HOW TO SEE | Silent Films: Restoring Mary Pickford’s Lost Film “Rosita”

HOW TO SEE | Silent Films: Restoring Mary Pickford’s Lost Film “Rosita”


You don’t watch silent movies the same way
you watch a sound movie. Silent movies require a different level of
attention. I think a different level of involvement. They solicit your imagination and your participation
in a way that a sound film doesn’t. Something that only lasted about thirty years
in the real world but continues to be with us in a very strong, strong way. Unfortunately, the great majority of silent
films have been lost forever. They just were not preserved at the time they
were made. They were not seen as products that needed
to survive beyond their commercial lives. And by some estimates, about 90% of the silent
cinema has been lost. My name is Dave Kehr. I’m a curator in the Department of Film at
The Museum of Modern Art. And today, we’re going to take a look at a silent
film, one that’s very close to me because I’ve been working with a team of other people
on restoring it for a number of years now. This is Ernst Lubitsch’s 1923 film “Rosita”
starring Mary Pickford. “Rosita” is set in a mythical 19th-century
Spain, where a lecherous king has cast his eye on a popular street singer played by Mary
Pickford. And it is Rosita’s shtick, her act, to satirically
attack the king in her songs. He finds this kind of provocative and interesting
and decides he wants to know her a lot better. The king sends a couple of his henchmen to
try to arrest her. A handsome young nobleman, played by George
Walsh, tries to help her resist, but they both end up in prison. The King tries to break up this incipient
romance by having the nobleman condemned to death and sending Rosita away to a rather
nice villa that he’s procured for her. In the meantime, the queen is keeping a wary
eye on all of this and is able to eventually adjust the outcome to her own satisfaction,
in very Lubitschian manner. A silent movie engages your attention the
same way a book does. You are there to finish that work of art. It exists, really, between you and the page and a silent movie exists between the viewer and the screen. You have to supply the sound effects. You have to supply the timbre of the voices. You have to supply, in many cases, the color. You have to be able to assemble those shots
into a unified space. And a good director knows that and takes advantage
of that as does Ernst Lubitsch throughout “Rosita.” It’s a constant transaction. It requires attention and involvement in a
way that maybe digital era films don’t solicit so much anymore. The cliché “Lubitsch moment” is the closed
door behind which some delights, usually sexual, are occurring and the audience is asked to
imagine those. And that’s just, you know, it’s a funny way
of getting around censorship but it’s a principle he applied in so many
different ways. There’s a sequence in here where you see Mary
circling around a bowl of fruit. It’s a very long take. She’s hungry. She hasn’t eaten. She’s the poor street singer who suddenly
finds herself in the royal palace. And here she is confronted with a bowl of
fruit and she’s just awestruck and a little proud,
a little wary. She doesn’t want to just dive in there and
start pigging out. She’s going to dance around a little bit. So, we’re just watching her oh, dives in and steals one hopefully, even though she’s alone, she doesn’t
want anyone else to see her. She can’t resist, goes back for another. And the way he builds this scene, it gets
funnier and funnier. She keeps going back. A little guilty look. Just beautifully timed. And again, we see so much of her character,
her pride, her desperation. And now, she’s suddenly confronted by the King. And she has to finish chewing very quickly
so she can speak to him and it’s a wonderful laugh line. Suddenly, that sense of embarrassment becomes
a wonderful moment, a wonderful joke. The rest of the film kind of follows their
little erotic dance as he tries to seduce her and she tries to get some advantage for
herself. This is some footage that was supposedly taken
by Mary Pickford’s brother, Jack on the set of “Rosita.” And we can see Lubitsch trying out some of
the masks for the carnival scene. The reason that there are so many children
in this scene is that they would put children in the background of the shot in order to
create a sense of false perspective and make the depth of the shot look actually longer
than it is. And he has a lot of fun trying on that mask
and smoking his trademark cigar. He had been an actor himself at the beginning
of his career and you can still see he really enjoys being
in front of the camera. He enjoys hamming it up. “Rosita” was the first American film by
Ernst Lubitsch who, in 1923, was the most famous director in the world. Lubitsch started getting offers from Hollywood and he got an offer from Mary Pickford, who
at that point was probably the biggest movie star in the world, certainly the biggest female
star in the world. Very interesting woman who had established
her own production company quite early on had been one of the founding members of United Artists with Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and D.W. Griffith. She very much took charge of her own career,
produced her own films. Mary was famous for playing adolescent girls. She was America’s sweetheart. She was the embodiment of, you know, innocence,
and energy, and grit, and go-get-it spirit. She was often an orphan who had to find her own way in the world or solve various problems facing her family. Saving the day in the end. “Rosita” was an opportunity for her to
change the little girl image that she had with the public. A few years later, Mary turned against this
movie for reasons that no one has ever quite been able to figure out. The reviews were fantastic by all accounts. It did extremely good business at the box
office. But she allowed “Rosita” both to fall out
of copyright and to decay. And again, I do not know why. Suddenly, in the fan magazines, she’s referring
to it as a famous failure. And it wasn’t. There’s just no evidence that it was in any
way. I think she became uneasy with the “Mary becomes
a woman” angle. She immediately went back to playing adolescents
in her next film. She allowed her personal print of Rosita to
dissolve. It disappeared. Until the 1970s when a nitrate print turned
up in the collection of the Soviet state archives. It was a print that had probably been bootlegged
by the Soviets in the 1920s. The print was in such bad condition that,
basically, no one thought they could do anything substantial with it for a long, long time. It just remained in this kind of dismal state. So, you really could not get much more compromised
than that film the next best thing to really not existing
at all. And then a few years ago, with all the new
tools we’ve got from the digital realm, it suddenly became possible to give a very good
restoration to this you know, to really get some dramatic improvement
in the image to remove a lot of the scratches and dirt
that had been baked in over years and years. And now, we have a “Rosita” that is never
going to look perfect but it looks amazingly good considering how compromised that material
was to begin with. And now, people can see this film and judge
for themselves. Silent films are only primitive in the sense
that they came first. They were primary. Everything else is built upon that. The levels of sophistication were immense. This was not a simplistic art form. It could contain amazing nuance, subtext, just
the richness of emotion, the richness of expression is perfectly comparable with the best of literature
and visual arts during that period. So, those are a few of my thoughts on why
silent films are still important and why we should try to take care of the ones we have
and keep looking for the ones we can’t find. I would love to hear some of your experiences
with silent movies what they mean to you, how you’ve approached
them, how you first encountered them in your life. And let us know if there are any other topics
you’d like to see us cover in these videos. You could just leave us a note in the comments
section below and please subscribe for more videos from
The Museum of Modern Art and from the Department of Film. My name is Dave Kehr I’m a curator at The Museum of Modern Art and I’ll see you next time.

