Rosita represents the collaboration of two major talents of the silent era—Mary Pickford and Ernst Lubitsch. Based on the 1872 opera Don César de Bazan, Rosita showcased Pickford’s vitality and charisma against Lubitsch’s large historical canvas, with mixed results.
Set in a fantasy version of Old Seville, this lavish historical romance stars Pickford in the title role as a street singer, a “black-eyed beauty” who catches the eye of the king, played by stage actor Holbrook Blinn. Rosita feels scorn for the king because he and the queen enjoy the riches and privilege of royalty while the people of Seville are destitute. On a whim, the king rides through Seville to observe the raucous Carnival, ruining Rosita’s street performance in the process, causing her to lose money. Her anger is intensified when she receives a notice about increased taxes. In retaliation, she composes a song to criticize the king and to rouse the people to revolt: “We are tired of being poor when the castle is full of riches...join us now in a stand for justice...everyone this song reaches.”
Rosita is arrested along with a soldier, Don Diego, who comes to her defense. The instant attraction between the two amounts to love at first sight. When the king finally lays eyes on the spunky young woman, he is more smitten than angry. His longing for her leads to freedom for Rosita but a death sentence for Don Diego, played by George Walsh (director Raoul Walsh’s brother). Rosita’s slovenly, opportunistic parents are thrilled with the king’s interest in their daughter, and she is pressured to comply. She uses the king’s attraction to her to negotiate a deal in which Don Diego can be freed without the monarch losing face. However, the king has other plans.
At 30 years old, Pickford realized it was time to transition from her popular image as the vivacious youth with boundless energy and an indefatigable spirit. She chose German director Ernst Lubitsch to help her achieve her goal. When Lubitsch’s film Madame DuBarry (aka Passion) became a major hit in the U.S. after its premiere in New York City in 1920, there was a race among the Hollywood studios to sign Lubitsch and his star Pola Negri. Pickford was not interested in Negri, but she became the first to offer the great director an opportunity in Hollywood.
The pair wrestled over a suitable story for her evolution to adult roles. Pickford wanted Lubitsch to direct her in Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall (1924), a historical romance set in England. Lubitsch countered with a version of Faust in which America’s Sweetheart would star as a young woman pregnant with an illegitimate child. Pickford’s mother strenuously objected to the complete dismantling of her daughter’s star image. The two settled on Rosita, which met Pickford’s criteria while falling within the Lubitsch style. The director had staked his reputation on historical melodramas in which romance among the royals was a kind of game that the rich played to occupy their hours of leisure. Whether set in Paris, Vienna, Budapest or Seville, the locations were luxurious fantasy interpretations of Old Europe. Rosita was no exception.
In an interview with the fanzine Motion Picture Magazine in 1925, Lubitsch remarked on Rosita: “It was a charming and wonderful experience...She is an artiste of real genius.” The quote turned out to be fanzine hyperbole; it was not an accurate account of their working relationship. Pickford had always handled her star image, carefully selecting scripts and guiding directors to get what she wanted. Whether credited or not, Pickford served as the producer of her material and expected to collaborate with the director. Lubitsch couldn’t accept her as the final authority on the film, and the production was colored by many disputes and disagreements. Pickford was not above using her authority as producer and distributor to declare the final word.
Though her character is mature and savvy in the ways of court intrigue, Pickford played Rosita with her typical youthful exuberance. The character sings, plays the guitar and dances with enthusiasm while her interactions with the king display Pickford’s typical stubborn defiance. Unfortunately, in certain long shots, she is diminished by the huge, open sets with tall archways and ceilings. It was as though she had to compete with the production design for the camera’s attention.
Rosita was received warmly by the critics, but audiences were not as enthusiastic. Shortly after its release, Pickford turned against the film. According to biographer Peggy Dymond Leavy in Mary Pickford: Canada’s Silent Siren, America’s Sweetheart, Pickford later referred to Rosita as “the worst picture she’d ever made.” She didn’t like herself in the film and admitted that she and Lubitsch did not work well together. However, she always maintained that she was proud she had brought Lubitsch to Hollywood.
Pickford and Lubitsch had signed a contract to make two more films together, but after Rosita, the deal collapsed. The director turned to sophisticated comedies of manners, a genre he excelled at after the coming of sound. With these sophisticated romances famed for the “Lubitsch Touch,” the director became highly respected among his peers in the era between the wars. Pickford chose Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall for her next project with Marshall Neilan as her director. Like Rosita, the film was a box-office disappointment. Following Dorothy Vernon, she returned to her youthful spunky character in Little Annie Rooney in 1925.
Pickford preserved copies of all of her films, with the exception of Rosita. She saved only the fourth and final reel, and the film eventually vanished from circulation. During the 1960s, a nitrate print was discovered in Russian film archives. A safety preservation negative was created from the nitrate print, though, at the time, no one was inspired to restore the film. In 2016, a digital restoration brought Rosita back to life. Though the original intertitles did not survive, they were recreated from an early draft of the screenplay, the Russian titles and the cue sheet for live musical accompaniment. Also instrumental in the process were records from the Swedish and German censorship boards as well as quotes from the dialogue in reviews of the time. In 2017, Rosita was shown as the pre-inaugural event at the 74th Venice International Film Festival.
Though Pickford was disappointed in her first effort to escape the roles that made her a movie icon, Rosita deserves a place in cinema history as the collaboration of two historic figures—one who defined the silent era and another who reflected the best of the Golden Age.
Producer: Produced by Mary PIckford for United Artists
Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Screenplay: Norbert Falk, Hans Kraly, and Edward Knoblock, adapted from a play by Adolphe d’Ennery and Philippe-François Pinel "Dumanoir," from the opera Don César de Bazan by Jules Massenet
Cinematography: Charles Rosher
Production Design: William Cameron Menzies and Svend Gade
Costume Design: Mitchell Leisen
Music: Louis F. Gottschalk
Cast: Mary Pickford (Rosita), Holbrook Blinn ( The King Holbrook Blinn), Don Cesar (George Walsh), The Queen (Irene Rich), Prime Minister Charles Belcher (Prime Minister), Frank Leigh (Prison Commandant), Mathilde Comont (Rosita’s Mother), George Periolat ( Rosita’s Father), Snitz Edwards (Little Jailer), Bert Sprotte (Big Jailer)
By Susan Doll