Citizen Samba

This article was originally published in portuguese by author 
João Perdigão and is a modified excerpt of the book he co-authored 
with Euler Corradi, "O Rei da Roleta, a incrível vida de 
Joaquim Rolla", the biography of the owner of Rio de Janeiro's 
famous Urca Casino in the 1930's and 40's. 
Check João’s profile in the author’s area. 
For more information and to use this article contact the author to 
perdigaojo@yahoo.com.br.

arrivalOn February 8th 1942, Orson Welles, the creator of Citizen Kane, landed in Rio de Janeiro’s Santos Dumont airport. He arrived to complete a team of 22 RKO technicians, composed by photographers, electricians, sound workers and others who had worked with him since the old days when he was director of the Mercury Theater. They had arrived two weeks before to film Brazil’s greatest annual event: Carnival. The press widely reported the initiative of the American studio encouraged by Rockefeller, its owner. RKO’s boss had convinced Orson Welles to travel to Brazil and Mexico to shoot a documentary dedicated to the history of music in the American continent. At first, the movie was entitled Pan-America, but it soon was renamed “It’s All True”.

The first story suggested to Welles about Brazil was on the topics of samba and Carnival. At the press conference that Welles gave in his hotel, the Copacabana Palace, he revealed wanting to shoot Rio’s Carnival festivities in Technicolor – something completely new to Brazilian cinema.

However, the real motive that drove Welles to Brazilian soil was far more sinister. He had received a huge response from critics to his first feature film, Citizen Kane, launched the previous year, and was now on the FBI’s blacklist of radical communists in Hollywood. His name had been denounced by no less than William Randolph Hearst, owner of Time Group – one of the biggest media empires in the world – and the inspiration behind Charles Foster Kane, the main character in Welles’ film. Hearst did not enjoy being exposed on screen and relentlessly persecuted the director, pressuring the secret services to deal with him.

To ‘prove’ Welles’ communist tendencies, Hearst had a special portfolio of the film maker, made up of Hollywood gossip news clips from magazines that circulated in the United States. The contents were limited to so-called subversive activities during his career: a Shakespeare play he had directed for a group of black actors in New York, or the radio dramatization “War of the Worlds” when he caused panic among the population who thought there was an actual alien invasion taking place. Activities obviously unrelated to accusations of being a communist, but in the political context of a witch hunt, anything goes.

It was Nelson Rockefeller, oil and film industry tycoon, who came up with the solution to drive Orson Welles away from Hollywood, by using as anchor the Good Neighbor Policy and its intention of broadening the relationship between North-America and Brazil. He told Welles that he could count on a large sum of money to film a documentary around Latin America.

Perhaps wishing to see his name removed from the government’s list of communists, Welles abruptly ended his documentary on the history of jazz and the life of Louis Armstrong, writing most of the script during the last takes. And just as quickly, he decided that the first segment to shoot would be based on a story by Robert J. Flaherty, founding father of the documentary format and producer of the segment. The title was My Friend Bonito and the shooting took place in Mexico. It was a story about the friendship of a little boy and a calf destined to be sacrificed in a bullfight.

carnaval shooting 1942
Welles shooting Carnival, Rio de Janeiro, 1942

The other two segments were to be filmed in Brazil: the first one was about the history of samba during Carnival, and the second was a short dedicated to the “Jangadeiros” from the northern state of Ceará,[1] based on an actual deed that took place late in 1941 and of which Welles had read about in Time magazine. The story centered on a risky three thousand-mile sailing trip, taken by four men on a precarious raft and without navigation instruments, with the objective of requesting that president Getúlio Vargas gave them their labor rights. As for the Carnival segment, it would be the first to film upon arrival in Brazil, where Welles intended to document samba culture.

