In the opening scene of The Gang’s All Here, the most expensive movie made by Twentieth Century Fox in 1943, a steamship called the SS Brazil is relieved of its cargo. Sacks of sugar and coffee are unloaded, and a fishing net clogged with tropical fruit and vegetables is slowly lowered towards the dock. This larger-than-life assortment – bananas, pineapples, radishes, squash – turns out to be part of a hat. The camera pans down to find Carmen Miranda, smiling and singing beneath it as if squeezed from the imported produce itself.
Known as “the Brazilian bombshell” or, thanks to one of her most famous songs, “the lady in the tutti frutti hat”, Miranda now seems a mysterious phenomenon, unexplained by the laws of either celebrity or gravity. Colourful fruit-based headdresses rose from her scalp in dauntingly architectural formations – it was a miracle she didn’t crumple under what one newspaper columnist described as “80 pounds of plastic strawberries”.
Her baby voice, kitschy eye movements and elastic asymmetrical mouth didn’t suggest a nationwide craze. Yet in the mid-1940s, Miranda was the most popular entertainer in Hollywood.
The daughter of a Portuguese barber and a seamstress, Miranda grew up poor in Rio de Janeiro, and left school at 15 to work for a milliner. In the hat shop she sang tangos to passing customers, and began to make her own hats for society clients.
Soon she was offered a recording contract, and by the mid-1930s had become the most popular singer in Brazil. Four years later she began to dress on stage as if she were a woman from the tropical region of Bahia, only instead of carrying a basket of fruit on her head, as Baianas did, she incorporated the fruit into her costume.
Garlanded with dozens of beaded necklaces and with huge gold hoops in her ears, Miranda danced to the kind of rhythms her hat buyers frowned upon.
But when a Broadway impresario saw her act, he brought her to New York, along with a six-piece band and the approval of the Brazilian president.
From there she went to Hollywood, where the scenes imagined for her were fantastical in the extreme. When she sang “The Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat” the set was a psychedelic extension of her costume, with the whole thing descended into a kind of nightmare: her performance in the Busby Berkeley number reached whole new heights of choreographic innuendo, as barely-clad dancers lifted giant bananas in sync, then allowed them to droop.
What, exactly, was Carmen Miranda exporting? When the Brazilian composer Heitor Villa- Lobos said that she “carried her country in her luggage”, he was crediting her with popularising sounds that might not otherwise have reached American shores. She brought the samba from the slums to the epicentre of show business, she sang the unofficial national anthem, “Aquarela do Brasil”, in Technicolor. Performing in her own language, by 1945 she became the most highly paid woman in the United States.
But she was also advertising a political union, the most vivid emblems of which were her fruit hats themselves. Helena Solberg’s excellent documentary, Carmen Miranda: Bananas is My Business, points out that the early 1940s were the height of the ‘Good Neighbor Policy’, an agreement designed to end what were popularly termed ‘the banana wars’. The US would cease military intervention in Latin American countries where it had sought to protect its interests, in exchange for trade benefits and, eventually, a wartime allegiance throughout the continent. Miranda was soon said to be the Good Neighbor Policy’s ‘muse’. In 1944, the United Fruit Company conjured up Chiquita, a carnivalesque mascot that capitalised on Miranda’s popularity. The Chiquita Banana Lady became one of the most recognisable food-related figures in the history of American advertising.
Miranda knew that she was offering up a caricature. When she wasn’t happy with Darryl Zanuck, the head of Twentieth Century Fox, she would threaten to lose her accent and sound just like everyone else. In Brazil she was accused of being Americanised, and much worse.
She sang songs about Costa Rica and Havana – places some thought she had no business representing. Her film Down Argentine Way infuriated Argentinians; the Brazilian embassy cut several scenes from That Night in Rio, on grounds of derision.
After the Second World War ended, Miranda fell out of favour in Hollywood. She tried to play different roles, but nothing stuck. In 1947, a song was written for her to reflect this predicament, though she didn’t record it until a few years before her death. “I’d love to play a scene with Clark Gable,” she sang, “With candle lights and wine upon the table/ But my producer tells me I’m not able/ ‘Cause I make my money with bananas”.
Yet when she died in 1955, at the age of 46, her countrymen appeared to have forgiven her. Miranda’s funeral procession was held in Rio, and attended by around half a million people. In death she was reclaimed by Brazil, and transformed from an embarrassment into a pioneer.
Unlike many other countries, Brazil now had the ear of America, and in the late 1960s Caetano Veloso led a group of musicians in founding “tropicalismo”, a radical blend of Brazilian sounds. Miranda – a source of “both pride and shame”, in Veloso’s words – was their explicit inspiration. After all, she had turned the gaze and the imagination of the western world on many of the things Latin America celebrated: music, beauty, sex appeal, joie de vivre – and, of course, fruit.