Carmen Miranda, a tragic figure?

I have just had a most upsetting experience and I can’t stop thinking about it.  TCM is playing a short clip as part of their Latinos in Film festival featuring a series of stars speaking about influential actors of the classic era.  Several classic actors are discussed, Wally Beery, Paul Muni and Anthony Quinn among them. A fourth artist covered by this panel is effervescent Carmen Miranda.  Rita Moreno describes Carmen as a “sad lady” who “suffered terribly” for her flamboyant portrayals of the Latino culture.  I just about fell off my chair when Rita came out with these remarks.  I wondered if she could have been referring to the same vibrant, beautiful woman I was remembering.  Unfortunately, she was.  Frankly, I took great offense to Rita’s attitude.  I have never considered Carmen a sad lady, nor do I wish to remember her as one.  Now, granted I am not Latino.  I’m just a half Hungarian, one quarter Irish, one quarter German American girl who has absolutely no idea what it is like living as a Latina.  Although, I think I am still entitled to my opinion.

So, I did some digging.  It doesn’t seem like there is much material on Carmen’s life except for a 1998 documentary made by Helena Solberg called Carmen Miranda: Bananas Is My Business. Several famous stars were interviewed for the show, including Rita Moreno, Cesar Romero and Alice Faye. From the reviews of the documentary that I have read, it seems Solberg was determined to portray Carmen as a helpless, dreadfully “sad lady” who was trapped in the stereotype she created.  Solberg reveals the genuine tragedy of Carmen’s failed marriage to David Sebastian, who it turns out, was an abuser.  According to Solberg, Carmen signed on for an exhausting schedule of personal appearances in an effort to escape the horror of her home life.  In order to keep up with the new hectic pace, she apparently started taking drugs to keep her going.  In the end, the amazingly talented Carmen Miranda died of a massive heart attack after performing a strenuous dance number live on TV for the Jimmy Durante Show in 1955.   While it is disturbing to discover Carmen was married to an abuser, she was certainly not the only female star in Hollywood to find herself in this position.  Lana Turner comes to mind right away.  Are we to believe she was a “sad lady” because of this?

I think it’s a natural conclusion to say that Rita Moreno’s opinion of Carmen is based on the information in Solberg’s documentary.  That doesn’t seem quite fair, if you ask me.  So, I’d like to ask you a question: Is this really how you would chose to remember Carmen Miranda?  As for me, the answer is a huge NO!  I love the Carmen of those early 40’s technicolor musicals in her amazing wardrobe and stunning hats (many of which she designed herself, by the way).  I would gladly wear any of her outfits to a ritzy party, although I’m not sure I could manage the shoes.  (And, being 6 inches taller than Carmen, I don’t think the high platforms would have the same effect if I wore them.)  But, the point is, the image of Carmen Miranda is not a negative one.  She’s adorable in every film and steals all the scenes from the main stars.  Whenever she’s on screen, you can’t take your eyes off her.  She was a hilarious comedienne.  She is in a group of people with Harpo and Groucho Marx, Charlie Chaplin and Abbott and Costello.  These people created a film image to make people laugh.  Were they tired of it sometimes?  Probably.  But I find it hard to believe playing these beloved parts which entertained millions for decades made them “sad.”  Carmen Miranda’s body of work deserves respect.   Just take a look at the Irish scene she does with J. Farrell MacDonald in Greenwich Village – it’s amazing.  She does a terrific Irish accent and persuades MacDonald, who plays a policeman, to stop Don Ameche from leaving.

I would like to know why we as classic film viewers are forbidden from remembering the stars in the best possible light.  Why do we always have to be bombarded with bad news from people who are reaching back into history and drawing distressing conclusions about events that may not be correct in the first place?  Are we supposed to feel guilty because someone now claims Carmen Miranda wasn’t happy with her job?  I, for one, am extremely tired of it.  Leave my idols be!  They aren’t doing anything to you – let them rest in peace.

As an added bonus, Greenwich Village is playing on TCM as part of the Latinos in Film Festival. Check it out on May 21 @ 8pm eastern time.  You won’t be disappointed.

(Check out Raquelle’s post for an opposite view of this issue.)


Filed under Film Bloggers

13 responses to “Carmen Miranda, a tragic figure?

  1. It’s incredibly fashionable to portray old stars as tragic figures, almost by default, seemingly almost by definition… perhaps it’s felt to be the only way to get most people interested in them.
    Comedians are the worst – it’s always the tears behind the laughter blah, blah, blah.
    Of course the private lives of stars are interesting, and some of them are tragic indeed, but surely the point is the work they did. The work first, the lives second. I’m sure that’s the way round Carmen would have wanted it.
    This self-indulgent wallowing in misery reflects the pathology of the commenters, not the subject.
    I’m sick of it too.

  2. I’m glad I’m not alone, Matthew. You’re totally right about the comedians aspect. I agree, the private lives are interesting, but not at the cost of enjoying the films. The films are the ice cream, the lives of the stars are just the sprinkles on the top. That’s the way it should stay.

  3. “The films are the ice cream, the lives of the stars are just the sprinkles on the top” – nice!

  4. When I started liking classic movies, I would watch the few biographies of classic stars that showed on Biography or E! but they were SO overdone with melodrama and trying to make the stars into pathetic creatures I had to stop. I pretty much only watch the ones that are on TCM now, because they tend to have more reverence for the actual acting, and if behind the scenes personal problems are brought up it is only because they were unavoidable (like Rita Hayworth having trouble acting because of her Alzheimer’s) but they don’t make the stars look pathetic.

