, because I know only a goddess could move, could be like this…

I mean—Wow.

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Oh, and she sings, too—a rich, jazzy contralto, which purrs, croons, scats, swings, skitters into high notes, or dives into crazy-fast, tongue-twisting lyrics that defy mere mortal articulation, but which our goddess merrily trips off her tongue like warm syrup, poured into our ears to reverberate in our minds, like bells…

And, to top all else—she’s funny.  Falling-down, laugh-out-loud funny.  Carmen Miranda has that gift.  She makes you laugh.  And you laugh with everything you’ve got, your body and brain released into pure, uncomplicated joy, no inhibitions, no dark or sour notes, because it’s just meant to be—fun.

The hardest thing about writing this post was choosing what to post on it.  Because I’m writing about Carman Miranda, and everything Carmen Miranda performed is wonderful.  But, honestly—Carmen Miranda is a goddess.  And it’s in the nature of a goddess to overflow with abundance.

So, being that we’re looking at a goddess, I ask:  How can you not love, adore, worship Carmen Miranda?

Well, here’s your chance, for New Year’s Eve 2021, to spend it with a goddess.  What better company could you ask for?

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Gang1 “The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat”

From the 1943 20th-Century Fox film, The Gang’s All Here, this is Carmen’s best-known number.  It’s the one that both defines and comments on (in a meta-sorta-way) her image in cinematic and popular culture.  And it’s what every Carmen-Miranda imitator riffs on:  The teetering basket of fruit on her head, beneath which she sings and dances a manic samba, her body serpentining to its pounding rhythms, her voice tearing off its complicated lyrics, and her dress billowing out in enough flounces and furbelows to rival the wardrobe of Marie Antoinette.

And all of it’s here, in “The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat”along with muscle-beach-party boys sashaying like chorus girls, barefoot chorus girls frolicking with bizarre props, and the props themselves, gigantic strawberries and bananas, wielded in a manner that would raise the most blasé of eyebrows…  How else can we see this except as Kitschas ripe for plucking as that phallic fruit.  Carmen herself seems almost lost here (despite that dress laced with those orange pom-poms, like Christmas tinsel ripening into weird berries); she’s one more prop in a swirling mix of fetishistic choreography, gonzo set design, and Freudian camp.

But it’s camp that reaches the divine.  Because the number is also a beautiful piece of cinematic composition.  Director Busby Berkeley keeps his camera in motion; if you can ignore the hidden edit at the 40-second mark, there’s no cut in his roving camera until the 1:40 mark, just before Carmen starts to sing.  Berkeley stages this number similar to how he staged routines for Warner Bros. backstage musicals 10 years earlier:  He starts the scene in the audience, then moves into what’s meant to be a ‘stage’; only then the ‘proscenium’ disappears, as well as any illusion of being in a theater.  Berkeley sweeps his camera across a sand dune ornamented with bare-midriffed girls, he angles over them as they climb a hill to smile and wave, he glides down a palm-treed corridor to find Carmen, escorted into view atop a banana-filled wagon.  We’re deep into Berkeley fantasy land here—where the camera ogles lines of naked female feet; where the females, in one of Berkeley’s famous overhead shots, manipulate man-size fruit into stars, pentagrams, and circles that close and open like a gaping mouth; and where Carmen plays a xylophone with bananas for keys…

It may not be pure Carmen, but it’s unmistakably pure Berkeley.  Ripe for plucking:



Judy“Cuanto Le Gusta”

This number (based on a song recorded by Carmen in 1945 with the Andrews Sisters), as well as its enclosing film, contrasts strongly with the previous one.  No Freudian frolics here; we’re now at family-friendly MGM, watching the studio’s very family-friendly 1948 film, A Date With Judy.  Carmen performs solo, accompanied by Xavier Cugat and his orchestra (as well as his really tiny chihuahua), and she’s presented in a more conventional mode.  By then Carmen had left Fox, the studio where she had made her most popular films (due to declining box office), and was signed by MGM, to be given, as seen here, the MGM ‘glamour’ treatment.  Now her wardrobe, per Wikipedia, “substituted elegant dresses and hats…for “baiana” outfits”; her gowns were designed by Helen Rose; her hair was styled by Sidney Guilaroff; and her make-up was toned down.  It’s Carmen, but with a difference.