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  1. she did not like Lubitsh also, she mentions it in an early autobiography. (sorry for the misspelling). She writes poorly about him! I think the book was "Sunshine and Shadow".

  2. I've published on Lubitsch's German films and on other silent films and very much enjoyed your commentary on Rosita.

  3. I’m incredibly grateful we have the technology to restore some silent films. It feels special to be able to have such easy access to films that have been lost for up to a century.

  4. This was just fabulous! Looking forward to seeing this next week. Hoping I can meet you to say thank you in person

  5. When I was in college I used to watch silent movies every Sunday night at midnight on TCM. I loved the history of them and the way the stories differed from how we tell stories today. It fascinated me. Thanks for helping keep them alive. <3

  6. The lack of sound, forced the director to focus on the visual aspects. These compositions are much more powerful than today's cinema.

  7. this was super interesting. silent film is an absolute artistic marvel, and mary pickford is an icon. thank you

  8. I always knew that Mary Pickford hated Rosita, but I always thought that was because it didn't do good in the box office or something, which now I know isn't true! I wish I could watch more of her movies. I've seen all the ones I can that are on youtube. But I really want to watch her in "The Foundling".

  9. Great video and amazing restoration! Ernst Lubitsch is one of my favorites. I stumbled upon him when I first starting watching silent movies and fell in love with his whimsical brilliance.

  10. Considering the technology now, I would love to see Stan Laurel's take on Valentino, "Mud and Sand," restored as best as possible, but I'm sure others can name dozens more… Thank you, Mr. Kehr!

  11. i first encountered silent movies after watching hugo and doing a quick google search of george melies trip to the moon . i hate to admit but at first i thought that silent movies would be boring. i think that was a wonderful first exposure and i cant say that i go out of my way to see silent movies but i do appreciate how much they have gone through over the years and somehow survived more or less intact (i watched a metropolis screening where we were warned about some scenes being especially damaged even with the restoration) and the movies themselves.

  12. Fascinating story and wonderfully told. Thanks Dave. It's always such a treat to hear of old classics unearthed and restored.

  13. Was always a fan of golden age movies. Became a silent movie fan in the 70s. PBS did some type of show on silent. Lived overseas a couple of eyes read Parades gone by and every book of silent movies and stars I could get my hands on.

  14. What an excellent review. I really enjoyed this, and what I learend will add to my enjoyment of future silents I see. Now I need to watch Rosita!

  15. Excellent material and very didactic too! Will be showing it in class and to my students interested in film preservation & restoration connected with the activities of the recently created LUPA (Laboratório Universitário de Preservação Audiovisual) at Fluminense Federal University, led by Prof. Rafael de Luna. Congratulations to MoMA's Film Department, to Dave Kehr and all involved into salvaging our audiovisual heritage!

  16. I just got the opportunity to see your restoration at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival! Truly amazing what you accomplished. I have many friends who couldn't go, and everyone wants to see your beautifully done print. Will you be releasing it on DVD, or streaming, for the public to see? I would love to see it again!

  17. I've found that silent films are amazingly beautiful, especially with interior design. They're magical and dreamlike.

