The news that most of the footage from Orson Welles' never-completed 1942 documentary, "It's All True," had been found in a Paramount Pictures vault seemed tinged by that typical Wellesian mix: high promise, weird exhilaration, bitter irony.
Here we were, a year after the death of perhaps the most talented film maker America ever produced, when up pops a "lost" film, almost as legendary as the complete Von Stroheim "Greed."
And not just fragments: According to Daily Variety's Todd McCarthy, researcher Fred Chandler found almost 20 hours. Paramount has donated all of it to the American Film Institute--now engaged in raising $60,000 to transfer the fragile footage to safety stock, then another $250,000 to assemble part or all of the film. (It's quality--after all these years--is astonishingly lustrous and clear.)
A further irony. This was the movie, more than any other, that blighted Welles' career: the one he was shooting in Brazil--at Nelson Rockefeller's behest--when RKO changed hands, shifting to new studio heads who loudly declaimed: "All's well that ends Welles."
Orson Welles was a brash, nervy 26, a film maker of intimidating brilliance and energy, when he left for Rio de Janeiro to make "It's All True"--a docudrama about four peasant jangadeiros traveling 1,650 miles to petition dictator Getulio Vargas for aid, and arriving in the frenzy of the annual Rio carnival. When he came back, he was something of a Hollywood pariah. And he remained one--not as an actor or personality, but as a director and writer--for the rest of his life. Shockingly enough, the man who made "Citizen Kane" at 25 got only three more studio directorial assignments in 44 years, after returning from Brazil.
Perhaps he was battling that "disgrace" when he fought for years to finish "It's All True." Or perhaps he felt a debt of honor to the jangadeiro leader, who drowned while restaging his real-life exploits before Welles' cameras.
Welles went on shooting "It's All True"--with a skeleton crew--after RKO shut most of it down. Afterwards, he struggled for years to retrieve the footage, trying to buy it outright and then losing it after missing an installment payment. Eventually he gave up, convinced the project was cursed.
Now, all of a sudden, here it is again. It's as if Charles Foster Kane, 10 seconds after muttering "Rosebud," had popped open his eyes, leaped out of bed and started a wild jig down the many-mirrored corridors of Xanadu.
You're tempted to do a jig yourself. There's an almost sensuous delight in anticipating another Welles-directed film. And this one was made at what remained his period of highest confidence and achievement.
("It's All True" may not even be the last posthumous gem from the lode. According to a recent Sight and Sound article by Jonathan Rosenbaum, five other Welles-directed features--"Don Quixote," "The Deep," "Merchant of Venice," "The Other Side of the Wind" and "The Magic Show"--were in various stages of completion at his death; some needing only final editing and mixing.)
But there's another deep significance to this particular discovery. Seeing "It's All True"--even edited by other hands--may help settle part of a longstanding debate. Was Welles really the misunderstood genius he seems in retrospect? Or did his detractors have good reason to be chary of him?
Welles probably never planned "It's All True" as a magnum opus : He may have seen it as an interlude after "Kane's" sensation and "Ambersons"' Chekhovian rigors. Some of his original intentions for it were quashed early--such as a proposed history of jazz to be scored and performed by Duke Ellington. (What we wouldn't give to see and hear that segment today!)
But, though Welles' sympathetic biographer, Barbara Leames, confirms that he did have a high old time in Rio, the rediscovered footage belies any hint of diluted energies. He was a man who could juggle many things at once--and some of the scenes Chandler unearthed are among the most poetic he ever directed. They show a side of him we don't usually see: a near-pantheistic love of nature and simple people.
These scenes--shot in his trademark extreme deep-focus--show exactly what he loved about the films of Ford, Renoir or De Sica. They're lyrical evocations of rural poverty: luminous, bathed in the same natural light that graced Robert Flaherty's Louisiana Bayou folk, or Ford's and Gregg Toland's "Grapes of Wrath" Okies.
"It's All True" marked the only time Welles focused primarily on the poor: the reverse angle of his life-long obsession with the baroque foibles of the rich and powerful. The story falls into his familiar pattern--the spiraling down from hope to tragedy--but perhaps his chastening dismissal, and his Spartan sojourn among the Fortaleza villagers, spurred his idealism. It's a film seemingly made with intense devotion, balancing a harrowing despair.
And the saddest thing about "It's All True" is that, even if it's successfully finished, we'll never hear that sonorous, playfully eloquent voice narrating it: filtering the past through his own uniquely magical prism. The images of "It's All True" will have to speak for themselves--without him. It's obvious that they can.