Carmen purists might object to how her more popular, flamboyant persona was watered down by MGM brass, but I find this little number fun and frothy—charming, bouncy, tuneful, exhibiting her amazing verbal dexterity.  Despite the changes, Carmen is still recognizably Carmen, with her slinky hips, her bountiful grin, her mischief-sparkling eyes.  And she looks gorgeous here, especially in that shimmering, copper-colored gown she wears as if painted on her.  Carmen herself wanted to change her image and get away from her “Brazilian Bombshell” caricature.  Unfortunately, the public didn’t seem willing to accept it.  But “Cuanto Le Gusta” (roughly translated as “how much you like it”) does indicate Carmen’s versatility as a ‘straight’ performer, giving us the number adorned with only her fabulous self.  Seated at the table in this scene are Wallace Beery (his next-to-last film), Selena Royle, Jane Powell, and a young and stunning Elizabeth Taylor:



Rio“Chica Chica Boom Chic”

We’re now back to Carmen as the Carmen, as she’s still remembered today—flamboyantly fruity headdress, glittery, gaudy gown, spiraling, serpentine moves, and a jolly, jumping tune that, while not making a lot of sense, gets the feet tapping, the body moving, and the juices flowing.  I will note that the number begins, appropriately, with a display of fireworks.

Notable about the routine’s accompanying movie (one tends to think of Carmen’s numbers as standout, standalone routines, complete unto themselves, a plot thrown around them as an excuse to charge full theater admission), Fox’s That Night in Rio, from 1941, is that it was keyed to a U.S. foreign policy initiative known as “The Good Neighbor Policy.”  Set up in the 1930s by Franklin Roosevelt “for the stated purpose of establishing friendly relations and mutual defense agreements with the nations of Latin America,” the program flew into high gear with the start of WW2 and the cut-off from the European markets.  As the blog “Flickin’ Out” notes, FDR “enlisted Hollywood’s propaganda machine to help out” with this campaign, particularly Fox with a series of bubbly musicals.  (Per Wikipedia, Fox even submitted this film’s script for the Brazilian Ambassador’s approval.)  Hence, American Don Ameche’s entrance (at the 1:10 mark) with his offer to “extend felicitations/to our South American relations.”  And on hand to accept such good wishes is—Carmen Miranda.

Flickin’ Out also points out how Carmen’s persona, as seen here and in all her Fox films, is a Latina stereotype, of “fast-talking, short tempered women,” who flash their eyes while mangling the language; but notes that Carmen “had a self-awareness of this ridiculousness that made you feel comfortable.”  That was Carmen’s genius as a performer—with her hats, her bangles and beads, her exotic songs and dances, she plays with the stereotype but also transcends it.  You notice not the trite image but Carmen’s style and artistry—her brilliance with song phrasing, her fluid movements, her ease of presentation (could she ever wear those costumes…)—in short, the sheer depth and mastery of her talent.

Which talent extends (to borrow a word from Ameche) to the whole routine, and to the Fox crew that put it together.  Just note the trippy lighting and the blazing tropical colors:  The hallucinatory oranges and greens of the musicians’ garb, and the electric blues, reds, yellows, and purples of the dancers’ costumes.  And just note the dancers, as they swirl, spin, and shimmy in rousing unison to the music’s pulsing rhythms.  The number may look campy today, but there’s nothing campy in how it’s been shot and edited.  The best camp is always underlined by a verve, a sophistication, and a love of, and knowingness about its over-the-top style and subject matter.  In their choreography, staging, and design, Fox musicals of this era can rival anything that was being done by MGM’s fabled Freed unit at that time:



Gang2“Paducah”

We begin demurely…with three modest maidens playing classical music on violin, cello, and harp (that most ladylike of instruments).  The camera pulls back, panning across a throng of well-dressed people at what looks like a dignified, upper-crust dinner party—only to cut abruptly (at the 35-second mark) to a statue of a very naked lady, her appearance accented by a wailing clarinet on the soundtrack.  She’s right in the foreground, those nude breasts perking up in profile…I mean…you can’t miss it…

Well, we’re back in Busby Berkeley territory here, meaning The Gang’s All Here (again), and the frolics are about to begin.  Although it’s deceptively sedate, at first:  A slightly bemused Benny Goodman croons “Paducah,” while Berkeley’s camera glides elliptically around Goodman’s band, before sliding back down to Goodman himself.  But suddenly (at 2:59), everything picks up—Carmen enters, clad in a ruffled sheath of gleaming white and red, to take up the song in swing rhythm.  And then (at 3:43)—the samba music starts…and anything sedate is left far behind…  It’s as startling as that jump cut to the naked lady, except…it’s a lot livelier… (you can’t miss it…)

Is it any wonder Carmen’s partner, Tony DeMarco, seems to worship her as they dance?  His arms move out in to embrace, then snap back; he drops to one knee and pounds the floor; he spins in front of her, then picks her up to spin her in turn.  Meanwhile, Carmen swings and sways, shakes her shoulders and slaps her thighs, and does this amazing bit where she sinks down into her knees and slinks up again, without a break in her hypnotically sinuous rhythm.  She never stops moving, her body curves, twines, and coils, slipping in and out of a self-curling spiral; and DeMarco and the band revolve around her like satellites around a petite, dazzling sun.

