Enter the American director, writer, producer, actor and
jack-of-all-media-trades, the inimitable Orson Welles, once known in theatrical
circles as the “Wonder Boy of Acting,” that master showman – some would say
“shaman” – and larger-than-life radio personality (at six-foot, four-inches tall
and weighing close to 250 pounds, he certainly was that), now thrust onto the
center stage of the cultural cauldron that was Carnaval-crazed Brazil.
The Wisconsin-born wunderkind had carved out a fabulous niche for himself in movie-land with his self-aggrandizing maiden effort, the classic Citizen Kane (1941). But during the turbulent years of the middle thirties, before the time that Vinicius claimed he was inspired to put pen and paper to his Carioca tragedy, Welles had successfully experimented with a version, set in Haiti, of William Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, staged in Harlem by him and his associate, John Houseman, with the Negro Theater Unit of the Federal Theater Project.
With Welles at the helm, so to speak, drilling and coaching his non-professional cast literally for months on end, the all-black ensemble managed to traverse the tongue-tripping impediments of iambic pentameter, to the extent his so-called “Voodoo” Macbeth became one of the singular stage achievements of that racially divided period.
Of course, Vinicius could never have been privy to such an unconventional production in its prime, but he did get to make the acquaintance of the talented Mr. Welles in his. The chance to absorb from, and cavort with, the frenetic young genius up-close and personal (and in the poet’s own backyard) was a rare opportunity indeed – one the dedicated film-lover and movie critic could ill afford to pass up. Fortunately, his cinematic credentials would help ease the transition into establishing the now seismic connection.
It presented itself, in December 1941, through the Motion Picture Division of the Office of Inter-American Affairs, headed by future New York State governor Nelson A. Rockefeller, which, along with RKO Pictures (whose major stockholder at the time was the political appointee himself), dispatched the 26-year-old “boy wonder” to Brazil to film a cultural exchange project, in three parts, promoting friendly relations with Latin America – a job cartoonist Walt Disney had similarly been called upon to perform earlier that same year.
Uppermost on the division’s agenda was the use of this kind of innocuous programming ploy as an excuse to counter alleged militaristic tendencies within the Getúlio Vargas administration, in addition to shoring up support for the coming U.S. war effort. In line with this outcome, the Brazilian government was apparently unperturbed by the ruse.
Quite the opposite: it was tickled pink to have the much talked-about radio and film star visit its home shores, gauging his impending excursion “as a huge endorsement and a hope for the future; the native film industry perceived it as a step towards its emergence from obscurity.” These were both overly optimistic assessments.
Welles Raises Kane in Rio
Delusions of pan-hemispheric unity aside, Vinicius witnessed firsthand the challenges Welles took on with regard to his mostly improvised semi-documentary It’s All True, in particular the unfinished segment entitled “Carnival,” in which the easily distracted director had poured his unflagging energy (and the studio’s monetary resources) into capturing Rio’s annual whirlwind procession circa February 1942.
What he hoped to achieve, as soon as a workable plan had come to mind, would be a spectacle “that would treat its black participants and black culture with respect and affection” – a view shared by his newfound friend Vinicius (then a worldly 29), who was more than willing to act as Orson’s tour guide through the country’s cultural labyrinth.
Quick study though he was, Welles had been tipped off beforehand as to Brazil’s geography, politics, customs, language and cuisine. Indeed, no sooner had he set foot in Rio than the welcoming throng greeted him as a conquering warrior (he was referred to, appropriately enough, as o simpático garotão, or “the charming big boy”).
If that now meant he could samba the night away with some of Sugar Loaf’s loveliest senhoritas – and go shoot “Negroes covered with aracatu feathers” afterwards, in an honest to goodness favela – then more power to him; with the upshot being that RKO Pictures and the Office of Inter-American Affairs got more than they bargained for, what with their self-indulgent “big boy” out of control.
