When I was a young kid, my mother wore this outrageous pair of purple platform sandals with ankle strap ties for poolwear. The shoes were decorated with colorful sequined exotic fruits. Today, in our global fruit market, I would wager the sequined decorations were banana-maca, papayas, guava, and mangoes. My mother called them “Carmen Miranda” shoes because they resembled the colorful Bahian-look costumes Miranda created and wore in the movies. I have a friend into Vintage and I wish I had saved those Carmen Miranda shoes for her. Anyway, those flamboyant shoes were how I first heard about Brazil.
Rio de Janeiro is everywhere and there is no way around it: I have absolutely no interest in attending these Summer Olympics. But I am interested in Brazil. I’ve traveled to Chile and Argentina, but never to Brazil, so I figure to go for it here because—Modern City and Primitive Jungle—Brazil has movie Glamor.
Brazil has a movie industry. Oscar-winning Black Orpheus, The Given Word, Central Station, and To the Left of the Father still hold up. And recently, the hard-hitting Elite Squad and The City of God were also both strong international movie releases. But a pair of movies made in Hollywood that portray Brazil’s Glamor makes my list of Best of Brazil in Movies.
Second unit photography of Brazil gives Flying Down to Rio (1933) some authenticity. However, the spectacular title number that combines wide shots done in Malibu and process shots in a hangar with planes suspended by wires only a few feet off the ground as well as the film’s massive white Art Deco studio sets give this musical its Glamor. As glamorously, Fred Astaire (his second movie—Astaire already danced with Joan Crawford in his film debut) was paired first time on screen with Ginger Rogers and Astaire also worked here for the first time with Hermes Pan, the film’s assistant choreographer. Flying Down to Rio provides time travel to Brazil in its glory days—a glamorous destination that non-stop flight service today cannot provide.
Rio in stylized black and white is juxtaposed with the Technicolor Glamor of the Brazilian Jungle in 1954 Hollywood adventure film, The Naked Jungle. Egomaniac Christopher Leiningen is unforgiving when he learns that his bride by proxy, Joanna, just arrived down the Amazon, is a widow, “damaged goods.” Rejected and waiting for a return boat, Joanna can neither find common ground with Christopher nor leave the grounds. The couple also awaits battalions of flesh-eating red ants—Marabunta—to arrive and return the monumental plantation carved out by Leiningen back to the unforgiving Brazilian jungle. Will they survive the ants? Will they survive each other? Their mutual loathing, obvious sexual attraction, and forced proximity—not to mention the millions of carnivorous ants devouring everything and everyone en route—make for a strained tête–à–tête. Consequently, one of my favorite exchanges in movie dialogue occurs during their Brazilian jungle stalemate; after sniping at each other through the first half of the movie, in desperation Joanna finally breaks down:
Joanna: “Everything I say seems to make things worse. I'm trying not to irritate you.”
Christopher: “I've noticed that. I find it irritating.”
“The Girl from Ipanema” and “Corcovado” (introduced by one of my favorite vocalists—later The Godfather’s Mama Corleone—Morgana King) influenced movie soundtracks like the romantic soundtrack of A Man and a Woman. The 1959 Oscar-winning Black Orpheus’s “Samba De Orfeu” and the Oscar-nominated “Real in Rio” from the 2012 animated film Rio, both echo Brazil's musical tempos and continue to entertain, engage, and resonate on screen. Samba—Lambada—Bossa Nova. I can’t categorize the rhythms, much less dance to them, but hearing any sensuous Brazilian beat on the soundtrack is First Runner-Up on my Best of Brazil in the Movies.
I still think of Carmen Miranda with affection. Carmen Miranda was charming and funny, and more, she was fun. A New World song stylist, Miranda made her first recording in 1929 in Brazil and her recording of “Tai” the following year was Brazil’s highest-selling record of 1930. She recorded 40 songs that first year for RCA and a total of 281 recordings that decade in Brazil. She was the recording, radio, stage, and movie superstar of Brazil. She starred on Broadway; she was a US radio and TV star; and she starred in 14 Hollywood musicals. At one time, Miranda was the highest-paid woman in Hollywood. Her energy on screen is infectious. A unique performer, on my list of Best of Brazil in the Movies, the winner hands down is Carmen Miranda.