It's All True (film)
|It's All True|
Orson Welles on location in Fortaleza, Brazil (June 26, 1942)
|Directed by||Orson Welles
Norman Foster ("My Friend Bonito")
|Produced by||Orson Welles
Richard Wilson (associate)
|Screenplay by||Orson Welles
|Story by||Robert J. Flaherty ("Bonito the Bull")|
|Cinematography||Floyd Crosby ("My Friend Bonito")
William Howard Greene ("Carnaval" and "Jangadeiros" Technicolor)
Harry J. Wild ("Carnaval" black-and-white)
George Fanto ("Jangadeiros")
It's All True is an unfinished Orson Welles feature film comprising three stories about Latin America. "My Friend Bonito" was supervised by Welles and directed by Norman Foster in Mexico in 1941. "Carnaval" (also known as "The Story of Samba") and "Jangadeiros" (also known as "Four Men on a Raft") were directed by Welles in Brazil in 1942. It was to have been Welles's third film for RKO Radio Pictures, after Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). The project was a co-production of RKO and the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs that was later terminated by RKO.
The unrealized production was the subject of a 1993 documentary written and directed by Richard Wilson, Bill Krohn and Myron Meisel.
While some of the footage shot for It's All True was repurposed or sent to stock film libraries, approximately 200,000 feet of the Technicolor nitrate negative, most of it for the "Carnaval" episode, was dumped into the Pacific Ocean in the late 1960s or 1970s. In the 1980s a cache of nitrate negative, largely black-and-white, was found in a vault and presented to the UCLA Film and Television Archive. A 2000 inventory indicated that approximately 50,000 feet of It's All True had been preserved, with approximately 130,045 feet of the deteriorating nitrate not yet preserved.
- 1 Background
- 2 Components
- 3 Termination of the project
- 4 Efforts to complete the film
- 5 Repurposing
- 6 Recovery
- 7 Reconstructions
- 8 Preservation status
- 9 References
- 10 Bibliography
- 11 External links
In 1941, Orson Welles conceived It's All True as an omnibus film mixing documentary and docufiction.:221 It was to have been his third film for RKO, following Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942).:109
The idea began in conversations between Welles and Duke Ellington in July 1941, the day after Welles saw Ellington's stage revue Jump for Joy in Los Angeles.:27 Welles invited Ellington to his office at RKO and told him, "I want to do the history of jazz as a picture, and we'll call it It's All True." Ellington was put under contract to score a segment with the working title, "The Story of Jazz", drawn from Louis Armstrong's 1936 autobiography, Swing That Music. "I think I wrote 28 bars, a trumpet solo by Buddy Bolden which, of course, was to be a symbol of the jazz," Ellington later recalled. "It was very good, but Orson never heard it, and I can't find it. I don't know where it is. It was the only thing I ever wrote for the $12,500 I got.":232–233
A passionate and knowledgeable fan of traditional New Orleans jazz, Welles was part of the social network of Hollywood's Jazz Man Record Shop, a business that opened in 1939 and was instrumental in the worldwide revival of original jazz in the 1940s. Welles hired the shop's owner, David Stuart, as a researcher and consultant on the screenplay for "The Story of Jazz", which journalist Elliot Paul was put under contract to write.:42–54
The episode was to be a brief dramatization of the history of jazz performance, from its roots to its place in American culture in the 1940s. Cast as himself, Louis Armstrong would play the central role.:109 Aspects of Armstrong's biography would be interspersed with filmed performances at venues ranging from a riverboat on the Mississippi to New York. The work of Joe Sullivan, Kid Ory, Joe "King" Oliver, Bessie Smith and others would also be spotlighted, and Ellington's original soundtrack would connect the various elements into a whole.:29
"The Story of Jazz" was to go into production in December 1941. Most of the filming would take place in the studio, but the episode also incorporated innovations including New Orleans jazz pioneer Kid Ory addressing the camera directly at an outdoor location somewhere in California, where he then lived, and animation by Oskar Fischinger.:119–120
In 1945, long after RKO terminated It's All True, Welles again tried to make the jazz history film, without success.:177 He spoke about it with Armstrong, who responded with a six-page autobiographical sketch.:255, 426
"Armstrong is reported to have truly regretted the eventual cancellation of the project," wrote film scholar Catherine L. Benamou.:29
The other three original sections of It's All True were "Bonito the Bull" (retitled "My Friend Bonito"), "The Captain's Chair" and "Love Story".