Judging by the reports and logs of the studio producing “It’s All True” in Brazil, Welles’ steps were rigorously registered, from appointments to re-appointments and even the occasional lateness for important meetings with Brazilian authorities. Welles’ reputation conceded him privileges never granted before to film directors, such as borrowing potent projectors from the Brazilian army for night takes, or having impunity, even after throwing the hotel room’s furniture through the window, straight into Atlântica Avenue, after a silly joke and a fight about his rental contract.

During his first days in Brazil, at a Carnival ball in the Urca Casino, Welles witnessed a curious episode initiated by Benjamin Vargas. The President’s brother physically attacked lawyer William Monteiro de Barros and, together with his four goons, car-chased him causing a fatal accident in the early hours of the morning – something that those days was strangely not news worthy.

welles+vinicius+ary barroso
Ary Barroso (?), Orson Welles, Vinicius de Moraes

Welles’ bohemian reputation, on the other hand, was widely publicized by the press. He quickly became acquainted with the Casino and, through Urca’s artists, with the shantytowns and the Lapa quarter where he was introduced to samba, sugar cane rum and brown skin girls. Among his new friends were Herivelto Martins, his music consultant, and actor Grande Otelo. More than work colleagues, they became Welles’ drinking pals. Another of his followers was poet Vinicius de Morais, the new ambassador to the Foreign Relations Ministry who, a few years later, wrote a play after a Greek tragedy, only set in Rio’s shantytowns, called “Orfeu da Conceição”, and adapted to the big screen to become the award winner movie entitled “Orfeu Negro” (Black Orpheus).[2]

As for the “It’s All True” segment about samba, it told the story of a little boy lost on Carnival night, who found the way back home with the help of a gangster samba player. Peri Ribeiro, the son of Herivelto, played the little boy, while the gangster role was interpreted by Grande Otelo – one of the greatest actors in the world according to Welles. They met on Welles’ first night at the casino, and years later Otelo would talk about how those who worked with the American didn’t understand that the gringo could drink sugar cane rum until five o’clock in the morning and still demand everyone on set by eight.  The Brazilians were used to Urca’s schedule and never woke up before noon, something that drove Welles crazy.

Not only the actors and the sea epic adventure enchanted Welles. Brazilian women also turned his head around and he even got involved with Urca’s samba queen Linda Baptista. But he was a womanizer and a love affair was no impediment to chase other women, including those sharing the stage with Linda. So, when he started flirting with young and beautiful Emilinha Borba, to whom he even promised taking to Hollywood, Linda was so furious that she hit the girl tearing out her dress minutes before her stage performance.

To this day, over seventy years later, the technicolor shots of Carnival in the streets, at the Municipal Theatre and mostly at the Urca casino, were not shown entirely.  The most beautiful take of the segment shows a ritual, a warming up of drums around a piece of cat leather stretched over a big bonfire. Besides the Casino, most shots were taken around town.

Genin Guerra_orson_ESCULTURA-1
Orson Welles by sculptor Genin Guerra from Itabirito.

Scenes of the samba segment included other aspects of Brazilian culture, such as the Ash Wednesday procession, witnessed by the boy and the gangster, which was filmed in Ouro Preto, in Rio’s neighbor state of Minas Gerais.  Among all the stories lived by Welles in that region, there is a particularly funny one, which occurred when he got off a train in the town of Itabirito. After having a beer at Bar do Primo, he marked down territory by the bank of the river. An honor to the town’s population who recently, in the early twenty-first century, commissioned local artist Genin Guerra with a sculpture of Citizen Kane’s creator, to commemorate the historic piss.

Influenced by a sad samba composed by Grande Otelo and Herivelto Martins and entitled “Vão acabar com a Praça Onze” (“They are destroying Praça Onze”), Welles was determined to include a comment about the urban origins of African rhythms. Praça Onze, cradle of street samba, had been demolished the previous year to make way for an avenue named after President Vargas. The plaza was rebuilt on set at the Urca Casino especially for the movie, but it was also used for that year’s Carnival hit song by Grande Otelo and Herivelto Martins, leaving the dictator in fury.

