Archive | February, 2014

Carmen Miranda & the Subversive Parts of Springtime in the Rockies.

25 Feb

Miranda, Carmen (Springtime in the Rockies)_01So. Carmen Miranda. And primarily Carmen Miranda in Springtime in the Rockies, though not exclusively (I believe I’ve mentioned my love for The Gang’s All Here before, and if I haven’t, I do so now)I’ve been thinking.

(Sidenote: I’ve also been working, a lot, which is why I haven’t had the time to blog – or frankly, focus on a lot of film watching – in the last couple of months or so.  It’s been great, but I’ve also missed this. I’ll be curious to see if anyone’s still reading…)

Last week, we had a lovely, relaxed, technically-not-a-festival-but-still-pyjamaed  afternoon with the participant in our Fourth One-Woman Film Festival (report to come soon enough) during which, as sometimes happens, The Gang’s All Here came out. That one’s formative for me, in that it was one of the first movies I remember identifying as “old” and “something I want to know more about.” I would suggest (humbly) that anyone wanting to know more about U.S. perceptions of the WWII Homefront would do well to unpack that movie in particular and its references. But later.

What it got me to thinking about was stereotypes, having just watched Swing Time, arguably the best Astaire & Rogers movie, but also the only one with a huge blackface number in it, made more complex because the blackface is Skin Tone Only (none of the other grotesque exaggerations common to it) and in fact is a tribute to someone – Bill “Bojangles” Robinson – that Astaire held as a paragon of the craft of which he himself was seen as a paragon and always said so. So it’s done in loving honor. And also in cork. As I  said, complex.

astaire as bojanglesSo, then came a movie with Carmen Miranda, often dismissed as a capable Brazilian pop star who came to Hollywood and became a low Latin stereotype – oversexed, temperamental, and a butcher of English. Which, I don’t know. Maybe that’s true. Though if anyone can explain the difference between her persona and Sofía Vergara’s  besides “rattles in Spanish-vs.-Portugese when upset,” I’d welcome it.

Or maybe that’s not true. It’s hard for me to watch her next to, say, Betty Grable, next to whom she spent  a reasonable amount of time – like in, say Springtime in the Rockies, which I just saw again for the first time in years – and not think of Miranda as the relatively strong woman in the story. Grable isn’t ever independent; she just pouts sometimes. Not quite the same as Miranda’s clever secretary/inevitable floorshow performer. In this movie when Grable says “You’re the boss,” she’s telling John Payne he gets to decide everything about their honeymoon. When Miranda says the same thing to him earlier, it’s because he is her actual employer. And mostly she still does whatever the hell she wants.

Yes, she is made mock of for cultural reasons, primarily her tormented malaprop English. But she’s in good company. Hell, that still happens to Americans in British comedy. So it’s hard to suggest that she or any group you see her as belonging to is being singled out in that regard. (Also worth mentioning here: South American-ness was super trendy in wartime, for all those Good Neighbor reasons plus the cultural kick-assity of its music/dance goings-on. Note Springtime’s title when distributed to the rest of the hemisphere:

Springtime in the Rockies (1942)_02A Brazilian secretary was, in terms of modern Hollywood formula, a gay best friend.)

But in Springtime, she’s mostly self-protectively argumentative, capable of sexual instigation when it suits her, refusal when it doesn’t, and while no non-Anglo is strictly the lead in that era, she’s always (in her 1940-45 heyday, anyway) involved in and sometimes driving the main entanglements. Her character’s also half-Irish, but they use that as a surname punchline for her all the time (and it also makes it possible for her to end up with a white romantic partner for some reason that illustrates the bugnuts insanity of our forebears. So it goes.)

All this is coming out of a viewing of Springtime in the Rockies, though, which I should note is kind of sneaky. Despite having more or less the same writing/directing creative team as a load of other similar wacky-scrapes-and-musical-numbers movies of the era, for some reason this one decides to be sly – two walk-on indigenous waiters at the Canadian Rockies resort look at each other, give you a moment to expect “Ugh Wampum Kemosabe” talk, then instead discuss the relative merits of Harry James and Glenn Miller in the differently-irritating dialect of Period Swing Slang. Cesar Romero, usually either Latin-style disreputable Lothario or Latin-style ultra suave gigolo, is here more or less a dancing version of what I’d call the Ralph Bellamy role: priggish, WASPy, a little pushy. Doesn’t even get a girl at the end – Miranda ends up with the usually asexual Edward Everett Horton, who is instead a magnet to Brazilian romance, even before she finds out he’s spilling over with dough.

Plus two of the blandest white leads in musical history, no small feat, bless their hearts. Their bits are the least important thing in the movie and to the movie.

Springtime in the Rockies

I don’t pretend this is all cultural subversion by intent so much as comic subversion to keep the audience guessing in the middle of a series of heavily formulaic pictures, but it sure does make this one age better than some of its fellows.

So. I give you Carmen Miranda, ahead of her time as subversive icon of race and gender. Also, her outfits were rich in anti-oxidants and therefore ahead of her time nutritionally as well.