I was fascinated by this wonder woman, a smashing figure in a sexy outfit and a winged cap, ready to defend and protect the populace from every conceivable danger—from a plague of snakes led by Valentina to petrified tree trunks, impaktas, birdwomen and alien beings. She was cool, she had spunk, a rare personification of an empowered Filipina. And who else could portray such a larger-than-life super hero than a pretty Pampangueña—Rosa del Rosario?
The pre-war Queen of the Philippine Movies was born in Bacolor, Pampanga on 15 December 1919 as Rosa Stagner, the daughter of Agustina Del Rosario and American Frank Stagner. Frank brought his growing family to Manila and it was in the bustling city where they settled. One of her children set up a dress shop business where 12 year-old Rosa would spend her idle time.
Her discovery was purely accidental. A foreign film director and her nurse dropped by the dress shop to inquire about the presence of a movie production outfit in the city. Rosa and her sister told the director about Malayan Motion Pictures, a leading Philippine cinema company at that time. Malayan was founded by Jose Nepomuceno, acknowledged today as the “Father of Philippine Movies”. The sisters volunteered to arrange an appointment with the Nepomucenos in their behalf.
When Mrs. Nepomuceno saw the Stagner girls, she was immediately taken by the budding beauty of Rosa. She immediately obtained Rosa’s permission to cast her in her very first movie—“Ligaw na Bulaklak”. The next day, Rosa was fetched by a car and driven to a location shoot to meet her co-star, Carlos Padilla, who was cast as her father. For her screen name, she took her mother’s surname and was billed as Rosa del Rosario. Her long and legendary movie career had just started.
In the next few years, Rosa del Rosario enthralled movie fans with her presence, appearing in hit after hit with debonaire leading men that included her kabalen, Lubeño Rogelio dela Rosa and Leopoldo Salcedo, the great profile. She made a number of movies with Leopoldo: the zarzuela-based Walang Sugat (1939), Kundiman ng Luha (1950) and historical bio-flick, Tandang Sora, which she considers her favorite.
Rosa also became one of the early Filipinos to break into Hollywood. She was so famous in the Philippines that when an American director came to cast an Asian for his Hollywood movie, it was Rosa whom he sought out. She appeared in the film classic, “Anna and the King of Siam” in 1939 (to be redone as the musical “The King and I”, as one of the king’s wives. She also appeared in the “The Border Bandits” and “The American Guerrila”.
But it is her role as “Darna” that is invariably associated with her—even if other actresses—Liza Moreno, Vilma Santos, Gina Parreño, Anjanette Abayari, Nanette Medved, among others-- have also essayed that part through the years. As the first “Darna”, she learned to “fly” suspended from a helicopter, doing her own stunts and choreographing her own fighting moves. She shot her physically-demanding scenes all over Manila, in Quiapo as well as in scenic Bulacan. Her famous hand-to-hand combat atop a mountain with Valentina, the Pinay medusa played by American-bred Cristina Aragon, was one pivotal and spectacular scene I will never forget--it was not just a case of good triumphant evil, but also a dramatization of beauty with a purpose!
In the late 50s, Rosa chose to move to the United States with her husband, John Samit, and her two daughters, Geraldine and Teresa. She settled in San Francisco, California where she lived for many years. She returned to the Philippines in the early ‘80s to accept the “Walang Kupas Award” (Unfading Luster Award), the ultimate recognition for movie personalities who have made their indelible marks on Philippine cinema. Rosa lived to see the role she originated, immortalized as a blockbuster TV serial, as a musical and even as a ballet show. Rosa del Rosario, the half-Kapampangan star who rose above the rest as the first Filipina superhero on the silver screen, passed away on 4 February 2006, in Modesto, California, age 87.