Still, it was Welles who did the honors of hosting the anniversary of the Brazilian president, held on April 18 at Urca and organized by the American Embassy. A week before and in preparation for the event, Welles had met Rolla, stage director Iaconelli and maestros Vicente Paiva and Ray Ventura. And previously to that, in the beginning of the production of “It’s All True”, Welles met and settled a ten thousand dollar agreement with Rolla to rent Urca, including free access to the grill-room.

The house maestro, Vicente Paiva, was commissioned by the American director with a song called Pan-America for the soundtrack of “It’s All True”, first performed on camera by Ray Ventura’s orchestra at the presidential gala. But it was the Brazilian Serenaders who, under the direction of wanna-be maestro Carlos Machado, and in spite of his absence from the preparation meetings, blasted the evening of Vargas’ birthday party with several classics such as “Cidade Maravilhosa” and “Dolores”, sang by Emilinha Borba, as well as a jazzy version of “Ai que saudades da Amélia” by Mexican singer Chuchu Martinez. Immediately after, Linda Batista sang a samba by Nassara, which agreed with the spirit that Americans expected from Brazilians. “Sabemos lutar” (We know how to fight) was properly explained to the United States by Orson Welles, during an on-stage flirtatious performance with his Brazilian affair Linda Baptista.

In control of the microphone, Welles made a professional radio broadcast to the United States, celebrating the event and congratulating Brazil, samba and the nation’s love for dancing. He introduced several performances, spoke in Portuguese and praised the evening, which was entitled Symphony of Brazil and included a comedy show by Grande Otelo, folk music by the Jararaca and Ratinho duo and acrobats Vic and Joe, who were Brazilian but used North-American artistic names. At that memorable evening, the presenter-director informed the whole of the United States that Urca “was one of the last truly happy places on earth”.

But in spite of performing his duty as ambassador, appearing side by side with Brazilian officials, selling Brazil the way Rockefeller wanted the North-American public to see it, Welles’ contact with Rio’s bohemian life, samba and the shantytowns, gave him a vision of the country like no ambassador before had.  His thoughts on Brazilian culture and society were very different from how Hollywood stereotyped black and Latin-American people. In a 1993 documentary about the unfinished “It’s All True”[3], Pery Ribeiro stated that Welles did for Brazil what no other man had done at the time: to show the country as it was. Gradually the idea of pan-Americanism that took the film director to Brazil was replaced by a greater awareness of how African roots were present in rhythms across the Americas.

This was a progressive notion, closer to more contemporary cultural analysis, and the project was therefore boycotted at the institutional level. “It’s All True” attempted to show the common genesis of samba and jazz, but ended up a failed project sent to some Hollywood storage room, and a confirmation of Welles’ damned reputation. After all, that wasn’t the film that Rockefeller had commissioned and as great as Welles’ idea was, the movie was never even edited by RKO. Welles managed to annoy the Brazilian leader by recreating on set places that Getúlio Vargas had destroyed. He was now on the verge of starting an ugly war with the director of his own production studio.

welles + jacaré
Orson Welles and the “Jangadeiro” Jacaré.

The relationship between Welles and the Brazilian and North-American authorities became increasingly deteriorated during the six month period that the movie director spent in Brazil. But what really seemed to have bothered the Brazilian government was Welles’ sympathetic attitude towards the “jangadeiro” Jacaré. Like Welles in the United States, the fisherman was under accusations of being a communist by the Brazilian Press and Propaganda Office.[4] In spite of all the promises that Vargas had made to the working class, to which Jacaré belonged, labor demands were consider suspicious and the work of Russian agents.

Welles had learnt of the fishermen in Time Magazine, in a piece about the historical crossing that took Manuel Olímpio (Jacaré), Jerônimo de Sousa, Raimundo Lima and Pereira da Silva from Fortaleza[5] in the northeast, to the then federal capital of Rio de Janeiro. They travelled to demand their social security rights from Getúlio Vargas – a promise the dictator made, but was yet to deliver.

