A 1923 American release about a scrappy street singer who catches the eye of a lascivious king in a fictional Old Seville, Rosita was a turning point in the careers of two of silent-era cinema’s most consequential artists, Mary Pickford and Ernst Lubitsch. Pickford had tamed the histrionics of early silent-film acting to become the most recognisable woman in the world, and held unprecedented behind-the-camera power in an industry dominated by men. After a wildly successful decade-plus as America’s Sweetheart, the 30-year-old wanted to update her image, ideally without alienating the moviegoers who had come to love her feisty, villain-vanquishing persona adorned with a tumble of golden curls.

A new image needed a new director, and Pickford sought to import Lubitsch from Germany. With a decade-long movie career under his belt, Lubitsch was at a high point of critical acclaim and box-office popularity for his farces and lavish historical epics – in particular for Madame DuBarry (1919), the cast-of-thousands spectacle that had opened American markets to German productions after the embargoes of World War I. But the increasingly volatile Weimar economy had driven the director, also thirty years old, into the arms of Hollywood, with its deep pockets of stable currency and state-of-the-art studios. He answered Pickford’s call.

They had two false starts. Lubitsch rejected Pickford’s preferred material about a noblewoman in Elizabethan England steadfast in love despite the opposition of her father,1 and Pickford reluctantly vetoed Lubitsch’s suggestion for an adaptation of the Faust legend after Pickford’s mother (and business partner) objected to her daughter (and golden goose) playing the baby-asphyxiating Marguerite. Eventually, the two settled on another period film, The Street Singer – as Rosita was originally known – with Pickford, naturally, in the title role.

There were difficulties on set between the freshly emigrated director and cast and crew, but, more importantly, with the star, who was unaccustomed to Lubitsch’s directing style – she later called him “a perfect autocrat.”2 They managed to surmount these obstacles, with scriptwriter and European history expert Edward Knoblock translating and Pickford asserting her producer’s power behind closed doors with Lubitsch when necessary. The resulting film earned raves from critics and high grosses from the theaters.

“Nothing more delightfully charming than Mary Pickford’s new picture Rosita has been seen on the screen for some time,” wrote New York Times critic Mordaunt Hall.3Rosita,” predicted Variety, “is going to mark an epoch in the career of this star,” going on to say, “if any screen entertainment is worth $2 admission, this picture is it.”4 Rosita displays the sass and verve of Pickford’s other beloved characters, and offers her plenty of opportunities to demonstrate both her well-honed comedy chops – most notably when reconnoitring an unattended bowl of royal fruit – and her empathy-inducing depths, even going a little mad on the stairs à la Norma Desmond.

Lubitsch’s famous “touch” is evident from the outset, with a pair of hands growing into a tactile pile to cleverly telegraph the king’s favourite pastime. The Spanish sets by William Cameron Menzies anchor the film in a believable past, as well as lending fairytale aesthetics to the story. Turns by Mathilde Comont as Rosita’s boisterous mother, a Napoleonesque Holbrook Blinn as the dirty-minded king and Snitz Edwards as a cheeky jailer are just some of the stand-out performances by the supporting cast.

After Rosita’s success, Pickford and Lubitsch planned to make more films together, but it was not to be – though she did call on him to help tighten the edit for her Sparrows (William Beaudine, 1926), widely believed to be her masterwork. Lubitsch briefly went to Warner Bros. before eventually settling at Paramount, largely abandoning the historical epics that had brought him to the US and building a new legacy as a pioneer of the musical and a perfecter of the rom-com. His directorial career lasted until his death, which claimed him during production of That Lady in Ermine in 1947 at only 55. He left behind a body of work that had shaped the Golden Age of American cinema, and one that still retains the capacity to fascinate and charm today.

Pickford’s legacy did not fare as well. She seemed to baulk after the strides she’d made toward a new screen persona with Rosita, going so far as to solicit fans’ opinions in a 1925 issue of Photoplay magazine about the types of roles she should play. She appeared as another urchin in Little Annie Rooney (Beaudine, 1925), a young rescuer of orphans in the abovementioned Sparrows and an ingenue in My Best Girl (Sam Taylor, 1927). Thereafter, she cut off her trademark curls, taking a four-film stab at talkies playing strictly grown-ups, winning an acting Oscar along the way for Coquette (Sam Taylor, 1929). Sensing her stardom fading out, she retreated from the screen in 1933.

Behind the scenes, she still had her hand in many of Hollywood’s affairs and, as she aged, looked for an archive to house her legacy – most of it, anyway. Something, somewhere, had turned her against Rosita – “a stray remark, perhaps, or a personal insult,”5 writes Whitfield in her 2007 biography of Pickford – and she began to badmouth the film, and, worse, buy up prints in order to destroy them. When a copy of Rosita was repatriated from the Soviet Union in the 1960s and deposited at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, her vehement opposition kept it from restoration efforts until now. (According to film historian Jeffrey Vance, Pickford was pleased with at least one part of Rosita, holding on to the reel with the sublime fruit-sneaking scene that would become part of the restoration.6)

Whitfield speculates that skimpier box-office returns from small-town America, Pickford’s bread and butter, may have soured her on the film.7 More recently, Cari Beauchamp, historian for the Mary Pickford Foundation, has quoted Pickford as saying that director and star were mismatched from the start, specifically in the flirtatious way that Lubitsch expected her to play the role.8 Seeing the current version (which is still missing a reel), another possibility emerges. While Rosita’s street singer displays the pluck and verve of a typical Pickford role, she is not the heroine of her own story. It is the queen (played by the elegant Irene Rich) who masterminds the king’s quiet comeuppance and delivers Rosita’s happy ending.

Whatever it was that drove the wedge between Pickford and Rosita, withholding the film backfired, as it could have contributed to a more balanced reassessment of her career: away from her sweetheart image and toward the transformation she’d hoped for all along. With Rosita’s return, that can finally begin.

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Rosita (1923 USA 90 mins)

Prod. Co: Mary Pickford Company Prod: Mary Pickford Dir: Ernst Lubitsch, Raoul Walsh (uncredited) Scr: Edward Knoblock, Norbert Falk, Hanns Kräly Phot: Charles Rosher Art Dir: William Cameron Menzies, Svend Gade

Cast: Mary Pickford, Holbrook Blinn, George Walsh, Irene Rich, Mathilde Comont, George Periolat

Endnotes:

  1. She later made the film as Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall (Marshall Neilan, 1924).
  2. Eileen Whitfield, Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2007), p. 235.
  3. “The Girl and the Guitar,” Mordaunt Hall, New York Times, 4 September 1923, p. 14.
  4. Variety review, 6 September 1923, p. 22.
  5. Whitfield, op. cit., p. 238.
  6. Jeffrey Vance, Rosita, San Francisco Silent Film Festival, June 2018, http://silentfilm.org/archive-by-year/2018-festival/new-rosita.
  7. Whitfield, op. cit., p. 238.
  8. Cari Beauchamp, “Lubitsch, Pickford and the Making of Rosita,” Mary Pickford Foundation, https://marypickford.org/caris-articles/lubitsch-pickford-making-rosita/.

About The Author

Shari Kizirian is a freelance editor and writer based in Rio de Janeiro. She co-edits the program book for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.