Carmen Miranda cuts a curious figure in film history.

You know those actors and characters you just can’t really picture smiling? The Buster Keatons, the James Bonds, and so on. Part of what I love about Carmen Miranda is that she’s completely the opposite–I have such a hard time picturing her with a straight, emotionless face. She embodies such a great physicality for an actor, and her smile is the very definition of “contagious.”

I’ll get to the fun stuff shortly, but as so often happens with non-white-dudes from the period, her persona is certainly loaded. She found herself playing wacky foreign sex bomb after wacky foreign sex bomb, a stereotype she herself would both come to resent and for which she was criticized by Brazilians, upset that this was one of their country’s few depictions in Hollywood.

But at the same time, she was one of few Hispanic¬†actresses in American film at the time who was actually playing Hispanic¬†characters–she wasn’t Dorothy Lamour or Esther Williams playing “exotic” foreign beauties, nor was she Rita Hayworth getting hair implants to look more Caucasian. For better or worse, she was playing true to her heritage, and incredibly, in 1945 she was the highest paid woman in America.

Even beneath her more stereotypical roles though, I think there’s always a true comic at her center. I mentioned her infectious smile before, but the bigger part of that is she’s actually a terrific example of a very talented physical comedian, utilizing the great elasticity of her face to deftly command her expressions for maximum comedic value. Every emotion is played HUGE, and while I think that’s part of the issue with her onscreen persona (the effect is at times almost clown-like), it also affords her an undeniable, magnetic film presence that’s impossible to ignore.

These excitedly conveyed emotions also hide another weapon in her comedic arsenal… the bait and switch. I love how in the movies, you can say the meanest, nastiest thing to someone, but if you say it with a huge smile, they won’t catch it. Often delegated to the nosy “other woman” role, Miranda used this technique to great and often hilarious effects.

This post was originally written for the¬†Funny Lady Blogathon series, but I’ve updated it for the Hispanic Heritage Blogathon, hosted by Movie Star Makeover and Once Upon a Screen. Check out the rest of those posts here.

13 Replies to “Carmen Miranda

  1. As a Brazilian, sometimes I’m upset with the way Carmen and Latinas in general are depicted in film. Nevertheless, I’m proud of Carmen and her great body of work. Besides being a good comedienne, she was a great singer, and many of the tunes she sang were written by Brazilian composers, so she helped to show our songs overseas.
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)
    Greetings!

    1. Most definitely! There were a few movies I watched for this that I didn’t even want to mention because they’re so hard to watch. Even though it was “a different time,” it’s not exactly fun to watch other cultures being disrespected just for the sake of the white American audience. But–I guess somebody has to have that difficult role as trailblazer, and Miranda is so talented. I almost wish she could have lived 50 years later so she could have had a tiny bit more freedom to her roles… though without her early influence, who knows where the industry would be for Latinas today!

  2. I don’t think I’ve seen much of Carmen Miranda’s work, but will hope to do so – interesting to learn about her trailblazing role.

  3. Emily, you describe Carmen’s appeal perfectly. It’s also such a shame that what stood out was a double-edged sword in a sense – the memorable, HUGE characterizations, but stereotyped to a degree she could do little else. Still, A MUST for this blogathon so thanks for resubmitting it.

    Aurora

  4. Her smile is indeed contagious, and dazzling. It’s amazing, all these years later, how many people know the name “Carmen Miranda”. Her impact on popular culture was huge.

    She must have been pure energy, and very physically fit. Sometimes I look at her costumes and jewellery and wonder, “How much did all that weigh?”

  5. This blogathon wouldn’t be complete without a Miranda homage, and this is warm, emotive and really captures the essences of her. She’s much imitated but no-one can beat the original – she certainly had something special that’s impossible to replicate!

Leave a Reply