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Matinee: 'Restoring A Lost Silent Film' Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

16 June 2018

Saturday matinees long ago let us escape from the ordinary world to the island of the Swiss Family Robinson or the mutinous decks of the Bounty. Why not, we thought, escape the usual fare here with Saturday matinees of our favorite photography films?

So we're pleased to present the 154th in our series of Saturday matinees today: Restoring A Lost Silent Film.

In this 9:27 video, Museum of Modern Art curator Dave Kehr tells the story of the three year-long restoration of German director Ernst Lubitsch's first American film Rosita, which starred Mary Pickford. The Pickford Foundation provided access to its 35mm elements and The Film Foundation and The Mayer Foundation also cooperated with MoMA on the restoration.

Last month, the New York Times published Ernst Lubitsch's 'Rosita' Is Back, Reconstructed and Looking Great by J. Hoberman on the restoration. Hoberman describes the plot of the movie:

Lubitsch (1892-1947) cast Pickford as the street performer Rosita, beloved by the people of Seville for her spry dancing and protest ballads -- an act that attracts the unwelcome attentions of Spain's lascivious king (Holbrook Blinn). Rosita's destitute family persuades her to string along her royal admirer even though she is in love with a dashing young count (George Walsh) whom the jealous monarch sentences to death.

Despite its commercial success Pickford disliked the film, neglecting even her own copy as it disintegrated. Early silent films were not well preserved and the film was ultimately lost. But in the 1970s, a badly damaged print was discovered in the Soviet archives and rescued by the Museum of Modern Art.

Not until recently, however, have digital production tools made it possible to restore the film to a watchable state.

The restoration cleaned up the scratches and improved the tonal range of the washed out print, bringing back some deeper tones. At the same time, the restoration turned the neutral treatment into duotones of gold or blue with some mixes of the two, adding a richer palette to indicate time of day.

Kehr reveals a few of Lubitsch's secrets as well. To make it appear shots of crowd scenes stretched back further than they did, he used child actors at the rear of set, giving the illusion of distance.

But one secret he can't divulge is why Pickford disliked the movie.

It was, he notes, her first film portraying an adult woman instead of an innocent adolescent. And she retreated to younger roles immediately after.

But, according to Lubitsch, Pickford and the Making of Rosita, what Pickford didn't like was not the maturity of the character but Lubitsch's direction that she play a flirt:

The bottom line was while Lubitsch saw himself trying to get Pickford out of her comfort zone as an actress, she felt he was asking her to play a character she eventually found to be one dimensional. Pickford tried to explain the give and take she experienced with Lubitsch to George Pratt. "Being a European, he liked to do naughty and suggestive things. He tried to be as moral as he knew how and I tried to be slightly naughty. And I have always thought," she said with a laugh, "that the result was pretty terrible."

Modern audience aren't in danger of being scandalized by Pickford's performance as Rosita, the street singer. But as Kehr points out, a silent film is like a book, demanding the viewer fill in the blanks and participate in its creation.

And thanks to its digital restoration, Rosita can now engage us once again.

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