Welles purchased the stories for two of the segments — "My Friend Bonito" and "The Captain's Chair" — from documentary filmmaker Robert J. Flaherty. "I loved his pictures, and he wasn't getting any work, and I thought, 'Wouldn't it be nice?'" Welles told Peter Bogdanovich. "At that time I felt I was powerful and could do that."
And there was Flaherty. Instead of being a favor for him, it turned out to be a favor for me. I wanted him to direct The Captain's Chair and he didn't want to because it would have involved actors, you know, and he didn't like that. … and then I thought of somebody else directing it. I wanted to start other people directing and all that — I thought I was beginning a great thing, you know.:156
Adapted by Norman Foster and John Fante, Flaherty's "Bonito the Bull" was based on an actual incident that took place in Mexico in 1908. It relates the friendship of a mestizo boy and a young bull destined to die in the ring but reprieved by the audience in Mexico City's Plaza el Toreo. "My Friend Bonito" was the only story of the original four to go into production,:109 with filming taking place in Mexico September 25–December 18, 1941. Norman Foster directed under Welles's supervision.:311
"The Captain's Chair", an unproduced segment that was also based on a Flaherty story, was originally set in the Arctic but was relocated to Hudson's Bay to conform with the premise of the film. A script for the fourth unproduced segment, "Love Story", was written by John Fante as the purportedly true story of the courtship of his immigrant parents who met in San Francisco.:9
"In addition to the tenuous boundary between 'real' and 'staged' events," wrote Catherine L. Benamou, "there was a thematic emphasis on the achievement of dignity by the working person, along with the celebration of cultural and ethnic diversity of North America.":109
In late November 1941, Welles was appointed as a Goodwill Ambassador to Latin America by Nelson Rockefeller, Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs:244 and a principal stockholder in RKO Radio Pictures. The CIAA's Motion Picture Division, led by Jock Whitney, was asked by the Brazilian government to produce a documentary of the annual Rio Carnival celebration, taking place in early February.:40–41 In a telegram December 20, 1941, Whitney wrote Welles, "Personally believe you would make great contribution to hemisphere solidarity with this project.":65
"RKO put up the money, because they were being blackmailed, forced, influenced, persuaded — and every other word you would want to use — by Nelson Rockefeller, who was also one of its bosses then, to make this contribution to the war effort," Welles recalled some 30 years later. "I didn't want to do it, really; I just didn't know how to refuse. It was a non-paying job for the government that I did because it was put to me that it was a sort of duty.":156
With filming of "My Friend Bonito" about two-thirds complete, Welles decided he could shift the geography of It's All True and incorporate Flaherty's story into an omnibus film about Latin America, supporting the Roosevelt administration's Good Neighbor policy.:41 In this revised concept, "The Story of Jazz" was replaced by the story of samba, a musical form with a comparable history and one that came to fascinate Welles. He also decided to do a ripped-from-the-headlines episode about the epic voyage of four poor Brazilian fishermen, the jangadeiros, who had become national heroes. Welles later said this was the most valuable story.:15:158–159
"Because there was little time to prepare the film," wrote Welles scholar Bret Wood, "and because he wanted as much of the material to come from the South American people (rather than reflect his own preconceived ideas) as possible, Welles departed without a screenplay or narrative outline for the films, knowing only that he wanted to recreate the fishermen's trip in their four-man jangada.":15
In return for all profits, RKO was to put up $1.2 million for the film.:65 As co-producer of the project, the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs guaranteed $300,000 against any losses RKO might incur on the release of a Class A motion picture.:41
As an emissary of the U.S. government, Welles received no salary. The project sponsors covered production expenses, travel and accommodations throughout his tour. RKO paid most of these costs; the CIAA appropriately covered the diplomatic trips associated with Welles's appointment.:41, 328
"My Friend Bonito"
"Bonito the Bull", retitled "My Friend Bonito" and produced by Flaherty, was about a Mexican boy's friendship with a bull. It was filmed in Mexico in black-and-white under the direction of Norman Foster beginning in September 1941 and supervised by Welles. Because of its subject and location, the short film was later integrated into It's All True.
