|About this Recording
8.120719 - MIRANDA, Carmen: South American Way (1939-1945)
CARMEN MIRANDA South American Way
Original 1939-1945 Recordings
If you were to make a mental list of the things that symbolized American popular culture in the 1940s, somewhere on that list would be Carmen Miranda. She flashed across the show business sky briefly, but she blazed a distinctive trail that lingers warmly in memory more than fifty years later. The fact that Latin American rhythms and melodies are so freely accepted by today’s record buyers is at least partly due to Miranda, who was at the forefront of the Latin American craze of the 1940s.
In truth, Miranda was a star long before she lit up Broadway in 1939’s Streets of Paris. Born Maria do Carmo Miranda Da Cunha in Portugal on 9 February 1909, her family immigrated to Rio de Janeiro when she was a child. Miranda and her sister, Aurora, therefore grew up exposed not just to the traditional Portugese music and culture of their parents, but also the native rhythms and melodies of Brazil. Both children had natural talent and outgoing personalities, but Carmen was the one who built the largest public following when she was just a teenager, singing in local clubs, on radio, in the recording studio and in a handful of Brazilian films.
When Americans began to respond to the Latin music of performers such as bandleader Xavier Cugat in the late 1930s, producers jumped on the bandwagon. Brought to New York to appear with the comedians Olsen and Johnson in Streets of Paris, she quickly became the toast of the town, the liveliest act to hit Broadway in years. Her big number in the show, South American Way, soared to the top of the charts and got frequent radio play, spreading her fame all across the U.S.
As America went Latin crazy, it was only natural that Hollywood should want to latch on to this latest fad. Miranda’s signing by 20th Century-Fox also coincided with Hollywood’s push to develop the South American market as a partial replacement for the loss of European bookings due to the Nazis. As well, the U.S. government was pushing for greater Pan-American cooperation and expanded ties between North and South America. In very short order, Miranda became the unofficial poster girl of that movement.
Miranda’s first Hollywood film was the Betty Grable–Don Ameche musical, Down Argentina Way. One of her numbers was a reprise of her by-now trademark South American Way. Such was her fame (or Fox’s dilemma in not knowing quite how to present her) that Miranda was simply showcased as a famous Brazilian bombshell named Carmen Miranda! Down Argentina Way was a box office bonanza. It not only launched Miranda’s American film career, but also established Betty Grable as a top star and set the pattern for a whole string of Fox Technicolor musicals during the war years.
One of the Hollywood people who developed a deep affection and admiration for Miranda on the set of the film was songwriter Harry Warren, who wrote the music for five of her Fox musicals. He found her very warm, kind-hearted and completely lacking any of the typical star arrogance or pretensions. He particularly enjoyed her vitality and that of her Bando de Lua, the small group of Brazilian musicians who she insisted appear in her films. Warren once said that American performers could do these numbers and do them well, but they never seemed to be having the kind of fun that he detected in Miranda and her musical group.
Fox executives quickly rushed Miranda into another Latin American romp, titled That Night in Rio, this time firmly integrated into the plot and not just as a drop-in musical diversion. The string of musicals that followed all presented Miranda in a variation on this character: the Brazilian firecracker who mangled her English dialogue, caused all manner of comic plot complications, but then came off better than anyone else thanks to her high-octane musical numbers.
While critics back home in Brazil were reportedly infuriated that she would play such stereotypical Latin roles, audiences elsewhere were thrilled. She always played the parts so tongue-in-cheek that it’s hard to imagine anyone ever thought she was the characters she portrayed. And who could not smile and tap their foot in time with priceless performances such as her Portugese version of Harry Warren and Mack Gordon’s Chattanooga Choo Choo? Certainly with the benefit of hindsight today, the judgement of even the most fervent Brazilian nationalists would have to be that she did her country much good by planting it firmly in the public consciousness of the 1940s.
Fortunately for record buyers then and listeners today, Miranda managed to escape Fox production chief Darryl Zanuck’s edict against recording. His theory was that moviegoers would be less inclined to go to his movies if they could buy recordings by his musical stars. Fox film contracts forbade artists to sign simultaneous recording contracts with the big U.S. record companies. But that couldn’t be applied retroactively to artists who already had record deals. Miranda had been signed by Decca Records soon after she triumphed on Broadway. She cut six sides for the company in New York in 1939 and went on making discs all through her Fox contract. Her Decca recordings included Brazilian hits such as Bambu-Bambu and Mama Eu Quero, as well as new Warren–Gordon songs from the Fox films, including the memorable I Yi Yi Yi Yi (I Like You Very Much) and Chica Chica Boom Chic.
Predictably, the fire of Miranda’s early film fame cooled but wasn’t extinguished. By the end of the Second World War, Latin American music had gone from being topical to being typical. Her Fox contract was not renewed and she went on make occasional films at MGM, RKO and other studios as a freelancer. She was also in demand for radio and stage work, scoring a huge success in a season-long run at London’s Palladium in 1948. And when television began to seriously divert audiences from both radio and movies in the early 1950s, Miranda’s career heated up. She was a popular guest on many of the big variety-style shows that were a cornerstone of the early U.S. television schedule.
It was while rehearsing a number for the Jimmy Durante Show on 5 August 1955, that she stumbled and said she felt out of breath. Later that night, she died of a heart attack at the age of 46. In Brazil, where she had frequently been criticized for promoting an image of South Americans that was not always to her countrymen’s pleasing, she was mourned deeply when her body was flown home for burial. The fiery little dynamo was gone, but the legend started to live.
This Naxos collection features 21 of the songs Miranda recorded in the U.S. for Decca. It’s a well-balanced collection of her Brazilian hits and the new Hollywood material written especially for her unique talents. The amazing thing you will find in listening to it is that it creates a vivid mental picture of her even without the benefit of celluloid images. As the songs spin, you can see her again as she was in all her 1940s Technicolor glory – carooming around in her nine-inch platform shoes, the multi-hued clothing twirling and swirling around her tiny frame as she sambas and rhumbas, the outrageous fruit-topped headgear somehow staying precariously perched atop her head. And, above all, the sound of sheer joy as she belts out her songs. Nearly half-a-century after her death, listening to Carmen Miranda is still just plain fun.
Greg Gormick, July 2003
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
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