If you're in New York, you have until tomorrow to watch The Gang's All Here (1943), the amazingly over-the-top wartime musical by Busby Berkeley on a movie screen at Film Forum. You will laugh, cry, and burst into applause at the end of each routine because it has the power to transport you to such a wonderful world of surreal beauty.

With every scene, at every party (and there were many), I found myself thinking: I wish I could be at this party! Except… practically everyone in the movie was white. With the exception of Portuguese-born Brazilian performer Carmen Miranda, who, in one "comical" scene of the movie, was actually referred to as a "South American Savage". 

Like most stereotypes of foreign women, the popular press described Miranda in physical herms--as wild, savage, and primitive, like an exotic animal, "enveloped in beads, sawing and wriggling, chattering macaw-like…skewering the audience with a merry, mischievous eye." This primitive, ignorant stereotype of the foreigner who can't speak English is made worse by the few scenes where she's depicted with somewhat of an obsession with money.

Miranda's role was popularized partially as an advertisement for Roosevelt's Good Neighbor Policy. Hwoever, the 'exotic locales' fantasy contributed to the depiction of "harmonically exploitative relations between the US and Latin American countries." The opening number of the movie portrays American sailors unloading sacks of coffee and colorful fruit from a ship returning from Brazil. The friendships between Miranda and the other female actresses were also meant to translate into an illusion of international, economic and personal harmony between US and Latin America. However, film studios made her Otherness extreme, so that viewers couldn't relate with her. It was even difficult to understand her speech, and many of her songs were sung in nonsense syllables. Without a voice, she was purely an ethnic spectacle. Even more ironically, the language in the scenes where Latin characters were speaking to each other, were not Portuguese or even Spanish--they spoke gibberish.

Miranda played a great role in developing her own character as a parody and understood the advantage of her own ethnic burlesque, and the fantasy is so appealing even sheerly on an aesthetic level. This double masquerade raises many questions about feminine and foreign stereotyping during the wartime era. But as much as I loved this movie, a part that stuck with me is where some of the girls are joking about Miranda's character Dorita, and how she's "up to her clowning again", or something like that. And Miranda rolls her eyes sarcastically, and says, "Yes, clowning…" At that point, I felt it could have been the voice of genuine expression that slipped through her comic burlesque.

Although the film was undeniably racist and reductive of her character, Carmen Miranda's "spectacle of ethnicity" provides the oomph really steals the show, and I loved her performance as burlesque. Interestingly Roberts notes that her image was so popular that fans who perceived themselves as different or "foreign", and identified with her in this way, also mimicked her feminine and ethnic masquerade. Are you starting to see a trend in this blog? Fantasy, race, gender, propaganda, and power...

On a lighter note, if you're a fan of the Tex Avery Red Hot Hiding Hood cartoons, you'll see where the inspiration for Riding Hood's grandma came from! And I loved the music - Alice Faye really blew me away, especially her performance of "No Love, No Nothin'". I love the deep voice sirens of that era, along with Peggy Lee, Judy Garland and Marlene Dietrich. I'll end this post with the epic Carmen Miranda performance, "The Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat". Feel free to leave your comments.

 

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