The Rosita Conundrum

Earlier this month we released How Did Lubitsch Do It? by Joseph McBride. Today we are presenting you with a short by Dave Kehr of MoMA about Rosita, with beautiful footage from the restoration and discussion of what happened to the film. Below is an excerpt from the book about the Rosita “conundrum.”

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What happened with Lubitsch’s first American film is the strangest episode of his career. At the time, Rosita, the film he directed for Mary Pickford, did not seem particularly controversial. The period film was handsomely produced, showed off Pickford in a pleasing and more adult light, received generally good reviews, and made a profit at the boxoffice. But in years to come, Rosita would barely escape being destroyed by its star/producer, whose wrath against it and Lubitsch has not entirely been explained, although she left a number of hints about her reasons. She would claim hyperbolically, “It’s the worst picture I ever did, it’s the worst picture I ever saw.” Actually, Rosita is a good movie but not a great one.

Because Pickford hated the film so much, she ordered the negative and prints destroyed, and until recently, the film was all but lost. Fortunately, Rosita has been rescued and restored by the Museum of Modern Art. Its restoration premiered on August 29, 2017, at the Venice Film Festival. That version was based primarily on an original print discovered in the Soviet Union that was “in horrible condition, and it was just too much for the technology of [an earlier] time to handle,” said Dave Kehr, curator of the department of film at the museum. After the restoration was completed, Kehr wrote me in July 2017 that Eileen Bowser, former curator of the MoMA film archive, had obtained the only known nitrate print from Gosfilmofond (the Cinematheque of the Russian Federation, then the USSR) in the 1970s. That print, which had Russian intertitles, was copied for preservation in the 1970s before being lost to decomposition except for its last reel. Most of the restored version came from the preservation copy made by MoMA, but the Mary Pickford Foundation supplied another reel of Rosita, the fourth reel, that had survived Pickford’s auto-da-fé, including a comical scene of her circling a bowl of fruit.

“The film is now as complete as it probably ever will be,” Kehr commented. He continued, Eileen also got our two prints of Forbidden Paradise from the Czech National Film Archive—they are both incomplete, but when they are combined we will have about 90 percent of the film. . . . And both underwent extensive digital restoration, to remove scratches, dirt, rips, etc. Both films were in such dicey condition that it wasn’t considered practical to undertake a major restoration until just a few years ago—but now we are getting results with digital that are unbelievable to me. Neither will ever look like a print from a camera negative but I think you will be astonished by the quality—I certainly was.

Various sources were used to re-create the English intertitles for Rosita (sometimes in approximate language), including an early script draft at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Swedish and German censorship records, the music cue sheet, and a few lines quoted in contemporary reviews. The visual style of those titles was re-created from the fourth reel. The Film Foundation and the Mayer Foundation provided funding for the project, which yielded a 35 mm polyester preservation negative and DCP exhibition copies, and the Film Foundation also funded the restoration of Forbidden Paradise, which is still a work in progress.

I have been able to see just a short clip of the Rosita restoration by press time on this book, but it is evident that frame-by-frame restoration from a 4K scan of the print brings back some of the original luster of the cinematography by Charles Rosher, Pickford’s regular collaborator and one of Hollywood’s most distinguished visual stylists. Before this restoration, we had to judge Rosita from the available bootleg copies made from the incomplete, poor-quality Russian print.

Even in that ragged state, this comedy-drama about a rebellious Spanish street singer who moves into the castle of the king she is mocking is a graceful piece of entertainment although a number of other directors might have done as well with it. Stately yet not stodgy, Rosita has an engagingly vivacious central character, some amusing sexual intrigue, and emotional scenes that alternate between the overwrought and the quietly touching. The multilayered sets of the eighteenth-century city of Seville and the cavernous royal castle by Sven Gade and William Cameron Menzies are as luxurious, intricate, and ingeniously conceived as any in Lubitsch’s German work. Rosher’s lighting of these magnificent sets, enhanced by the restoration, shows subtle depths and delicate molding. Lubitsch wrote in 1924 that when he came to Hollywood, “I felt as tho [sic] someone had supplied me with an entire collection of Aladdin’s lamps.” He added, “There are many things in the old home in Europe that I love. But America stirs my blood. It fires my imagination. It is so young; so sympathetic; so happy.”

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