On top of all these troubles, there were the meddling Brazilian authorities and not-so charming press types to tangle with. They certainly had their own ideas about what impressions of Brazil their neighbors to the north needed to have come away with – and they did not include footage of “dancing jigaboos” and “no good half-breeds” running around Rio “as if it were another Harlem.”
Not only that, but the accidental drowning death of Jacaré, one of the poor Northeastern fishermen to be featured in Welles’ proposed third segment, “Four Men on a Raft,” slammed the door shut on the doomed endeavor beyond all hope of reopening.
With a management change and reshuffle at the home studio, the rain soon fell on Orson’s Rio Carnaval parade. Expecting something along the lines of a standard-day video travelogue, a somewhat “superficial view of Brazil that would encourage tourism rather than criticism and cries for social justice,” the head offices were rewarded instead with the director’s 16mm rough-cut of “poor people, particularly poor black people.”
In his review of the 1993 New York Film Festival presentation of the making of It’s All True: Based on an Unfinished Film by Orson Welles, movie critic Vincent Canby rightly observed: “[This] did not fit into any good neighbor policy that RKO or the U.S. State Department wanted to publicize,” with the result being that the financial spigot was abruptly turned off on the aborted Brazil project.
That did not stop Welles from carrying on with the assignment through his own makeshift means, but it did foil previous plans for him to finish the editing of his latest epic, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), which laid the groundwork for his eventual undoing and removal from Hollywood’s A-list of sought-after filmmakers.
What of the faithful de Moraes? He would meet up with his incorrigible pal Welles once more in 1946, in Los Angeles, where the poet and playwright went to assume his latest diplomatic post as vice-consul for Itamaraty; and where, by his own admission, he picked up the story of black Orpheus right where he had left it (in his Guanabara bath, no doubt, where he did the bulk of his writing).
Not that his official duties with the Brazilian foreign service ever got in the way of perfecting his art, but while Vinicius was on the West Coast he did learn all he needed to learn about the movie business, mostly by watching the quadruple-threat Orson in action making The Lady from Shanghai (1948), a dismal box-office failure upon its belated release, as well as the unmaking of his friend’s four-year marriage to screen siren Rita Hayworth.
After the late 1940s, the well-tempered boy wonder’s career had seen its best days, but the seemingly more mature Mr. Welles would gamely soldier on by continuing to work as an independent. Because of the notorious Brazilian escapade, however, highlighted by his freewheeling methods and chaotic approach to moviemaking, the major studios could no longer trust Orson to do the needful with respect to their valuable film properties. Welles’ own disillusionment with the elite of Hollywood’s film community led to his voluntary exile in Europe for most of the remainder of his life.
Despite all his difficulties with It’s All True (many of them, quite frankly, of his own devising), as expected Orson did, in fact, leave his personal stamp on Brazil’s nascent film industry – in a manner of speaking.
To quote from critic Canby, “‘Four Men on a Raft’…[has] the gloriously liquid look of the heavily filtered, black-and-white photography favored in the 1930s to ennoble peasants and other common folk. It’s corny and possibly condescending, but it still works. Glauber Rocha, a leading talent in Brazil’s own Cinema Novo movement, used the same style in his Barravento (1961), which is set in the fishing village of Bahia.”
Otherwise, it was a slow and steady slide from Welles’ brilliant but barely conclusive beginning with Citizen Kane to his all-but unemployable ending, the memory of which would linger in Vinicius’ mind long after their warm relationship had substantially cooled – but not long enough to have profited from the director’s unheeded lesson about compromising one’s artistic integrity in the face of social and political realities.
(To be continued…)
Joe Lopes, a naturalized American citizen born in Brazil, was raised and educated in New York City, where he worked for many years in the financial sector. In 1996, he moved to Brazil with his wife and daughters. In 2001, he returned to the U.S. and now resides in North Carolina with his family. He is a lover of all types of music, especially opera and jazz, as well as an incurable fan of classic and contemporary films. You can email your comments to JosmarLopes@msn.com.