In 1931, just four years after “The Jazz Singer” changed film history, an Amazonian expedition teaming a wealthy industrialist, a famed big game hunter, an Academy Award-winning cinematographer and a Penn Museum anthropologist would make its own history as the first time non-Western speakers were recorded on synch-sound film. But “Matto Grosso, the Great Brazilian Wilderness” would remain largely unseen for more than 75 years, until its 2008 restoration via a grant from the National Film Preservation Foundation.
Penn Museum’s small exhibition, “Hollywood in the Amazon,” presents the film along with artifacts brought back from the original expedition.
“It’s kind of a hodgepodge,” Kate Pourshariati, Penn Museum film archivist, says of “Matto Grosso.” “It’s really an expeditionary film, a depiction of what they were trying to do on the expedition. But there’s also a lot of made-up material, reenactments and stagings.”
That blend of fact and fiction was typical of documentary films of the era, most famously in Robert Flaherty’s landmark silent film “Nanook of the North.” Cinematographer Floyd Crosby, who would go on to shoot the western classic “High Noon” and a number of films for B-movie master Roger Corman (he’s also the father of rock star David Crosby), won his Oscar in 1931 for “Tabu,” a South Seas-set collaboration between Flaherty and F.W. Murnau.
It was that success that led to Crosby’s involvement in the Brazilian expedition, which was prompted by big game hunter Sasha Siemel, who boasted of his ability to spear a jaguar in mid-air —an attempt which, in fictionalized form, provides the climactic events of the film. He approached industrialist E.R. Fenimore Johnson, whose father had founded the Victor Talking Machine Company, who decided that a venture into the Amazon should have a somewhat more scientific purpose. Penn Museum anthropologist Vincenzo Petrullo signed on, and the party set out to “record some new fragment of the unrecorded,” as the film’s narrator says.
“They had the crazy idea to take all this state-of-the-art Hollywood gear down to Brazil, which is interesting in itself,” Pourshariati says. “And they were at this interesting moment for sound technology and had the foresight to be the first to film indigenous people speaking on film. The thing that’s most exciting to me is that it’s a first.”
“Hollywood in the Amazon”
Through July 27, 2014
University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
3260 South St.
$10-$15 museum admission, 215-898-4000