Orson Welles Filmed a Brazilian Classic – Is That True?


Escrita em parceria e baseado na pesquisa do meu amigo Canhoto que bloga a versão portuguesa em http://canhotagem.blogspot.com/ e http://tropecassino.blogspot.com/
Co-written and based on research by my friend Canhoto, who posted the portuguese version at http://canhotagem.blogspot.com/ , http://tropecassino.blogspot.com/

During the 1940’s, the United States created the good neighbor policy attempting to consolidate their economic superiority and cultural hegemony in Latin American countries. In the northern hemisphere, Carmen Miranda had become the highest-paid actress in the U. S. due to the royalties derived from her brand of hats, clothes and wooden clogs. 

Meanwhile, south of the equator in Brazil, on the 13th February 1942, there landed Orson Welles with a mission to film two episodes of It’s All True. The first would tell the story of carnival and its influences, such as samba and candomblé; the second would pay homage to four men from the northern state of Ceará, who starred a real life extraordinary deed in a raft. The previous year, Welles had read about them in Time magazine learning how four men in a raft sailed the ocean for over 1000 miles from Fortaleza to the then federal capital Rio de Janeiro. Their names: Manuel Olímpio (known as Jacaré), Jerônimo de Sousa, Raimundo Lima e Pereira da Silva.  They travelled to ask president Getúlio Vargas for their welfare rights – the dictator conceded and promised but he never delivered. 

The main problem with the making of this movie, filmed during six months in 1942 and never released, was the director himself, one of the most influential cinematographers of the 20th century, the polemic Orson Welles. It appears that the genius, then aged 26, got in trouble with Getúlio Vargas and Nelson Rockefeller. Stories that followed his adoption of Hollywood as a playground lab on how to infuriate both celebrities and big bosses. 

It’s All True was an attempt to debunk Hollywood stereotyping of blacks and latinos. In its last segment, the film aimed to connect the history of these ethnic groups to north-american black culture (the only part of the movie never to be recorded). Featuring Louis Armstrong, the sequence would give an account of the common genesis of samba and jazz… 

One of the motives behind the presence in Brazil of Citizen Kane‘s director – one of the most influential films of all times – was that he was being harassed by William Randolph Hearst, proprietor of Time’s media empire and on whom Kane’s character was based. At the time, major U.S. celebrity magazines belonged to Hearst, who exerted his power over Hollywood and was able to add Welles’ name to the list of ‘reds’ that the FBI was already investigating one decade before the notorious witch hunt. 

And who do you think Welles hanged out with while he was down here? Vinicius de Morais, who had recently been nominated ambassador at Itamaraty (Brazilian Foreign Relations Ministry, so named after the palace in Rio de Janeiro where it operates from), wouldn’t part from the icon. Herivelto Martins and Grande Otelo were not only Welles’ work collegues, but also all night long drinking buddies in many of Rio’s shanty towns. Herivelto (music director) and Otelo (main character in one of the segments) were puzzled by the gringo’s attitude, getting wasted on cachaça until 5 a.m., and at 8 a.m. demanding everybody’s presence in the set. The Brazilians were used to Urca Casino’s routine and never woke up before noon, something that took Welles’ to the verge of a nervous breakdown. 

But it was the young director’s closeness to raftman Jacaré that really bothered the Brazilian government. The DIP (The Press and Propaganda Department under Vargas’ dictatorship) was accusing Jacaré of being … Communist, no less. When Welles filmed Four Men on a Raft, reenacting the journey they had undertook the previous year from Ceará to Rio de Janeiro, Jacaré was killed in a tragic accident at Guanabara Bay. Moved and more determined than ever, Welles created another segment to show the tragic conditions in which fishing communities lived at the time in Ceará. 

Going for a  change of tide, Welles’ left Rio and went to Fortaleza where he stayed for a over a month, quickly writing and directing the script. Meanwhile he got closer to the local people, filming fishermen who had never seen a movie in their entire lives. With 10.000 dollars alone he portrayed the daily routine of those oppressed communities, the work and craft of women, and he staged the death of a fisherman in the sea, his funeral in the village and the uncertain future of his young widow. The work was confiscated while still unedited, by RKO, which was later sold to Paramount. There, in 1958, a clerk supposedly burnt the majority of the technicolor material, the sequence of It’s All True, where Grande Otelo appears. Apparently, the order came due to the studio’s fear of being sued for copyrighting unreleased footage. Is it true that there are no scenes left with Grande Otelo? 