Two weeks after Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Welles was asked by Nelson Rockefeller (then the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs) to make a non-commercial film without salary to support the war effort as part of the Good Neighbor Policy. RKO Radio Pictures, of which Rockefeller was a major shareholder and a member of its board of directors, would foot the bill, with the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs guaranteeing up to $300,000 against potential financial losses. After agreeing to do the project, he was sent on a goodwill mission to Brazil in February 1942 to film Rio de Janeiro's Carnaval in both Technicolor and black-and-white. This was the basis for the episode also known as "The Story of Samba".
The third part of the film was inspired by an article Welles read in the December 8, 1941, issue of Time titled "Four Men on a Raft". The story was about four impoverished Brazilian fishermen who set sail from Fortaleza on the São Pedro, a simple sailing raft (jangada), in September 1941. After 61 days and 1,650 miles without any navigating instruments, braving the wind, rain and fierce sun, and making many friendly stops along the way, they sailed into Rio de Janeiro harbor as national heroes. The four men, led by Manoel Olimpio Meira who was called "Jacaré" (alligator) after the village where he was born, had arrived in what was then the Brazilian capital to file their grievances directly to President Getúlio Vargas against an economically exploitative system in which all fishermen were forced to divide half of their weekly catch amongst themselves (the other half went to the jangada owners) and that they were ineligible for social security benefits. The result was a bill that was signed into law by President Vargas that entitled the jangadeiros to the same benefits awarded to all union laborers — retirement funds, pensions for widows and children, housing, education and medical care.
Filming the reenactment of this epic voyage cost the life of the leader of the four jangadeiros. On May 19, 1942, while Welles and the crew were preparing to film the arrival of the São Pedro, a launch towing the jangada turned sharply and severed the line. The raft overturned and all four men were cast into the ocean. Only three were rescued; Jacaré disappeared while trying to swim to shore. Welles resolved to finish the episode as a tribute to Jacaré. For continuity, Jacaré's brother stood in as Jacaré, and the narrative was modified to focus on a young fisherman who dies at sea shortly after his marriage to a beautiful young girl (Francisca Moreira da Silva). His death becomes the catalyst for the four jangadeiros' voyage of protest. Shot in Technicolor before the accident, the entry into Rio harbor includes Jacaré, presenting an opportunity for Welles to pay him homage in the closing narration.:52–55
Termination of the project
Major changes occurred at RKO in 1942. Floyd Odlum took over control of the studio and began changing its direction. Rockefeller, an important backer of the film, left the RKO board of directors. Around the same time, the principal sponsor of Welles at RKO, studio president George Schaefer, resigned. The changes throughout RKO caused a reevaulation of the project.
Welles' relations with his studio RKO were troubled during production. He had left California with editing on The Magnificent Ambersons unfinished. Welles being in Brazil also led to communication problems and misunderstandings between himself and the studio. Welles was allowed to finish shooting "Four Men on a Raft" by mid-July 1942 with a minimal budget and crew. When Welles returned to the United States, RKO ended its contract with him and It's All True was abandoned.
Efforts to complete the film
Welles sought to continue the project elsewhere and tried to persuade other movie studios to finance the completion of the project. Welles eventually managed to purchase some of the footage of the film, but ended up relinquishing ownership back to RKO based on his inability to pay the storage costs of the film.
Welles thought that the film had been cursed. Speaking about the production in the second episode of his 1955 BBC-TV series Orson Welles' Sketch Book, Welles said that a voodoo doctor who had been preparing a ceremony for It's All True was deeply offended at the film being terminated. Welles found his script pierced completely through with a long needle. "And to the needle was attached a length of red wool. This was the mark of the voodoo," Welles said. "And the end of that story is that it was the end of the film. We were never allowed to finish it."
That scene from Orson Welles' Sketch Book introduces the 1993 documentary, It's All True: Based on an Unfinished Film by Orson Welles.
Footage from It's All True was used in RKO films including The Falcon in Mexico (1944):349 and, reportedly, the musical showcase Pan-Americana (1945). Some black-and-white film from the "Carnaval" sequence was sold as stock footage for The March of Time,:281, 361 a newreel series with a long association with RKO.:110, 281
An independently produced film released in 1947 by United Artists, New Orleans, has its basis in It's All True. Elliot Paul, who had been under contract to Welles to write "The Story of Jazz" segment, is credited as screenwriter for the film, an all-star history of jazz starring Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday.:138–139 In December 1946 Welles's assistant Richard Wilson wrote an attorney to note the similarity between the story of New Orleans and the concept of "The Story of Jazz".:361
In 1956, RKO released The Brave One, a film about the friendship between a young Mexican boy and a bull who is destined to die in the bullring but is spared by the crowd. Much controversy surrounded the film when its screenwriter, "Robert Rich", received an Academy Award for Best Story. Orson Welles later said, "Dalton Trumbo wrote it under a pseudonym; he couldn't take credit because he was a victim of the blacklist."
