There are many memorable moments in Mildred Pierce, but for a Brazilianist like me, the diegetic musical moment when Kay sings and dances “South American Way” with Veda accompanying her on the piano is one of the more humorous.
The juxtaposition of the two girls’ performance styles is incredibly illustrative of their different personalities. Veda sings it in an operatic voice and straightens out all of the syncopated lines. Meanwhile, Kay hams it up doing her best impression of Carmen Miranda (complete with a blanket sarong and towel turban) while seeming not to care whether or not she sings in key. What’s more important to her is that she dances and wears the proper outfit to “do” her best Carmen Miranda. That kind of freedom and fun is incredibly fleeting in the film’s melodramatic story arc; it exits the film when Kay does. Veda’s insistence on “straightening out” the music into something more operatic foreshadows much about her character’s development and the value she places on economic class markers. Contrast their performance with Carmen Miranda’s from Down Argentine Way (1940). Who do you think came closer to Carmen Miranda’s performance style?
One of the many reasons why wartime audiences loved Carmen Miranda’s on-screen personality was that she was fun and funny; her outfit’s trademark references to Afro-Brazilian culture were easily comprehensible – a turban (with fruit) and jewelry. She later became a gay icon both due to her camp qualities and the ease with which almost anyone could do an impression. For many, it was easy to attempt to embody the freedom that she represented to the rest of Hollywood. All you needed was a towel, some fruit, and maybe a curtain or blanket and you were golden.
Woody Allen paid tribute to Miranda’s popularity in Radio Days (1987). Watch how the character attempts to embody Miranda in some of the same spirit we saw with Kay’s performance.
We’ll be talking more about the politics of Miranda and Hollywood musicals in a few weeks. For now, I look forward to hearing about the aspects of the film’s music that captured your attention.