Rosita (1923) Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Mary Pickford, George Walsh, Holbrook Blinn (90 min) Restored by The Museum of Modern Art with support from The Louis B. Mayer Foundation, RT Features, The Film Foundation, and The Celeste Bartos Fund for Film Preservation. Special thanks to The Mary Pickford Foundation and Filmmuseum München.
A fiery street singer in Seville, Spain, catches the eye of both a handsome nobleman, and a lecherous king. Pickford, America’s Sweetheart, invited Lubitsch to American to showcase her in the style of the rambunctious historical epics he directed to acclaim in Europe. Rosita was a smash hit, but Pickford later vilified it, letting it decompose; this new MoMA print restores it to a proper place in cinema history. “Seen in its glorious restoration, it’s difficult to fathom her objections….Rosita is a gorgeous valentine, if not to the star then to the industry she personified (NY Times).
Pickford and George Walsh
Mary Pickford was America’s Sweetheart, The Woman Who Made Hollywood, the beloved wife of another silent film superstar, Douglas Fairbanks, a superb actress, and a hard-nosed business woman. She was an international celebrity starting in 1909, and with Fairbanks and Charles Chaplin, at the vanguard of a passionate global fan interest in the lives of celebrities that had never before existed.
Her appeal was not just her delicate beauty, her superb comic abilities, her dramatic command of the silent screen, and her renowned marriage. She was loved for a particularly American reason, her democratic belief that to be poor was more ennobling than to be rich. Her boisterous heroines triumphed over adversity and in an era just emerging from one that believed a proper lady was to be worshiped on a pedestal, she was spunky, brave, determined and independent, qualities that also defined Pickford in real life. And, of course, the woman who showed the world and idealized childhood, never had a childhood she could call her own, other than that on the screen.
She was born Gladys Smith in Toronto in 1892. Her father died when she was six, leaving her mother with three small children to support. Gladys went on stage shortly afterwards (there were hundreds of barnstorming theater companies in North American, employing tens of thousands of actors) and became the sole support of her family, a position she would hold throughout her life. At 14, she strode into Broadway impresario David Belasco’s office demanding a role suited to her age and abilities, startled by her nerve and her talent, he complied. Two years later, faced with the summer closing of the New York theaters (there was no air conditioning, so no shows) she introduced herself similarly to pioneering director D. W. Griffith, only now demanding the princely salary ($10/day, $25/week minimum) a player of her status deserved.
While acting in hundreds of one and two reel Biograph films, she learned everything about the movies, not just acting, but lighting, camera and directing. After she left Griffith, she was in complete control, not just of her art, but of the business of the Mary Pickford Motion Picture Company. She was the first female star to create her own corporation (in 1915) and was the first star/producer. By 1919 with the founding of United Artists she became her own distributor, as well, a level of power unmatched by stars even in today’s media empires. She and her cofounders Fairbanks, Chaplin and Griffith could make the movies they wanted without interference. Iris Barry wrote “Mary made herself a star by her own unremitting efforts; she created a character for herself on the screen, she invented a brand of girlhood the public responded to, and she built up this character and stabilized this brand by every effort in her power” (Brownlow 18).
Such a beautiful set of German postcards.
Her reputation endured during an era of movie nostalgia as a demure, Victorian era child-woman with a halo of golden ringlets. Because she had complete creative control over her film archive access was limited. Mostly, there were still photographs, Little Lord Fauntleroy (MoMA had a print, and showed it at its pioneering museum film series) and the remake of her hit, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (starring a real little girl with golden curls, Shirley Temple) to preserve her legacy. It took a new generation of feminist film scholars to restore her to her rightful place in cinema history.
In 1923, Pickford was still at the height of her fame. She planned to import German director Ernst Lubitsch to direct the period drama, Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall, as he had made a star of sultry Pola Negri decked out in fabulous costumes as the tempestuous heroines of Carmen, Madame DuBarry and Sumurun. Mary and Doug had been watching the wave of German films that arrived in the US after the runaway success of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and Doug felt Ernst Lubitsch directed the best of them. When Mary signed him to a contract, some of her fans rebelled, as anti-German sentiment still ran strong, only a handful of years after WW I. Lubitsch’s family was heartbroken that he was going to “California, to a world full of Indians, mountain lions, rattle snakes and any number of other wild animals (Eyeman 87). Lubitsch liked and admired Pickford, and loved Hollywood and its beautiful sunlight, which he called a “film paradise.”
Rosita’s rowdy family procided a lot of humor.
Pickford bid against other producers for the rights to film Charles Major’s popular novel Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall. But when Lubitsch arrived, under the impression he was directing her in Faust, they clashed. Mary envisioned plotting and sword fighting in the halls of a Robin Hood-y castle, but Lubitsch read the script with the complicated plot involving Queen Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots and pronounced, “Der iss too many qveens and not enough qveens” meaning that the historical subplot overshadowed the heroine (Herndon 225). Instead, they made Rosita, in which Mary plays a Spanish gypsy, and when it was done, Mary enlisted her old friend Marshall Neilan, who had made many hits for her in the past, to direct her pet project of Dorothy Vernon, a lively film which the NCMA museum audience loved, perhaps the closest thing to a Douglas Fairbanks picture that Mary ever made.
Lubitsch was shocked when he discovered Mary Pickford (or, more accurately, her mother) had nixed Faust. There was a language barrier, but a friend of the couple, Edward Knoblock, playwright and fluent German speaker intervened. Knoblock had adapted a French play called Don Cesar de Bazan or, according to Janine Basinger one of Lubitsch’s German films, The Spanish Dancer, which starred his favorite firebrand, Pola Negri. Lubitsch was shocked to discover that Pickford, rather than being just an actress, was a powerful film mogul who held the purse strings and had the last word. But, he loved the lavishness of the studio environment, “They loaded up the guns. I fired them. I felt as though someone had supplied me with an entire collection of Aladdin’s lamps.” He was a director of cinema, who felt that movies should be more than illustrated title cards. He reshot scenes as many times as he needed to get his result.