When Welles filmed the four fishermen in a reenactment of their voyage, Jacaré was killed in an accident at the Guanabara Bay. Moved by the tragedy and more determined than ever, Welles created another segment to tell the stories of fishermen from the Ceará state and the precarious conditions in which they lived. Once again, that was definitely not what Rockefeller and Getúlio Vargas had in mind.

Persisting against the grain, Welles left Rio and moved to Fortaleza, in Ceará, where for over a month he wrote the script, while mingling and directing shots with fishermen, who incidentally had never seen a film in their lives. With ten thousand dollars in his pocket, he filmed the daily lives of a suffering community, the craft of local women weavers, and staged the death of a fisherman at sea, his funeral at the village and the uncertain future of his young widow. The director never finished editing “It’s All True”. It was confiscated by RKO, which was later sold to Paramount where, in 1958, an employee supposedly destroyed most Technicolor rolls, precisely the sequence showing Grande Otelo’s performance. Apparently, the reason for destroying the rolls was the fear that most studios had of copyright lawsuits for non-released films.

Orson Welles’ career was tarnished by the fact that he obtained a million dollars to shoot a film that, due to the studio’s own unwillingness, he couldn’t complete. And is it true that also due to censorship by the Brazilian government? Years later, Welles stated that they had made another version, modifying the whole idea, re-doing it their own way and that, in spite of having shot for six months, RKO fired him. Although he played the field graciously in the country of football, he confessed in the later years of his life that, at the time, Brazil was the last country in the world that he’d want to visit.

As far as the authorities were concerned, Welles failed to be a true ambassador of the Good Neighbor Policy. His period in Brazil created several problems for his career in the United States, and he finally decided to move to Europe. However, he won the heart of the Brazilian people. He mingled with the local culture, socialized with other artists and he even got to upset the Ufanistas[6], fashionable those days among Vargas’ followers, when he narrated the president’s birthday live to the United States, directly from the Urca Casino.

If the film requested by RKO was over toned with falsities, Orson Welles, the bohemian, at least tried to tell the true story; about the misery of the Brazilian northern region, but also about the joy and the music on the streets, up the shantytown hills and inside the show houses and casinos of Rio. Many years later, the director said that trying to shoot Carnival was like recording a hurricane. So it’s all true, that this period of the history of cinema in Brazil produced an excellent work from the notorious Orson Welles. A film that wasn’t edited and continues to hide a view of the 1942 Carnival at the happiest place on earth.

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[1] Jangadeiro comes from “jangada”, a raft with sail, used in the northeast of Brazil for fishing.

[2] The soundtrack of this play was the first partnership between Tom Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes and is considered one of the pillars of the Bossa Nova movement. The movie was directed by the frenchman Marcel Camus and to this day remains the sole Brazilian film to win an Oscar for Best Foreign Movie (1960), as well as a Golden Globe and the Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

[3] In 1993, Bill Krohn, Myron Meysel and Richard Wilson visited the surviving participants of the film in Brazil to learn more about the Jangadeiros’ situation. The result is the documentary by the same name as Welles’ film, “It’s All True” where they set up the segment “Four men on a raft” with a revisited soundtrack. As for the history of samba, there are short takes on the streets of Rio, the Urca Casino and of Grande Otelo performing.

[4] Known as DIP (Departamento de Imprensa e Propaganda).

[5] Capital of the Brazilian state of Ceará.

[6] Author’s footnote for translated version: The Ufanistas were followers of Ufanismo, founded around this time in Brazil as a movement with a strong nationalistic sentiment and expression. It was influenced by the fascist ideology operating at the time in many European governments. Ufanismo was particularly strong during Vargas’ dictatorship (1930-1945) and later, during the military dictatorship (1964-1985).

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