Ever since Jenny Lind traveled across the sea and took America by storm, Broadway producers had kept an eye out for international talent likely to follow in the Swedish Nightingale's dainty slippers. Lee Shubert regularly imported potential candidates — Gaby Delys, Mitzi Hajos, etc. — in hopes of a box office bonanza. These forays rarely paid off, but on a South American jaunt in 1938 he found a singer worth her weight in golden bananas. Carmen Miranda was her name; instead of the Swedish Nightingale, here was the Brazilian Bombshell. Shubert had a laff-revue franchise just then under the name Hellzapoppin', a zany enterprise headed by comedians Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson which was sort of the "Laugh-In" of the day. Or the other way around, rather. This "screamlined revue" opened in the fall of 1938 and ran, well, forever, Broadway-wise, taking over the long-run musical slot with 1,404 until toppled by Oklahoma!
In June 1939 came the first of four follow-ups, The Streets of Paris, which had little to do with Paris but what the hey? With Ole and Chic still occupied at Hellzapoppin', the Shuberts lined up long-time Broadway comedy star Bobby Clark, the up-and-coming burlesque comedy team of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, and — as the secret weapon — Lee's Brazilian Bombshell. Ms. Miranda came out and sang "South American Way" (or, rather, "souse umuricun way"), and was an overnight sensation. She was already a star in Brazil, mind you, but this was Broadway!
Miranda quickly went Hollywood, bringing "South American Way" — written by Jimmy McHugh and Al Dubin, by the way — into the 1940 film "Down Argentine Way." In 1941 she was featured in two films ("That Night in Rio" and "Week-End in Havana") and ended the year back on Broadway co-starring with Olsen and Johnson in their new revue, Sons o' Fun (which opened six days before Pearl Harbor). Miranda soon left Broadway for good, moving on to an immensely popular series of films for 20th Century Fox. (According to the publicity release, Miranda was the highest paid woman in the United States in 1945!)
All of which brings us to The Carmen Miranda Collection [Fox]. Fans of the Portugese-born star with the outlandish hats will no doubt have a field day with these five films. Leading the group is "The Gang's All Here," a 1943 Busby Berkeley extravaganza in which Alice Faye was topbilled. Also on hand is Benny Goodman and his Orchestra, as well as such supporting hams as Charlotte Greenwood, Eugene Pallette, and Edward Everett Horton. Miranda sings "Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat"; what more can you ask? This film, with its several bonus features, was released last year in the Alice Faye box set; it has apparently been remastered for the occasion, although I never watched the Faye release. Also on hand are two more Technicolor musicals, both from 1944, and this trio does indeed look pretty Technicolorful. "Greenwich Village" features a romance between Don Ameche and Vivian Blaine, with Miranda as a colorful singing fortuneteller. Perry Como sings and hidden away amongst the trappings is a small-time nightclub act called "The Revuers" whom you might say are worth notice, if you consider Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Judy Holliday worth notice. And if you can find them, hidden away. (The Bohemian Adolph is slightly more visible, in glasses, while Betty survives as a hatcheck girl.) And then there is the screen adaptation of Cole Porter's Broadway hit Something for the Boys, sans most of the score and Ethel Merman as well. Instead we get Ms. Blaine again, six years before she hit Broadway as Ms. Adelaide in Guys and Dolls. On the bright side, there's Phil Silvers (who is always good for a laugh) and Perry Como (who isn't). The box is rounded out by lesser Miranda from 1946. "If I'm Lucky" gives us Blaine, Como and Silvers once more, along with Harry James and his Music Makers. "Doll Face" has no Phil Silvers, but Blaine and Como; this one is based on "The Naked Genius," a 1943 play that lasted but a month on Broadway. The billing doesn't cite the play's title — "naked" being too racy, perhaps — nor the identity of the author, opting instead for the lady's given name Louise Hovick. Gypsy Rose Lee, to you.
The DVDs include an assortment of extras of varying interest, including "Carmen Miranda: The Girl from Rio" on the "Something for the Boys" disc. All, including the two black and white films, have been restored very nicely. For those Miranda fans who already have "The Gangs All Here," it should be noted that these five DVDs are available individually. At the same time, let us mention in passing that Fox has also released the Tyrone Power Matinee Idol Collection. This contains no less than ten films on five DVDs, with titles including "Johnny Apollo" and "The Luck of the Irish" and such costars as Loretta Young, Joan Fontaine, Linda Darnell, Anne Baxter, and Gene Tierney. None of the swashbucklers, though, which were released last year in Fox's first Tyrone Power set.
Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman are two of our finer contemporary actors, who have happily shuttled between stage and screen for the last decade or so. Ms. Linney just finished a stint in Les Liaisons Dangereuses, while Mr. Hoffman was most recently seen on Broadway in "Long Days Journey into Night in 2003 (which followed his stunning turn in True West). These are high-caliber performers who give high-caliber performances. Since 2001, Linney has two Tony nominations and three Oscar nominations; Hoffman has two Tony noms and two Oscars, winning for "Capote." They teamed up last year for the film The Savages [Fox], giving a pair of riveting performances. They are indeed The Savages, children of an abusive father called Lenny Savage — played by Broadway's own Phil Bosco, who has been trodding the boards for almost fifty years and has a half-dozen Tony nominations of his own. So we get a lot of acting, theatre-style; also in small roles are Peter Friedman, Debra Monk and Rosemary Murphy. Director-writer Tamara Jenkins tells the uncomfortable tale of a pair of siblings forced to confront with their parent's descent into dementia. A difficult subject, yes, but filmed with such honesty and humanity — and perfect acting — that we are caught up in this very special movie.
(Steven Suskin is author of "Second Act Trouble," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)