Off and on, over the past couple of days I’ve been watching Helena Solberg’s Bananas is my Business, a documentary about Carmen Miranda.
Miranda is (or was) a curious figure. She was, apparently, the highest paid performer (male or female) in 1940s Hollywood, and the highest paid woman (in any occupation) in the US at the time. She was extraordinarily popular: one of the first “crossover” artists, who brought something like what would now be termed “world music” to a mass audience in North America. But I’d be surprised if anyone actively sought out her films or her music now. Her image very quickly transformed from serious star to epitome of kitsch, and her films, while often entertaining, hardly stand up well compared to other classic musicals of the 1940s and 1950s. Her acting was never convincing and her musical performances were seldom well integrated into the film narrative. (Oddly, an exception is probably Down Argentine Way, a Betty Grable vehicle for which Miranda’s scenes were shot only after the rest of the film was finished.)
But the decline in Miranda’s reputation says more about her audience, and perhaps still more about twentieth-century geopolitics, than it does about her.
She was, after all, always already a caricature, an exotic curiosity. On her first arrival in the USA, when she knew little English but a lot about what she had to do to become famous, reporters wrote up interviews with her as though she were some comic primitive but also idiot savant who gave voice to everyone’s unspoken desires. Miranda declared that she knew only 100 words of English, among them “men, men, men and money, money, money.” Her costumes, especially the famously elaborate headgear, were manic exaggerations of the clothing worn by Bahian market women, but they also resonated with sixteenth to eighteenth-century images of South America as a dusky maiden bearing the fruit of her fertile soil.
Her success owed much to US post-war “good neighborliness,” a policy that emphasized and enhanced economic and cultural exchanges between North and South America. The cultural arm of the good neighbor policy was directed by Nelson Rockefeller, and also gave us films such as Disney’s Saludos Amigos, a strange mix of documentary, anthropology, diplomacy, and tourist guide. Latin America was promoted as a region now coming to modernity, fresh and vital compared to a Europe worn out by world war. It could be a source of markets and raw materials, but also a site for the indulgence of otherwise perhaps repressed desires. Latin Americans themselves were portrayed as slightly shady but definitely fun: prepared to break a few rules here and there thanks to their irrepressible vitality and desire to make good. Miranda very much fit into this mold. Havana, Acapulco, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro were now portrayed as filled with high-class nightclubs with sparkling entertainment, the ideal locations for hedonistic holidays from the rigors of making money at home.
As well as a reorientation of US economic and cultural interest from the Old to the New World, the Good Neighbor policy was also a pre-emptive strike as the Cold War got off the ground. Latin America already had strong labor movements (e.g. in Argentina and Chile), established socialist and communist parties (for instance, Peru), and had shown stirrings (or in the case of Mexico, more than stirrings) of revolutionary impulses. But at the same time the region was far from the Soviet sphere of influence, and could be imagined as a showcase for the benefits of liberal, democratic modernization. The US therefore welcomed the democratization and modernization that swept Latin America in the mid to late 1940s.
But within less than a decade, good neighborliness had been discredited. Prompted in part by lobbying from United Fruit, whose banana plantations occupied large swathes of the east of the country, in 1954 the state department engineered a coup in Guatemala, bringing down a left-leaning regime that had, in US eyes, gone too far in suggesting that modernization should be accompanied with social justice, that the benefits of democracy and openness should be felt by peasants as well as party-goers. Toppling the Guatemalan government was the CIA’s first major foreign operation, to be repeated soon in Iran. Both were viewed as great successes for a new, burlier and bolder, approach to international relations. Regime change came to be seen as an acceptable solution to problems that democracy and modernity could no longer be relied upon to resolve.
After the Cuban revolution of 1959, the shift in Latin America’s image and US tactics was soon complete. The Cold War was fully global and Havana was no longer the destination of choice for high-rolling gamblers or the emerging jet-set.
Carmen Miranda had died in 1955, but in any case nobody could now make a film such as Weekend in Havana. Orson Welles’s 1958 Touch of Evil better portrayed the new Latin America: a place of real danger and violence, whose seedy and superficial pleasures could too easily lure the unwary tourist into incomprehensible peril. The border between North and South was both absolute (separating cultures that were incommensurably different) and frighteningly fragile. There might still be a need for Americans to go down and do business with their neighbors the other side of the Rio Grande, but this would be man’s work, no job for a woman with fruit on her head.