A consummate actress and creative producer preoccupied with her image, thirty-one-year-old Mary Pickford longed to create an important cinematic work of art. Having forged an unparalleled career as “America’s Sweetheart,” Pickford now sought mature, sophisticated roles that would acknowledge her age while showcasing her acting skills. She had seen Ernst Lubitsch’s German-made historical epics Madame Dubarry (1919) and Anna Boleyn (1920), which fused spectacle with detailed performances and garnered him accolades as one of world cinema’s outstanding directors. The small gestures that succinctly captured character, the use of props for exposition, and his wit and sophistication were all part of “the Lubitsch touch.” Furthermore, Lubitsch skillfully directed women in strong roles, and Pickford was convinced he could help her transition into the next phase of her screen career.
Despite the anti-German sentiment that lingered after World War I, Pickford arranged for Lubitsch to emigrate to America in 1922 to direct her in an adaptation of Goethe’s Faust. Early in preproduction, however, Pickford’s mother and business partner, Charlotte, objected to Pickford’s role as Marguerite, who gives birth to an illegitimate baby and kills it. Such was her mother’s influence that Pickford scuttled the project and Pickford and Lubitsch agreed instead to an adaptation of Don César de Bazan, a four-act comic opera first staged in 1872 and based on Victor Hugo’s 1838 drama Ruy Blas.
Production began for what became Rosita, on March 5, 1923, at the Pickford-Fairbanks Studios in West Hollywood under the working title The Street Singer. The title character lives in Seville and has a fondness for satirical songs about the King of Spain (Holbrook Blinn). She loves the young nobleman Don Diego (George Walsh, the younger brother of director Raoul Walsh), who saves her from the king’s guards. Intrigued by Rosita, the lecherous monarch pursues her as his mistress and condemns his rival to death. The Queen of Spain (Irene Rich) undermines the king’s plans and arranges for Rosita and Don Diego to be united.
To ensure top-notch quality, Pickford hired playwright and novelist Edward Knoblock, best-remembered for his play Kismet, to write the screen adaptation. She engaged art directors William Cameron Menzies and Sven Gade who gave the film an operatic splendor. Pickford’s cinematographer, Charles Rosher, aspired to high art, rejecting the backlighting technique he had himself perfected in favor of delineating actors and objects under the theory of “perspectography.”
From the outset, however, the film felt like too much of a compromise to Pickford. She regretted not getting to play the mythic Marguerite, as it might have been the turning point she sought for her career. Abandoning Faust also soured her relationship with Lubitsch as the film had the potential of being a masterwork. During production of Rosita, Lubitsch further eroded her customary autonomy as star and producer. Playing the sexy Rosita was a departure for Pickford and revealed her shortcomings as an actress. Yet Pickford rankled under Lubitsch’s critical eye and disliked his practice of acting out every part. They fought, with the language barrier exacerbating their miscommunications. Additionally, the famed continental sophistication of Lubitsch’s films did not transfer to Lubitsch himself, a short, cigar-chomping man who was quick to throw a tantrum when defied. Eventually, for the good of the picture, Pickford chose to yield to her director.
Despite the challenging production, Pickford hoped the public would accept her in an adult role. When the film premiered September 14, 1923, at New York City’s Lyric Theatre, she was vindicated—the reviews were ecstatic. The New York Times wrote, “Nothing more delightfully charming than Mary Pickford’s Rosita has been seen on the screen for some time.” Variety described the new Pickford, “… different and greater than at any time in her screen career; a Mary Pickford with her hair done up, pretty as a picture and displaying acting ability few thought her capable of … Rosita is going to go down into screen history as the picture that made Mary Pickford a real actress, or at least, revealed her as one.” Photoplay said, “There is probably no actress today who could portray the gay, graceful coquettish little street singer of Seville who ‘vamps’ a king as she does. The production is incomparably beautiful.” Opinion at the box-office concurred and the film grossed close to a million dollars, making it one of Pickford’s most profitable films. Its success is more impressive considering Paramount’s The Spanish Dancer, based on the same material and starring the vivacious Pola Negri, premiered shortly thereafter.
Rosita behind him, Lubitsch also left behind the historical epics that had made him world-famous and began his long, celebrated career directing sophisticated comedies. Pickford, though, failed to complete her own transformation. While the public accepted her in mature roles, ultimately Pickford could not. She retreated to her child-woman character for her next film, 1924’s Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall, which left her dissatisfied. She tried again for a celluloid masterpiece with fledging Vienna-born director Josef von Sternberg, whom she hired to write and direct Backwash. The film would have featured Pickford as a blind girl trying to survive the industrial hardships of Pittsburgh, alongside two steel workers: her father and her sweetheart Tom, a hulking, muscular, deaf mute. Charlie Chaplin agreed to appear in the film in scenes depicting the Little Tramp’s antics on screen at a movie theater, as well as in the blind girl’s imagination. Pickford once again discarded the material as inappropriate for her image. (The scenario is familiar to Chaplin fans for it closely mirrors his 1931 masterpiece City Lights, in which a deaf mute participates in a prize fight in order to pay for an operation that might restore a blind girl’s sight.)
Pickford turned back to sure-fire commercial fare to play the preadolescent lead character in Little Annie Rooney (1925). She attempted another art film with Sparrows (1926), a harrowing drama of abandoned children with a gothic visual style, and prevailed upon Lubitsch to modify the edit after its premiere. Both Lubitsch and Chaplin deemed Sparrows to be her greatest film, but it proved too dark for her audience. Next, she made a charming romantic comedy My Best Girl (1927), which remains her most accessible film to modern audiences. Still determined to “grow up” on screen, she cut off her famous ringlets, appearing with a bob cut in her first sound picture, Coquette, which earned her an Academy Award—but her career as an actress was effectively over. Fresher faces of the talkies now populated the movies and Pickford focused on her role as producer and founding partner of United Artists.
Over time Pickford grew to dislike Rosita, and her opinion unfortunately stuck. According to her 1955 autobiography, Rosita was “… the worst picture, bar none, that I ever made.” She continued to denounce it as a failure, while simultaneously withholding the film from view. Her distorted memories of the production coupled with the deteriorating film elements damaged the reputation of the film. She preserved only a single reel—reel 4—because it contained a sequence she liked of Rosita resisting the king’s unwanted advances, using it in a compilation of her film work produced for the Bond-A-Month campaign in 1953. Pickford later instructed the manager of her film library, Matty Kemp, to allow Rosita’s nitrate materials to deteriorate.
Fortunately, the Moscow-based Gosfilmofond held a 35mm nitrate print from the foreign negative and repatriated it to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in the 1960s. Although a 16mm reference print was made, the Russian intertitles, poor image quality, and the concern of angering Pickford and Matty Kemp made MoMA reluctant to exhibit it, a policy that continued into the 1990s. MoMA’s 2017 reconstruction is made from the 35mm nitrate print, with Pickford’s reel 4, preserved by the Mary Pickford Foundation, used as a template to re-create the look of the original English intertitles. While it is still missing an entire reel of approximately ten minutes, Rosita displays a fine balance of director Lubitsch’s sophisticated comedies and the historical epics he had directed in Germany. Producer Pickford deserves credit, at the very least, for her creative vision in giving Lubitsch his American debut.
Presented at SFSFF 2018 with live music by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. Mont Alto adapted and performed composer Gillian Anderson’s score, commissioned by MoMA for Rosita