There were lots of publlicity photos with the famous German director.
By the time filming was over, Pickford was still positive he was an asset to her company. They had clashed on set but she respected Lubitsch, although she thought she knew better than anyone what her fans wanted to see. “Doors! He’s a director of doors! Nothing interests him but doors!” she would fume as she stormed off the set. Her favorite cameraman, Charles Rosher abandoned ship, “to avoid being hit by the flying crockery.” (Weinberg 49). Two weeks after filming wrapped, she said corresponding with her lawyer, “I still believe he is the greatest director in the world…I am very pleased with Rosita and think it will be well received.” (Eyeman 93).
The Seville, Spain, setting of the film was as lavish as Pickford’s stardom could provide. She wanted a background as magnificent as her husband had in Robin Hood. The Danish designer Sven Gade collaborated with William Cameron Menzies, who later designed Fairbanks fanciful and spectacular The Thief of Bagdad. The replica of Seville was built on the back lot, with a distant part of the city built in miniature and mounted on another stage 300 yards from the camera. Cameraman Charles Rosher devised a new technique he dubbed Perspeactography, a method of light separation to make the actor stand out from the background without backlighting.
These two photos from Schmidt.
Chaplin, Pickford and Fairbanks in front of the set, from Pickford’s autobiography.
Mitchell Leisen would later become a director, but he started out in the silent era as a costume designer. Pickford’s wardrobe in the film would chart her rise from ragged street singer to the royal court, in elaborate gowns that could not be surpassed by any other film star. Only one of her 19th century Spain via the 1920s gowns has survived, a gold lame gown (lined in soft yellow silk to prevent chafing, since gold lame then was real metal) trimmed in gold lace and green glass jewels. It does not appear in the film, only in a publicity shot discovered in the Library of Congress.
These three costume photos from Brownlow.
Then, something changed. Rosita has had a terrible reputation over the years, primarily because of its star. Pickford wanted all her films destroyed when she died. “I would rather be a beautiful illusion in the minds of people than a horrible example on celluloid. I pleased my own generation. That’s all that matters.” (Basinger 46). Because she and Lubitsch did not get along, she convinced herself, “It’s the worst picture I ever did, it’s the worst picture I ever saw” that it had been a failure (Basinger 44). But, it had a warm critical reception, made almost $1 million in the US and more in Europe, and the New York Times said, “Nothing more delightfully charming…has been seen on the screen for some time.” Film historian Janine Basinger, who saw it at Film Forum in 1997 (before this current restoration) said Rosita “is an excellent movie, and Pickford is excellent in it” (Basinger 43). Still Pickford in her autobiography said it was “my first punishment for wanting to grow up on the screen” (Pickford 153). She said, “that the costuming, the décor and the sets are magnificent and so was the photography [by Charles Rosher].“ And then she added, “I just didn’t like myself as Rosita and I think it was my fault and not Lubitsch’s.” (Mary Pickford Foundation).
Poet Carl Sandburg was an admirer and said of Pickford, “In making this one she has gone farther and done better than in any previous picture…More than that, we may add that this is a movie that has some thought and feeling back of it, some real intimate understanding of history and past times, and a projection of that real intimacy and understanding. In other words, this is that rare thing, an intelligent movie, where the players and the director seem to know that motion photography drama depends more than anything else of pantomime, and pantomime is a thing requiring for its success borth deliberate science and reckless art. Something like that” (Sandburg 189).
Lubitsch had fonder memories. He told Hedda Hopper in 1943, “I have made better, more significant pictures than Rosita, but never one that I loved more. Because with that I associate the finest thing that ever happened to me—the opportunity to come to American, become a citizen. Besides that good fortune, all else pales” (Eyeman 95).
Because Pickford decided this film was a flop, she let her copyright lapse, and let her own print disintegrate. There was a single known surviving nitrate print discovered in Gosfilmofond a Russian archive, with Russian subtitles, but the image quality was so degraded, it was thought hopeless. Luckily, with the digitial tools of today, the film could be restored to almost a pristine quality. For some reason, Pickford preserved only reel four, providing a template for the intertitles typeface. If you would like to see the difference, here is a wonderful featurette by Dave Kehr of MoMA. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BQ2iZ9Sofl4
The audience at the North Carolina Museum of Art adored this sumptuous, witty film. Nathan Shirley provided a wonderful piano score, with occasional, effective percussion. We all felt lucky to have seen this spectacular restoration of this silent movie treasure.
Holbrook Blinn and Pickford on a beautiful lobby card.
The Parade’s Gone By by Kevin Brownlow, Classics of the Silent Screen by Joe Franklin (ghosted by William K. Everson), Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood by Eileen Whitfield, Silent Stars by Jeanine Basinger, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, by Booton Herndon, Mary Pickford: America’s Sweetheart by Scott Eyman, Mary Pickford Rediscovered by Kevin Brownlow, The Lubitsch Touch by Herman G. Weinberg, Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise by Scott Eyeman, Mary Pickford: The Queen of the Movies edited by Christel Schmidt, Sunshine and Shadow by Mary Pickford, The Movies Are: Carl Sandburg’s Film Reviews and Essays 1920-1928 edited by Arnie Bernstein, https://marypickford.org/caris-articles/lubitsch-pickford-making-rosita/