“Paducah” the routine itself is structured in that same, encircling fashion.  It begins (right after that naked-lady shot) with a pink fountain spray revealing, as the screen of water drops down, Goodman’s orchestra surrounded by a sheath of gold; and it ends with the same pink spray rising up, like a curtain, in front of Carmen and DeMarco.  The gold sheath itself is picked up by the gold of Carmen’s necklace and shoes, just as the white, red, and green colors of her gown are picked up by DeMarco’s white costume and red scarf and the samba players’ green suits.  The whole routine seems as self-contained as the setting for a beautiful jewel—which, come to think of it, it is:



greenwich“Give Me a Band and a Bandana”

Of all of Carmen’s numbers, “Give Me A Band and A Bandana,” from 1944’s Greenwich Village, is my favorite.  No other, to my reckoning, seems to capture, so purely, her energy, her joy, her artistry, her absolute sense of fun.  It’s a number that looks at Carmen as an artist, as a singer-dancer who found her inspiration in popular samba music and in the image and culture of the baiana—peasant women, descended from slaves, in the Brazilian state of Bahia, whose colorful costumes Carmen adapted into the stylized slit skirts, short blouses, and fruit-filled turbans (to be exaggerated even further by Fox designers) that became her trademark.  Midway through the number (the 2:45 mark), Carmen breaks into her signature song, “O que é que a baiana tem?”, a song about the baiana that she recorded in Brazil in 1939, and then presented in the 1940 Broadway revue The Streets of Paris—the show that introduced her to American audiences.  You could say that Carmen in this routine is consciously going back to her popular roots.  Yet she recreates them in the slickest and most stylized of formats—the mid-twentieth-century Hollywood musical.

The movie’s very theme, if you will, is this melding of stylized and “authentic,” and the clash between high art and “low.”  The plot has its classical-aspiring composer-hero hoping to play his concerto at Carnegie Hall, only to hear it presented in a Greenwich Village speakeasy.  Yet at the finale, commerce and art are brought together when a Stokowski-esque conductor, a full orchestra, and three (count ’em, three!) pianists introduce the concerto with full-blown pomp—but then, at the 1:35 mark, the scenery literally turns around, as if the world itself is turning, while the music turns into a samba, and everything turns into a dizzying mix of color, music, motion, and song.  And on comes Carmen, in what may be her most outrageous gown—a shimmering, scintillating, black-sequined affair, accented by hot neon pink on the skirt’s ruffle and the palms of her gloves.  I can’t help but think that the costume’s design, half-dressing, half-exposing her, inscribes that blending of artifice and art right onto her body—a representation of Carmen herself, as both artist and entertainer.

What else can I say about her performance here?  She sings and dances with coruscating aplomb, wheeling around on those unbelievable platforms as if bouncing on a cloud, her pink-garbed hands flashing before us like demented birds.  As she starts her baiana song, her hips swing, her legs strut, her arms wind in arabesque patterns, and she grins right at us, as if sharing a secret—as if, singing this song, she knows who and what she is, she’s reclaimed her essence, she’s come back home, where she’s free.  Watching her, at this moment, you know there never was, and there never will be, anyone quite like her.  But then, that, too, is in the nature of a goddess.

What unites these five numbers I’ve chosen is that they were almost all made in the early to mid-1940s, when America, and Americans, were fighting a devastating war.  We can note the obvious—how these musicals were produced as mass distraction, a way for U.S. home-front audiences to forget, if temporarily, news of death, war, and destruction.  But I marvel at their optimism and vigor during such a dark time—their humor, their colors, the exuberance of their songs and dances, the very assumption that audiences would publicly respond to them and enjoy.  And so much of that cinematic exhilaration is bound up in the figure of Carmen Miranda—then at her peak, with her joy, at least as seen onscreen, spilling out, to be shared by what was, despite the ongoing grim reality, still, at heart, a happy country.

Oh, well.  At least we have her movies.  For our own happy—if only in private—viewing.

…Happy New Year.



>> A shout-out to the fabulous YouTube channel, CarmenMiranda.FC, from which I borrowed these clips, in beautiful HD prints.  Please check it out here for everything Carmen.

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