American fascination with Brazilian culture is nothing new—we’ve been enamored with the beats, bright lights, and gyrating bodies of Rio de Janeiro for centuries. Modern Brazilian Carnival originated in Rio de Janeiro in 1641 when the city’s bourgeoisie imported the practice of holding balls and masquerade parties from Paris. It originally echoed the European form of the festival, and later absorbed elements derived from Native American and African cultures.
Until the dawn of the technological age of the 20th century, the only way to simultaneously witness the sights and sounds of Rio was to sail to Brazil and experience it firsthand. With the development of movies, Americans became voyeurs of this exciting and exotic culture.
Here are two examples of films that aimed to portray Brazilian culture in the early 1940s.
It’s All True
An unfinished Orson Welles feature film, this compilation contains three stories about Latin America. “My Friend Bonito” was shot in 1941 and both “The Story of Samba” and “Four Men on a Raft” were shot in 1942.
It was the subject of a 1993 documentary written and directed by Richard Wilson, Bill Krohn and Myron Meisel. Both a documentary and a unique exercise in film restoration, The documentary It’s All True tells the complex story of Orson Welles’ ill-fated attempts to make an anthology film about the life and culture of South America and concludes with a reconstruction of one of Welles’ unfinished segments, edited together from rediscovered original footage. The idea for Welles’ South American project was conceived by the American government as a sort of cultural exchange to improve relations with Latin America. Using interviews and period footage, the filmmakers tell of how the project quickly turned sour, as both the Brazilian government and RKO studio executives objected to Welles early footage. They wanted Welles to use more people with white skin coloring, and often asked Welles to try and avoid using black people. Thanks to a local witch doctor, the film could literally be said to be cursed. Although Welles stuck with the project, RKO eventually withdrew support from the film. It’s All True concludes with a partial reconstruction of the “Four Men on a Raft” segment, in which Welles tells the true story of a dramatic, thousand-mile raft journey by four Brazilian peasants.
Carnival in Brazil (1942) Directed by Leslie Roush
Review from Variety:
“Sock Latin-American one-reeler, lacking a dull moment. The annual Mardi Gras of Brazil is excuse for parading Latin-American artists and atmosphere, with newsreel shots of actual Rio de Janeiro festival trimly dovetailed into production material. Singing of Elsie Houston, Brazilian soprano, fits nicely into the opening sequence while the wild gyrations of Jose and Lolita Vega are nearly as primitive as some of Brazilian stepping captured (but a mere flash) by the newsreel camera. Fernando Alvarez supplies change of pace by introducing the current South American carnival anthem, Carolina. Exciting enough to make on want to visit Rio at carnival time. Another to Les Roush’s credit.”
One interesting thing to note about this production is the lack of black faces. This says a lot about the US in the 1940s. After the failure of Welles’ film It’s All True, Paramount Studios, in an attempt to appeal to the American public, opted to not portray the black population in this follow up project.
Truly important works, these historical films capture the essence of Brazilian culture as seen through the eyes of the American voyeur.