It’s All True‘s supposedly destroyed sequence focused in the origins of Rio’s Carnival and was filmed all over the city. Praça Onze, a square demolished the previous year so that Presidente Vargas avenue could be built, was reconstructed in a studio, much irritating the dictator. Other segments filmed in the then federal capital, were staged at Urca Casino, a place well-known to Welles, where he even had hot affairs, such as singer Linda Batista. 

I heard people say that the most beautiful take of the sequence shows a ritual where newly-stretched cat skinned drums are warmed up by a huge fire. In the 1993 documentary also entitled It’s All True, Herivelto Martins’ son, Peri Ribeiro, who also played a role next to Grande Otelo in the movie, said that Welles did what no other man had done for Brazil: show the country as it really was – something that ironically ended up being the reason behind the project’s failure. 

Grande Otelo and Peri Ribeiro

Welles’s career was stained only because he was given a million dollars to direct a film that he couldn’t finish because of obstacles posed by the studio itself. And is it true that also because of censorship by the Brazilian government? 

Welles commented in an interview to film critic André Bazin: “ (…) they made another version, changing ideas and remaking it their way. I filmed for 6 months, but RKO fired me”. 

As the years went by, Welles never had other proposals to conduct his own project in his own country, so by 1946 he had already moved to Europe. Recently, in 2009, a former secretary to the Brazilian government told me that in the 1950, she travelled in a plane chartered by Assis Chateaubriand (another head of media empires; this one from Brazil), to go to a party in a castle situated in Paris’ surrounding region. Once there, she stepped on a drank man who was laying on the floor and obstructing the pathway. Later she learnt that the boozy was no other that the great Orson Welles. 

Brazilians have always had the best impressions of the film maker who came down here, got into the local culture, hanged out with the artists and exalted the then fashionable nationalism put forward by the ‘New State’ (how Vargas government was termed), to the point of narrating the president’s birthday live on radio to the U.S. Welles had even an opportunity to mark his territory in the country, when one day he stopped the car to urinate by the river Itabira, in Itabirito, state of Minas Gerais, where today stands his bust sculpted by local artist Genin Guerra

Moments in Itabirito: water on the knee, water on the bust

In spite of all his right on scores in a land known for good football, Welles would confess years later to his friend Paul Mazursky, that when he was sent down here, the last country in the world where he wanted to go was Brazil. 

As for the movie It’s All True, it vanished for over 60 years until a film student at UCLA found it unedited in a RKO archive. However, to this day, It’s All True remains unreleased. 

In 1993, filmmakers Bill Krohn, Myron Meysel and Richard Wilson came to Brazil to see about the men on the raft and Grande Otelo. The result was the homonymous documentary It’s All True where the team set up the segment Four Men on a Raft with a new soundtrack. 

Below a taste of the documentary where Welles talks about his determination to finish the film. 


Soon, the torrent – For now the documentary film is at dreammule in a 705 Megabyte archive under the name Orson.Welles.-.It’S.All.True.-.Lost.Film.Footage.(En.Divx.Mp3).Prov.By.Tastemaker.Rip.By.Richter

There are several academic and cinematographic works about It’s All True – the film that never happened –including an American fictional short and three other films by Brazilian director Rogério Sganzerla – Nem Tudo É Verdade (1986, Not All is True), Tudo É Brasil (1997, All is Brazil) e O Signo do Caos(2005, The Sign of Chaos). A scholarly work about the topic is It’s All True: Orson Welles’ Pan-American Odyssey by Catherine Benamou, professor in the Ethnic Studies department at the University of Michigan. In 2006, she said that at the UCLA archives in California, lays extensive unpreserved and unedited material related to the three episodes.

The catalogue of the Brazilian Film Archives contains an entry indicating they own a copy. Is it true? Eventually two nerds will investigate.

It is unbelievable, but the truth is that no-one in Brazil saw 1942’s It’s All True

Coming soon: soundtrack download ‘Orson Welles and the Samba-True’… 



2 responses to “Orson Welles Filmed a Brazilian Classic – Is That True?

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