CARMEN MIRANDA: Mellow nods
It happened in the mid-1940s. Arriving early for “Confirmation” instructions, we were struck dumb at the sight of Father Moniz, the curate at the church of Nossa Senhora de Fátima. He was seated at the organ, playing and singing away at the top of his voice in obvious imitation of Carmen Miranda’s rendition of the Brazilian Gilberto Gil’s suggestive lyrics “mamãe eu quero, mamãe eu quero, mamãe eu quero mama.” I do not know if the sight of a young Catholic priest in church letting loose on a popular song would have shocked James Mellow, the distinguished American biographer, but I do suspect that the fact that it was a song sung by Carmen Miranda that he had chosen to sing would have grossed him out. What a pity that Mellow, a middlebrow researcher who wrote admiringly about Nathaniel Hawthorne Gertrude Stein, Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway, so superciliously dismisses Carmen Miranda, her art, and her hard-earned fame. For starters, appalled at the artist Joseph Cornell’s interest in popular culture, Mellow laments being exposed to “one of the weaker aspects” of Cornell’s art: “his crushes on a bevy of female stars whom he tended to idolize in his work.” He zeroes in on what he characterizes as Cornell’s campy obsessions, singling out his interest in Carmen Miranda, which began seriously in the late 1930s, shortly after her arrival in the United States. “It is difficult to take seriously his enthusiasm for the Brazilian samba queen,” Mellow writes, “with her clunky platform sandals—as the cultural icon he considered her to be.” What he does not recognize is that Cornell knew something about Carmen Miranda that Brazilians knew all too well: that the diminutive Carmen was a larger-than-life cultural talent, vibrant, alive, ingenious, and electrifying. The nature of that miracle is celebrated in later documentary films that offer accounts of a spectacular career in Rio de Janeiro and throughout all of Brazil, culminating in her departure for the United States and even greater fame, even though no one in Brazil was happy when Hollywood set out to “carioca” Carmen’s persona (shades of “José Carioca,” the cartoon character that Disney created in 1942 for the feature movie Saludos Amigos). But to Cornell’s more incisively imaginative eye, the essential Carmen Miranda gloried in her metamorphoses, ever engaging, electrifying, and aesthetically energizing. As Cornell wrote in 1939, “There is a miracle going on in our midst over here, and it happens every evening and at a matinee or two every week. The name of the miracle is Carmen Miranda.” Not even the most sloppy of caricatures, first in Hollywood, later on television, could extinguish her radiance. Mellow has simply not done his homework, rather shamefully condescending to talk about “tutti-frutti headdresses” and “clunky platform sandals.” It seems that even Mellow has to find an outlet for his condescension, if only to prove that he has a refined taste and thus is capable of discriminating between what is worthwhile and what is banal or beneath contempt. No “campy obsession” for him (Cornell’s sin, as Mellow sees it). In this instance at the least, it goes without saying that Mellow’s narrow within-the-box sort of thinking results in opinionated, huffy rejection. It is said that the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein was a keen follower of Carmen’s career. Wittgenstein? Joseph Cornell? Father Moniz? Rather good company, I’d say.
George Monteiro is a lifelong student and teacher of nineteenth- and twentieth-century American literature, contributing to the scholarship on numerous writers, including Edgar Allan Poe, Henry Adams, Henry James, Emily Dickinson, Edith Wharton, Stephen Crane, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot and Bob Dylan. His latest book is Elizabeth Bishop in Brazil and After: A Poetic Career Transformed (McFarland, 2012).