BRAZILIAN BOMBSHELL The Biography of Carmen MirandaBy Martha Gil-Montero Donald I. Fine. 280 pp. $18.95 Years after making the 1947 film "Copacabana," Groucho Marx commented that in it he "played second banana to the fruit on Carmen Miranda's head." He wasn't alone. Throughout the 1940s, many Hollywood stars -- including Betty Grable, Vivian Blaine, Alice Faye, Don Ameche, Cesar Romero and John Payne -- faded into the background when the flimsy plot of the movie brought the characters to a nightclub and Carmen Miranda appeared in the spotlight. Before coming to the United States at the age of 30, the Brazilian star had been her country's darling, singing on records and radio the best new compositions of Ary Barroso, Dorival Caymmi and other great Brazilian songwriters. She was the undisputed queen of samba, a musical form she helped to crystallize as Brazil's national music. In her nightclub act, she added the visual appeal of a Bahian costume, based on the typical designs and colors of the African-influenced northeastern part of the country, and adding her own exaggerated effects. She was the toast of Rio. It was even reported that President Getulio Vargas had courted her. In 1939, the Shubert organization brought her to Broadway to appear in "The Streets of Paris" and compete for business with the World's Fair. She was an instant star. Armed with only a serviceable singing voice made attractive through showmanship, with a highly individual style of movement, with unabashedly garish costumes, outlandish headdresses and seven-inch platform shoes, and with the rare quality that makes a very few performers genuinely appealing, the Brazilian Bombshell claimed a special niche in the American entertainment world, retaining it even when the persona she had constructed changed over the years from coquettish to bizarre to grotesque. Martha Gil-Montero's "Brazilian Bombshell" is just the sort of biography Carmen Miranda deserves: affectionate and generous, yet honest and realistic. Gil-Montero even does well painting Miranda's family background and life in the notoriously poor Lapa district of Rio. She gives properly extensive coverage to Miranda's early years -- the young singing sensation inspired dozens of great songs -- and her account of the development of samba and of Rio's musical life in the '20s and '30s is especially colorful and valuable. Carmen Miranda's most memorable Hollywood films appeared in the early 1940s: "Down Argentine Way," "That Night in Rio," "Weekend in Havana," "Springtime in the Rockies" and the Busby Berkeley extravaganza "The Gang's All Here." The time was right for films that could distract audiences from the war. Meanwhile the U.S. government, worried about future relations with Europe and beginning to think we should be a Good Neighbor to all our faithful friends south of border, actively encouraged Hollywood in "promoting a mythical Latin American background, where wealth and romance in gaudy technicolor hid awkward realities such as conflict, war and exploitation." Carmen Miranda personified insouciant gaiety, and in 1945 the U.S. Treasury Department listed her as the highest-paid woman in the country, with an annual income topping $200,000. It was all downhill from there. Her remaining films were mostly minor efforts, hitting bottom in the 1953 "Scared Stiff" with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. She triumphed at the London Palladium in 1948, but later tours of Europe were disastrous. A television appearance with Milton Berle promised new exposure, but Berle ate a banana from her hat and out-caricatured the caricature. She had popularized dozen of tunes, but few of them were her own Brazilian songs. Unhappy, lonely and feeling exiled from a country that resented her success in North America, she turned to pills and alcohol for comfort, developed stage fright, and in 1947 made a marriage, her first and only, that was clearly ill-considered and obviously unhappy. In 1955, just hours after filming a television show with Jimmy Durante, Miranda died of a heart attack at the age of 46. When her body was returned to Rio, millions of weeping Brazilians sang her sambas in the streets. Gil-Montero's book lacks the discography and filmography it should have, and the author makes several minor errors in dates and names, but overall it is a fine book. Carmen Miranda's life included people as different as Groucho Marx and poet Vinicius de Moraes, and Gil-Montero easily accommodates them all. And she is careful to explore the larger issues of the story: the fickleness of public taste, the changing conditions of the entertainment business and the sometimes troubled intersection of that business with social and historical forces. "Brazilian Bombshell" is a fine performance. The reviewer is a novelist and journalist who frequently writes about the music and literature of Brazil.