  18. The thing I always appreciated about old contemporary movies is that everything in them is as up to date as possible. The art, appliances and interior design is always fascinating as being the best for the times.

  19. I often hear that the primary reason early films were lost was because few cared about their preservation. So, how did the world come to decide that it was important to preserve film? What were some of the first films to be given the treatment to last? Was it by public demand or by the demands of a few eccentric millionaires?

  20. Thank you, I recently went through the UCLA MLIS media archives program and my ultimate dream is to work on a project like this someday. I am probably one of the biggest Mary Pickford fans in the younger set so I hope to do more to continue her legacy as the years go on.

  21. I am SO thrilled to see Dave Kehr making these kinds of videos! I love your writing, Dave, and your unique perspective. I will muse about what more to request . . . Thank you!

  22. As a child born way past the silent film era, I was very fortunate that my father took me as a small child to one of the sadly, few remaining) revival houses, where we'd spend each Saturday ensconced in the dark, with the beautiful images, and musical accompaniment.

    The irony is I'm in the entertainment business (and aside from our being my profession), my love is for films made anywhere from the silent era through to the mid 70's or so.

    One channel I highly recommend for 'steamers' is Film Stuck', which is made by as combination of TCM, Criterion, and now – I'm able to sit back – anywhere I have free time, and watch fabulous films (they have a terrific silent collection and I've been watching them for the past few weeks).

    This was a terrific, informative clip. Thanks, Mr Kehr, et al!

  23. As an early teenager I discovered Valentino's 1923 "Blood and Sand" on TV in a Public Channel (Ch. 6) in Puerto Rico. Then, in Tampa, Florida's County Library, I discovered 16mm Movies in their entirety which apparently had lapsed copyrights; you could borrow them for a week or so! My dad had a projector and we watched "The Kid", "Way Down East," "Easy Street," "The Gold Rush," "Tol'able David," and many others. Then, with the advent of Video (VHS formats) and Video Cassette Players, I seeked out as many as I could at the video stores and actual libraries, once they began to also have them!

  24. What a beautifully produced and written presentation, Mr. Kehr. Thank you. I came across this as I'm going to see Rosita for the first time next week with an orchestra(with the original score, no less) here in Los Angeles. Words can't convey the affection and respect I have for MoMA's work in preserving and presenting film-especially silent film. Kudos!

  25. Mr.Kehr:
    I made this video about "Rosita" a few years ago, but just discovered your video on YouTube. I am so glad you have restored the film, and look forward to seeing it someday. You may find the video I made about "Rosita" of interest.
    Michael Wilson

    https://youtu.be/h4ypiNt6XJs

  26. I am the Great grandniece of Beatrice Dominguez from the Tango scene Four Horsemen. I wish her other films were around, such a great history these Silent actors left.

  27. Couldn't the release of this film help support conservation efforts for other vanishing films? Perhaps something done in conjunction with the Pickford Foundation, or the AFI? Who would benefit financially if "Rosita" were released for purchase and home viewing? I have only seen the copy from Russia but I fell in love with Pickford's performance, and would love to see/own the restoration in its entirety. I, too, am mystified why she turned her back on this gem — Why, Mary, why?

  28. I own a few film and it seem they may be complete lost so I need some help I may sell it if good price

  29. When I lived in Oregon, there used to be Silent Movie Nights at a local community college. They had live piano accompaniment, and it was a really magical experience. I never missed a single show.

  30. Please convince the Russian State Film Archive to send you copies of its holdings of the "once thought lost" Jackie Coogan silent films they have – even high resolution digital copies would be great. I think they have 4 of his films that exist nowhere else. Thank you…

  31. Between this video and another regarding Biograph 68mm movies, you have brought out some very good short subjects. One problem, how do we see more? MoMA is too far for many of us, and none of your work appears on blu-ray. Can you offer anything? Cheers!

  32. Thank you for this series. Silent films are so difficult to find in the cinema or on TV and I don't understand why. Perhaps people don't have the patience and ability to focus anymore. I wish more were available for the public to see just how wonderful they are.

  33. I really appreciate this video. Silent film is something to be treasured. The silent film I remember the most that had a big impact on me was Metropolis, especially after the lost footage was found in a 16mm print. I'd never seen such a sweeping epic with science fiction elements before, and it was fascinating from both a story and a historical aspect. You're right- they do require more concentration compared to sound films. But they are enjoyable in their own right. Lately I've been enjoying Charlie Chaplin and my favorite silent actor Buster Keaton. One gripe I do have with modern presentations of silent films is the fact that they're shown at the wrong speed and can be shown with a great deal of digital noise reduction in an ill-fated desire to reduce visible film grain. I didn't know until recently that silent films often had no set frame rate, and that the herky-jerky motion we associate with them is inaccurate because they're shown at the sound speed standard of 24fps. If one presents the film in an interlaced format such as 1080i or even 2160i, you can show it at a proper speed even on modern TVs.

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