So nobody came up to get the Oscar, and everybody said, "What a shame — poor Dalton Trumbo, victim of McCarthyism." But, in fact, the story was not his or mine but Robert Flaherty's. The King brothers were with RKO, and they got the rights for it — and Trumbo took a great big invisible bow. Which Flaherty deserved.:155
"The Brave One illustrates the extent to which plagiarism could become a modus operandi for low-budget studio film production," wrote film scholar Catherine L. Benamou, "legitimated by the studios' legal ownership of script material and footage, and euphemized as the productive recycling of outdated or abandoned projects.":282
Benamou also cites similarities between a script Welles wrote after returning to the United States, when he hoped to salvage some of the "Carnaval" footage, and another RKO film. "There is a notable resonance between the later version of the 'Michael Guard' script and the basic plot and setting of the high-budget Notorious, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and released with considerable success by RKO in 1946," Benamou wrote. The plot involves two European Americans in Brazil, one of them a woman spy who discovers a clandestine Nazi operation. Finding it plausible that the Welles script may have been used, Benamou called for further research.:283, 361
A 1952 inventory documented that the RKO vault contained the following footage from It's All True:
- Black-and-white negative equal to 21 reels of footage of "My Friend Bonito"
- Negative matching 15 reels of "Jangadeiros"
- Seven reels of black-and-white film and one reel of color film for the "Carnaval" segment
- Uncut Technicolor negative (200,000 feet) and music sound negative (50,000 feet) shot for "Carnaval":277
In 1953, however, It's All True cinematographer George Fanto was told by RKO that no one knew what had become of the footage. Fanto wished to locate the film after finding someone to finance its completion.:277
The film remained in the vault when RKO was acquired by Desilu Productions in 1957. In 1967 the footage came under the control of Paramount Pictures, and some elements — the Technicolor sequence from "Four Men on a Raft", parts of "Carnaval" and scenes from "My Friend Bonito" — were incorporated into Paramount's stock film library. In the late 1960s or 1970s, perhaps fearing legal action by Grande Otelo (then a celebrity but an unknown at the time he was filmed for It's All True), Paramount discarded some 200,000 feet of Technicolor nitrate negative into the Pacific Ocean. At the same time, however, efforts were under way to locate and preserve the film. The American Film Institute was particularly interested, based on inquiries made in the mid-1960s by Desilu founder Desi Arnaz, a good friend of Welles, about printing some of the negative.:277–279
In 1981 Fred Chandler, Paramount's director of technical services, was looking for storage space in the studio's Hollywood vault when he happened across the long-forgotten footage from It's All True. He found 250 metal film cans labeled "Bonito" and "Brazil", each holding held eight to ten rolls of black-and-white nitrate negative. Seeing a few shots of the "Jangadeiros" sequence, Chandler recognized it immediately. Orson Welles was told of the discovery but he refused to look at it. "He told me the film was cursed," said Chandler, who donated the film to the American Film Institute. Chandler raised $110,000 to fund the creation of a short documentary film — It's All True: Four Men on a Raft (1986) — using some of the footage.
In May 1982, approximately 47 seconds of footage from It's All True was broadcast on the BBC-TV series Arena, in a documentary titled The Orson Welles Story. "It's a tiny roll of disconnected Technicolor shots," producer-narrator Leslie Megahey says as the silent film is presented. "We found this roll with the help of an archivist at RKO in a Hollywood film library, labelled as stock footage of the Carnival. Welles himself has probably never seen it."
It's All True: Four Men on a Raft
It's All True: Four Men on a Raft is a short documentary film released in 1986.
The preservation of It's All True at UCLA was supported by the American Film Institute, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the initiative of Fred Chandler and Welles's executive assistant Richard Wilson (1915–1991).:278 Wilson had worked with Welles since 1937 — in theatre, radio and film. As Welles's executive assistant on It's All True, Wilson was with the first group to arrive in Brazil, on January 27, 1942, two weeks before Welles himself.:336
When Welles declined to look at the newly recovered footage, Wilson accepted the difficult task of making sense of it. After he spent days scrutinizing the unprinted negative Wilson identified about seven hours of the "Jangedeiros" footage shot at Fortaleza. He edited some of the film into a coherent ten-minute sequence, which was used in a short film that was titled It's All True: Four Men on a Raft. The other 12 minutes of the film included the on-screen recollections of Wilson and cinematographer George Fanto.
