Orson Welles in Brazil

Not unlike Naylor, Orson Welles also went to Brazil to cultivate U.S.-Brazilian relations during the Second World War. As Catherine L. Benamou writes in “Orson Welles at 100,” his “notoriety as a media personality, and the Latin American success of Citizen Kane, earned him a special appointment in late 1941 as “Goodwill Ambassador” by the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs.” Shortly afterwards, he arrived in Brazil to shoot a portion of what was to be his third RKO production, It’s All True. 

RKO abandoned the film before completion, so audiences never had the opportunity to see Welles’s exploration of samba music and its role in Rio’s Carnaval. It was not until decades later that any of the footage was released, as a part of the 1993 documentary  It’s All True: Based on an Unfinished Film by Orson Welles.   Catherine Benamou was instrumental in the production of the film and it is the centerpiece of her monogragh, It’s All True: Orson Welles’s Pan-American Odyssey 

In this clip from the documentary, Welles recalls the project’s inception and demise. The narration is intercut with original restored footage.

It’s All True was to be a film in three parts. The first segment, Carnaval, would tell the story of Samba.

2017 marked the 75th anniversary of the It’s All True film shoot. The online resource Wellesnet marked the occasion with the following article tracing the project and its legacy.

‘It’s All True’ – 75 years after Orson Welles’ ill-fated shoot

Orson Welles in Fortaleza, Brazil in 1942.


Seventy five years ago this month, Orson Welles was dispatched to Brazil to film Carnaval, the wild and lively pre-Lenten celebration in Rio de Janeiro. It proved to be one of the sadder chapters in the late filmmaker’s career.

Welles was under pressure from RKO to shoot a portion of his third film, the multi-story It’s All True, in Brazil. He had been appointed a goodwill ambassador to Latin America by Nelson Rockefeller, coordinator of Inter-American Affairs and a major stockholder in RKO, in November 1941. The OCIAA has been established a year earlier with funds from both the U.S. government and private sector.

Welles’ would use Carnaval to tell the story of the samba. Jangadeiros, a segment on the impoverished lives of Brazilian fishermen in Fortaleza, would constitute the second of three chapters. My Friend Bonito, shot in Mexico by Norman Foster, would complete the film.

What went wrong has been explored in detail in both in a fine documentary, It’s All True: Based on an Unfinished Film by Orson Welles, and Catherine L. Benamou exceptionally well-researched 2007 book  It’s All True: Orson Welles’s Pan-American Odyssey.

On May 19, 1942, Welles and his crew were preparing to film a scene for Jangadeiros when the raft carrying the four fishermen overturned. Only three of the four were rescued; Jacaré, a national hero, was lost at sea. Welles continued to soldier on with the film until RKO abandoned it.

Several factors contributed to the demise of It’s All True. Among them:

  • The poor test audience results for Welles’ sophomore RKO film, The Magnificent Ambersons
  • The resignation of Welles ally George Schaefer as RKO president, and Rockefeller’s departure from the RKO board of directors
  • The use of black and mixed race people in It’s All True was a source of concern at RKO
  • Welles’ interest in depicting the lives of the poor was hardly the commercial travelogue Brazilian dictator  Getúlio Dornelles Vargas might have wanted

Years later, Welles would describe the South American project as cursed, though he struggled  at great personal cost to persuade other movie studios to finance the completion of the project.

Welles used his fee from Jane Eyre to develop some of the It’s All True negative. He signed a $197,500 promissory note payable in two payments to gain control of the  footage, which was deposited in a Salt Lake City vault in Welles’ name in 1944. However, Welles was unable to come up with the first installment and had to return the footage in 1945.

A Technicolor scene from Orson Welles’  It’s All True.

The unused footage passed from RKO to Desilu Productions and eventually to Paramount Pictures. Reportedly, someIt’s All True elements were incorporated into that studio’s stock film library.

Fred Chandler, Paramount’s director of technical services, identified much of the surviving footage in the early 1980s. Some it appeared in  the 1993 documentary It’s All True: Based on an Unfinished Film by Orson Welles from Bill Krohn, Myron Meisel and Richard Wilson. The filmmakers attempted to create Jangadeiros using the footage shot by Welles. Some of his scenes for Carnaval and Foster’s  My Friend Bonito were used in the documentary, though much of the footage shot for those segments remains unseen.

In It’s All True: Orson Welles’s Pan-American Odyssey, Benamou detailed the results of a 2000 inventory of the surviving footage, which is housed in the UCLA Film and Television Archive nitrate vaults. The materials  include:

  • 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 was processed and used in the 1993 documentary
  • Jangadeiros — Approximately 28,000 feet of black-and-white not preserved; approximately 35,950 feet preserved
  • My Friend Bonito — Approximately 67,145 feet of black-and-white not preserved; 8,000 feet preserved

In addition, it was reported that 200,000 feet of Technicolor nitrate negative, mainly from Carnaval,  was destroyed by Paramount Pictures in the 1960s or 1970s  (A RKO inventory in 1952 included the 200,000 feet of color negative.).

Based on the 1952 and 2000 inventories, more than half of the footage shot for It’s All True was destroyed and less than 28 percent of the surviving footage has been preserved.

The DVD of  It’s All True: Based on an Unfinished Film by Orson Welles and the book It’s All True: Orson Welles’s Pan-American Odyssey are available at Amazon.com and other online retailers.

For more information on the making of  It’s All True, visit the Welles collections at Lilly Library at Indiana University and the University of Michigan Special Collection.