February 9, 1909– Carmen Miranda
I have been considering the possible death of Camp. The baby queers don’t seem to grasp the concept. I had once tried to explain the notion of Camp to some young people of my acquaintance and I was rewarded with blank pierced faces. To be fair, I couldn’t provide them with a definition either. As Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said when asked to describe his threshold test for obscenity in 1964: “I know it when I see it.” That’s how I am with Camp.
Susan Sontag famously dedicated an entire book to the subject, where she noted:
Camp is always a way of consuming or performing culture in quotation marks.
Sontag also distinguished the difference between “naive” and “deliberate” camp. Kitsch, as a form or style, certainly falls under the category “naive camp” as it is unaware that it is tasteless. “Deliberate camp” on the other hand, can be seen as a subversive form of kitsch which deliberately exploits the whole notion of what it is to be kitsch. Our hero John Waters said it better:
Camp is tragically ludicrous or ludicrously tragic.
I think that I somehow grasped Camp by the time I was 5-years-old when I favored my parental unit’s Yma Sumac albums. But, recognizing Camp really took hold when I was fortunate enough to have stumbled on the Busby Berkeley Technicolor musical film from 1943, The Gang’s All Here, when I was 12-years-old.
I was sick at home with flu, and my mother had plumped up my pillows and tucked in the blankets on the sofa in front of our new color television set. I thought I was having some sort of fever induced dream where Charlotte Greenwood was doing her trademarked high-kick routine and Carmen Miranda was wearing a too-tall banana headdress, plus there was gay Edward Everett Horton getting covered with Miranda’s lipstick claiming: “It’s just ketchup” while Greenwood, as his wife, quips: “Yes, and from a Brazilian tomato!”. A Manhattan nightclub featured a stage large enough to hold an entire tropical island for Miranda’s big number, The Lady In The Tutti-Frutti Hat, a Freudian nightmare. Plus, there was a musical sequence set in a suburban backyard that features more trick fountains than an Esther Williams flick.
The finale to this musical film made me dizzy: a paean to the polka-dot that next segues into a ballet featuring neon hoops, massive floating circles, kaleidoscopic effects and finally, an endearingly primitive green-screen trick that shows the heads of all the actors, along with hundreds of chorus girls bouncing to A Journey To A Star. When the film was over my fever had magically broken and I instinctively cried out to my mother: “That movie is a Camp Classic!”
The Gang’s All Here was one of 1943’s highest-grossing films and Fox’s most expensive production of the year. It received positive reviews, although the New York Times film critic wrote: “Mr. Berkeley has some sly notions under his busby“.
Today marks the birthday of Miranda. She might not be a Gay Icon, but Miranda is the very definition of Camp Icon. Born Maria do Carmo Miranda da Cunha in Portugal, her parents emigrated to Brazil when she was an infant and Miranda became a huge pop star in Brazil by the time she was in her early 20s.
Miranda went Hollywood in 1940 where she soon became the highest-paid female star of the 1930s, immensely popular in films, radio and television. Her first film was Down Argentine Way (1940), with Betty Grable and Don Ameche. The critics complained that Miranda did not have enough screen time.
Before she became a big star on Broadway and Hollywood, Miranda was a giant star in Brazil. Her rise to fame coincided with the beginning of that country’s music industry. She was the most successful Brazilian singer in the 1930s. For 10 years or so, she was very important in bringing Brazilian music to the masses. During that decade, Miranda cut more records than any other artist in South America.
But, Brazil didn’t forgive her for leaving. She was criticized by the press for being “too American” and when she returned for a concert tour in 1942, Miranda was booed off the stage. After that experience, Miranda didn’t return to Brazil for 14 years.
Yet, she got the last word; she recorded a song about the incident: They Say I Came Back Americanized. It was a huge hit. The lyrics are both arch and sweet:
How could I have come back Americanized? I always say ‘te amo’ and never ‘I love you’.
In Brazil, the girls carry the basket with the fruits on her head, and they have big bracelets and big necklaces and they sell fruits in the streets and I take it from the girls.
She used that image to make herself into a big business, constantly touring, performing her act in casinos and clubs in North America and Europe.
For American audiences, she put Brazil on the map through her music and her persona. Americans discovered where Rio de Janeiro was, what Brazil was, how Brazilians behaved and what they sounded like.
Miranda eventually became trapped in the image of the singer with the fruity hat. Her attempts to break away from that role proved to be tough. She often portrayed the stereotype of the “Exotic Latina”: hot-blooded and extravagantly dressed in colorful clothing, big hats and high platform shoes, singing songs with senseless lyrics: “Chica chica boom chica chica boom chica chica boom”. In order to maintain her funny, charismatic persona, Miranda made jokes that focused on her lack of fluency in English. One of the few times she gave a serious interview, she mentioned how few Americans truly wanted to learn anything about other countries, expecting others to learn English instead.
She liked to joke, using her lack of fluency as a weapon:
I say twenty words in English. I say money, money, money and I say hot dog!
She would sing “bananas is my business” and turn the grammatical error into a laugh line. She knew what she was doing, but some of her sharpness was being lost in translation, but not her charisma.
In her final film, Scared Stiff (1953), was a black-and-white production starring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Returning full-circle to her first Hollywood film, Down Argentine Way, she had virtually no narrative function and yet provides most of the fun. Lewis parodies her, miming badly to Mamãe Eu Quero on a record and eating a banana he plucks from his turban. Miranda plays Carmelita Castilha, a Brazilian showgirl on a cruise ship, with her costumes and performances bordering on self-parody.
She married film producer David Sebastian who was abusive. Yet, Miranda was a good Catholic girl and she never considered a divorce.
Miranda was a heavy smoker with a penchant for booze and pills. After feeling sick while filming a guest shot on the Jimmy Durante Show in autumn 1955, Durante encouraged her to go home and rest. She refused to leave early and finished her gig. According to Durante, Miranda had complained of feeling unwell; he offered to find her a replacement, but she declined. After completing a song-and-dance number with Durante, she fell to one knee. Durante wrote:
I thought she had slipped. She got up and said she was out of breath. I told her I’ll take her lines. But she goes ahead with ’em. We finished work about 11 o’clock and she seemed happy.
After the last take, Miranda and Durante gave an impromptu performance on the set for the cast and technicians. Miranda took several cast members home with her for a small party. She went upstairs to bed at about 3 a.m. Miranda undressed, placed her platform shoes in a corner, lit a cigarette, placed it in an ashtray and went into her bathroom to remove her makeup. She apparently came from the bathroom with a small, round mirror in her hand; she then collapsed with a fatal heart attack.
She was just 46-years-old. She finally returned to Brazil, this time to be buried. The country seems to have embraced her again.60,000 people attended her memorial service, and more than half a million Brazilians escorted her funeral procession to the cemetery.
There is a new Carmen Miranda Museum and Shrine in Rio.