The resulting 22-minute documentary short made its debut at the Venice Film Festival August 30, 1986. The short film was created to help raise funds for the preservation and transfer of the film from nitrate to safety stock — a process that is still far from complete.:312, 315, 317
It's All True: Based on an Unfinished Film by Orson Welles
|It's All True: Based on an
Unfinished Film by Orson Welles
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Bill Krohn
|Produced by||Catherine L. Benamou (associate)
|Written by||Bill Krohn
|Music by||Jorge Arriagada (original score)|
|Editing by||Ed Marx|
|Distributed by||Canal Plus/Paramount Pictures|
|Running time||85 minutes|
The driving force behind the film was Richard Wilson who collaborated with Welles on It's All True and most of his stage productions, radio shows, and other feature films. In 1986 Wilson, along with Bill Krohn, the Los Angeles correspondent for Cahiers du cinéma, made a 22-minute trailer to raise money for the project. They were joined by film critic Myron Meisel the next year and Catherine Benamou in 1988. Benamou, a Latin American and Caribbean specialist fluent in the dialect spoken by the jangadeiros, performed the field research and conducted interviews with the film's original participants in Mexico and Brazil. Wilson would continue to work despite having been diagnosed with cancer which he only disclosed to family and close friends. It wasn't until after his death in 1991 when the project finally got the funding needed to complete the documentary from Canal Plus.
In terms of cinema history and scholarship, the highlight of this year's New York Film Festival is the presentation of It's All True: Based on an Unfinished Film by Orson Welles. … This documentary is a long, seductive footnote to a cinema legend.
Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum called the film "an exemplary, scrupulously researched documentary about the making and unmaking of Orson Welles’s 1942 Latin American documentary feature It’s All True — a project doomed by a change of studio heads at RKO, but also by its radical politics: Welles’s problack stance and his focus on the poorest sectors of Brazilian life upset RKO and the Brazilian dictatorship alike. (His career never fully recovered from the ensuing studio propaganda, and this film represents the first major effort after half a century of obfuscation to set the record straight.)"
"It's been a long time coming," wrote Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Wilmington, "because the It's All True saga has been, until now, the saddest and most frustrating in all of the cinema."
In The Washington Post, Desson Howe reported a succint history of the original project and its consequences for Welles, then turned to the 1993 documentary and "Jangadeiros" reconstruction: "If nothing else, this brings a chapter of his troubled career to light and tells us of four determined men who — like Welles — fought the current every bit of the way.
"Despite the filmmakers' obvious reverence for Welles, this documentary is marred, ironically, by the very way it presents the original material," wrote TV Guide. "The newly-composed score to 'Four Men on a Raft' has a symphonic, romanticized quality that nearly destroys the quiet dignity of the images. … [The film] illustrates the opposite approach to film reconstruction taken with ¡Que viva México! (1930–32), Sergei Eisenstein's own 'lost' Latin American project: this academic study film eschews the more traditional mediating elements of music and voiceovers, presenting the raw footage without any sound."
It's All True: Based on an Unfinished Film by Orson Welles was named the year's Best Documentary by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and received a special citation from the National Society of Film Critics.
- 2004: Paramount (Full Screen Collection), Region 1 DVD, November 30, 2004
In her book, It's All True: Orson Welles's Pan-American Odyssey (2007), Catherine L. Benamou presents an inventory of the surviving It's All True footage stored in the UCLA Film and Television Archive nitrate vaults. These materials were present in a June 2000 inventory.
- "My Friend Bonito" — Approximately 67,145 feet of black-and-white not preserved; 8,000 feet preserved.:312
- "Carnaval" — Approximately 32,200 feet of black-and-white not preserved; 3,300 feet preserved. Approximately 2,700 feet of Technicolor not preserved (in Paramount Studios vaults); approximately 2,750 feet processed for use in the 1993 documentary.:315
- "Jangadeiros" — Approximately 28,000 feet of black-and-white not preserved; approximately 35,950 feet preserved.:317
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