How many readers have heard of Atlântida Cinematográfica? The studio opened in Rio de Janeiro in 1941, and grew popular over the next two decades for its stream of musical comedy films called quaintly chanchadas (ribaldry). These were light, exciting black-and-white musical comedies, often Hollywood parodies. At its height, Atlântida would put out five a year using the same small group of directors and actors. Don't think of them as cheap rush jobs, though. On the contrary, these well-made movies are joys.
This becomes clear from one of the first shots of Atlântida founder-producer-director José Carlos Burle's 1953 film Carnaval Atlântida, one of three chanchadas I watched Thursday in good Cinemateca Brasileira prints. (A fourth, 'Sputnik Man', also screened.) The camera moves toward a door with the name "Cecílio B. De Milho" on it, and we see the growling, pacing, cigar-chomping studio boss (Renato Restier) inside. He's making an epic about the Trojan War. He needs box office, baby, and he needs a star to get it, but against his better judgment goes with two unknowns. The first, a moon-eyed, mustachioed, bow-tied fop (José Lewgoy), is enlisted to play Paris. The second, meek Professor Xenofontes (Oscarito), teaches classical history at a girls' school, and is thus the best possible person to play Helen of Troy. Yet when it comes time to shoot, our leads refuse to kiss each other, wrestling each other to the ground instead, and destroying fake palm trees as they do.
The rubber-faced Oscarito (real name Oscar Lorenzo Jacinto de la Imaculada Concepción Teresa Diaz) was a frequent Atlântida lead. His flailing arm movements inside a box he seems to have drawn around himself recall Chaplin's gestures; his leaping mouth and eyebrows, set into scared commotion by women, call to mind Jerry Lewis's. Yet he's closer to Frank Tashlin's Lewis than to the one Lewis directed himself, an agent of chaos who nonetheless belongs within society. In 'Carnaval Atlantida's show-stopping song-and-dance finale, he stands at the front of a large group, with a lovely lady holding him. He's pressed a little closer than he'd probably prefer, but still seems like he's having a wonderful time.
"Why do you have to do a serious Helen of Troy movie? Why can't you make a musical?" someone asks De Milho. He does, and the film we're watching follows suit, its last 15 minutes an extended stand-alone number as in 1951's 'An American in Paris'. Yet while the sequence in the Hollywood film is a character's fantasy, the chanchada makes no such pretense; 'Carnaval Atlantida' works more like Hollywood's earlier backstage musicals, in which the show is the group's way of continuing to have fun.
Another important group member is a tiny black actor-singer-dancer, Sebastião Bernardes de Souza Prata, who went by the stage name of Grande Otelo. In blessed contrast to Hollywood's racial divisions, Grande Otelo's skin color was basically a nonissue on screen, and he often teamed with Oscarito to form a lively comic pair. In 'Carnaval Atlantida', he plays a mischievous, false-beard-wearing clown who locks Oscarito's professor inside a steam bath; in 1954's 'Matar ou correr' (Kill or run), a 'High Noon', he plays deputy Cisco Kada to Kid Bolha, Oscarito's cowardly sheriff. Kada tries to shove the Kid onto a horse, and gets trapped between the other man's legs in the process; once they untangle, he excitedly fires gunshots into the air, which scares the horse into riding out of control.
Like in the 1952 Fred Zinneman film, the sheriff here waits to confront a bandit (José Lewgoy again) that he once locked up. Unlike the still, sweating Gary Cooper, though, Oscarito throws his hands all over himself, and eats as much paper as possible to try to keep calm. 'Matar ou correr's message also differs from its predecessor's; while Cooper's tin star must face the villains alone, Oscarito's learns that no man is an island. In 'High Noon', Grace Kelly learns, looking forward, that you sometimes must shoot people; 'Kill or run's female lead (Inalda de Carvalho) blasts at bad guys repeatedly, turning her head each time she fires, then looking back with a smile to see what she's hit.
To show the theme of group solidarity, director Carlos Manga (promoted after directing 'Carnaval Atlantida's musical sequences) arranges his group shots elegantly and beautifully, placing people at different, overlapping points throughout the frame to give a sense of depth of field. The cowboys address each other at angles, roaming throughout the bar or jail space while drinking, the details of guns, farm tools, and bits of everyday life kept in focus behind them the whole time. This is very different from 'High Noon', which prefers one- or two-shots and frames people talking in straight lines. Its style is closer to that of Howard Hawks's 'Rio Bravo', a great response to 'High Noon', even more impressive for doing what Hawks did five years earlier.
A key western staple is the climactic gunfight, in which the hero duels the villain and proves his courage. 'Matar ou correr' feels no need to prove this; the Kid is a hero in spite of himself, and in fumbling for his gun accidentally shoots the bad guy in the hand. He can then be fully happy in the community where he belongs. In contrast to the rigorously ordered social codes of many westerns, with people ordered along lines of race, class, and sex, everyone celebrates together in 'Kill or run' with a carnival spirit. The ending even spots up the western's implicit homoeroticism, as Cisco and the Kid see an amorous couple and, overjoyed, start making out.
Oscarito appears Otelo-less in the same year's 'Nem Sansão, nem Dalila' ('Neither Samsom nor Delilah', which Manga also directed. The film's first 10 minutes could be called 'Barbershop madness', as Oscarito's scrawny shaver lifts the wig off of a big, burly, bald client who in his outraged vanity proceeds to wreck the place. The little fellow drives away, and crashes into a house where a scientist has built a time machine, hurtling him back to ancient times. He has held onto the wig, which now gives him super strength; he's found the power to impress people, and political candidacy follows. He strides beneath a banner proclaiming "Samson - Man of Action," dictating to his secretary as she writes with hammer and chisel. The campaign plans real progress for its backward constituency; its leader cries out, "I'm going to make a film industry, and only one state bank!"
Like a lot of contemporaneous Hollywood comedies (including the best Tashlin-Lewis film, 'Artists and Models', 'Neither Samson nor Delilah' eventually turns into an action movie. Each person and object gets the chance to cause a little havoc, including the hero's jeep, which returns to send a gigantic, solemn statue crashing into frame. Manga organizes the destruction through clean framing and editing, which makes it funnier. It's almost needless to say that this film is better than any of the Biblical epics it sends up, just as 'Carnaval Atlantida's musical looks better than its Trojan tripe. But I'd go even further, and call Manga a case for further study; more films could show him to be as gifted a comic filmmaker as the best American clowners of the 1950s and 1960s (Tashlin, Blake Edwards, and Billy Wilder).
These three films were the first Atlântida films I'd seen, and first chanchadas. (A sex-heavy variant called pornochanchada emerged in the 1970s.)
I'd like to see many more, including Manga-Oscarito pairings like 1953's 'Double the noise' (A dupla do barulho), 1955's 'War on Samba' ('Guerra ao samba'), 1956's 'Sprouts College' (Colégio de brotos), 1959's 'This is my million' (Esse milhão é meu), and 1957's 'De vento em pop' (translated, this 1957 prizewinner might be 'In full swing').
Though well-known and beloved in Brazil, these films sorely need greater international exposure. Film historians, programmers, and critics can get so caught up in researching the American studio system that they don't realize other national cinemas not just studied and imitated Hollywood filmmaking, but did it better.
The Sao Paulo International Film Festival run as of 3rd November 2011.
'Carnaval Atlantida', 'Kill or run' (Matar ou correr) and 'Neither Samson nor Delilah' (Nem Sansão, nem Dalila). Sao Paulo International Film Festival 2011.