    Although I watched one on Barbara Stanwyck on TCM (I think Sally Field was the host) and I didn’t like that one at all – I think it was from the 80’s.

    EXACTLY like you said, the films are the ice cream- the lives are the sprinkles.

    ps – were they just saying Carmen Miranda was sad because of her troubled life, or sad because she is remembered for stereotyping Latinos? Because if it’s the latter, it’s more understandable why Rita Moreno would have said that, you know? It’s more about the films than her personal life.

  5. That’s interesting, I was going to write about Greenwich Village for next week and was going to mention the Rita Moreno clip you are talking about, but since you have already done an excellent job talking about this anyways and you have done your research, I’ll instead direct people over to your post when I do write about it.

    I wouldn’t be too offended though. Artists of all types suffer for their work. Either tapping into their talent is painful, or they were held back from really showing their talent. We can’t always view things with rose-colored glasses on and looking at all aspects of a performer’s life and career just makes them human. It is sad however when personal tragedy completely overshadows someones career, like in the case of actress Susan Peters who I’ve written about. I don’t think this is the same case as Carmen Miranda who seems to be iconic for her happy flamboyant style.

    I also don’t think that ethnicity was the only way classic film stars were held back. Wouldn’t it have been great if Cary Grant played some evil roles? He had such range, but was always the hero or the funny guy or the debonnair guy. Why couldn’t he be the murderer?!

  6. Connie

    I saw that clip with Rita Moreno and I too was disappointed by the negativity. Many times the performers who make it to the top are the tortured souls in our society, the ppl with the least to lose, those personal hardships are what give them the drive and strength, to persevere.
    Carmen Miranda created a memorable and charming persona, albight it may have stereo typed her but it also gave her work.

    May the charm of Carmen Miranda live in our memories .

  7. Wow – this has really hit a nerve! I’m so excited to see the terrific response.

    Thanks, Matthew! :)

    Kate – I used to watch those BIO shows, too but you’re right – the melodrama is ridiculous. I can’t bear them anymore. The only ones I ever watch are the TCM ones, too. That Barbara Stanwyck one was bad, I remember! I believe Rita Moreno’s point was that Carmen suffered because she was rejected in her country after she appeared in the Hollywood films. That isn’t true anyway, since when Carmen died, she had a funeral in S. America attended by tons and tons of people.

    Raquelle – Wow! Thanks for linking to this! I don’t want to take away your chance to write about Greenwich Village, though. I’d be very interested to read what you think about it. I know the rose colored glasses thing is unreasonable (although a part of me wants to cling to those glasses like there was no tomorrow!), I just object to the idea that one of the very first times Carmen Miranda is getting exposure on TCM, Rita Moreno wants to boil her whole career down to her being a sad lady with a troubled life. It’s not fair to all the new people who are meeting her for the first time. They deserve to get to watch her films and form their own opinions about her, as I did.

    You’re right about ethnicity not being the only block in a career. I would have loved to see Cary Grant be evil, just once. He almost made it in Suspicion when Hitchcock was going to let him turn out to me the murderer in the end, but audiences in California couldn’t bear the idea of Cary as a murderer. So, in the end, it was scratched. If the film exists from that ending, though, I sure like to see it!

    Connie – Welcome! Thanks for commenting! Yes, the negativity disappoints me, too. You’re right about the great performers. There are so many who skyrocketed to the top and fell just as fast. John Barrymore, Rudolph Valentino, Judy Garland… so many. It just won’t do to reduce them to their failures and weaknesses. As commentators, we should focus more on their strengths and successes while learning from their mistakes. I so agree with your last statement – May our beloved Carmen live on forever.

  8. Did you need a better link for the video clip?


    I’m writing about Greenwich Village right now. GMTA!

  9. Thanks so much for the link! I have such a hard time using that TCM Video Player. They really need to make the videos embeddable.

    I’m really looking forward to your Greenwich Village post! :)

  10. Jen

    You’ve got an award!!

  11. Gabriela Marques Costa

    100 anos Carmen Miranda, vamos tambores rufar!”
    Hi Casey and congrats for your blog.
    Carmen Miranda’s musics are forever and definitely make a stand in a very important part of the World’s history – the second World War
    This great diva will always remain in our hearts; she’ll always be remembered as “a Pequena Notável” with her beautiful and lovely smile.
    Here in Portugal we also have a Carmen Miranda Museum that is very worthwhile to visit: it has some interesting items!
    As a Painter and Plastic Artist I could not standby upon her 100th birthday celebration, even more, because she was born in a town near mine. So I decided to pay her a tribute by doing an exhibition.
    You can check my blog for more information regarding my tribute to Carmen Miranda. I hope you enjoy it!

  12. Hi Gabriela!

    Thank you so much for your comment! I’m thrilled to hear Carmen Miranda lives on in your country. The Carmen Miranda Museum sounds wonderful! If I ever get the chance to visit Portugal, it will be my very first stop. :) I love your artwork! I’m going to leave you a comment on your blog gushing about it. ;)

    Thanks again for visiting,


  13. Barbara Pasch

    I have always enjoyed TCM movies because they were not only entertaining but the time when America was great.
    One woman, Carmen Miranda,a vivaciou,talented woman,always elevated ones spirit and energy with her vivacious,exuberant and award-winning performances. She emulated a culture of happy, cheerful people who loved music,dance and love. This is so true because ALL THE PEOPLE I know Os Spanish descent ARE HAPPY, JEnergetic and GIFTED with rhythm which should make us envious and want the special gift that GOD GAVE THEM

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