Rosina Lawrence: In the Country, Fell a Star

Rosina Lawrence (1912-1997) was on track for a screen career as a musical comedy star that would last many decades, but she retired when she was still on the rise, when she was only 27 years old. Towards the end of her life, though, she experienced the appreciation of new generations of fans, a level of devotion that few screen actors are privileged to enjoy.

Born in Ottawa, she had moved with her family to the Los Angeles area by the mid ’20s, at which time her father began working as a designer and builder of motion picture sets. Rosina took classes in tap and ballet, as well as singing and acting. In her youth she performed in vaudeville, night clubs and stage musicals, and worked as a model. She began appearing in films regularly at age 14. She danced and was a hand double for Leatrice Joy in Cecil B. DeMille’s Angel of Broadway (1927) and was a chorus girl in the musicals Broadway (1929) and Paramount on Parade (1930). She was Sally Eilers’ dancing double in Dance Team and Disorderly Conduct, both in 1932. In 1934 she appeared with The Dancing Cansinos (featuring a young Rita Hayworth) on a nightclub bill. She was a chorine in the all-star MGM musical Reckless (1935), her last anonynous screen role.

In 1935 Lawrence contracted with Fox, where she enjoyed speaking supporting parts in such films as $10 Raise and Your Uncle Dudley with Edward Everett Horton, Welcome Home with James Dunn, Music is Magic with Alice Faye (all 1935) and Charlie Chan’s Secret (1936) in which she is second billed behind star Warner Oland. In 1936 she also danced a number as “Sally Manners”, a character loosely based on Marilyn Miller, in MGM’s The Great Ziegfeld, although it was cut from the final picture.

In 1936, Lawrence signed with Hal Roach, and although it was a much smaller studio than Fox, it was at Roach that Lawrence made a lasting legacy. (I find it interesting that a couple of her Fox films had been directed by Roach veteran George Marshall — it may have been through Marshall that Lawrence came to Roach). Over the next two years Lawrence starred in several films that are still watched as classics. Best remembered is her role as the ingenue Mary Roberts in Laurel and Hardy’s Way Out West (1937). In that film she also supplied Laurel’s voice when he reaches for high notes on the song “Trail of the Lonesome Pine”. Lawrence also replaced June Marlowe as the teacher character in seven Our Gang/Little Rascals shorts 1936-37 and appeared in the Our Gang feature General Spanky (1936) as well as the 1936 Charley Chase comedies On the Wrong Trek and Neighborhood House, and Pan Handlers, with Patsy Kelly and Pert Kelton. She also starred in three feature length musicals produced by Roach: Mr. Cinderella (1936) with Jack Haley, Nobody’s Baby (1937) with Patsy Kelly and Lyda Roberti, and Pick a Star (1937) which we wrote about here.

In 1936 Lawrence (along with Hayworth) was named one of “Four Debutante Stars of 1936” and was also one of 10 Flashlighters’ Starlets chosen by the Hollywood Press Photographers Association. These distinctions were similar to being a WAMPAS Baby Star; theoretically she was on the rise in the movie industry. But shortly thereafter, her life went in a very different direction.

Inveterate Roach fans know that he was an opera buff. Witness his versions Fra Diavolo (1933), March of the Wooden Soldiers (1934), and The Bohemian Girl (1936). In 1938, Roach sent Lawrence to Italy to star in a planned co-production of Rigoletto. That production fell through, but while she was there she ended up starring in Eduardo De Fillipo’s 1939 comedy In campagna è caduta una stella. De Fillipo was a major stage and screen artist in Italy; in a rationale world, this credit might have meant something in the States. As it happens the film was not released in the U.S. until 1947, under the title In the Country Fell a Star. What had happened in between? Oh, a little thing called World War Two.

In De Fillipo’s film, Lawrence played an American film star enjoying the worship of peasants in an Italian village. Ironically, it was her last moment as a screen star! That same year she married Brooklyn-born lawyer, judge, scholar, professor and radio personality Juvenal Marchisio whose greatest claim to fame may be organizing American relief efforts for wartorn Italy starting in 1944 (Southern Italy had fallen to the Allies in 1943). Lawrence retired from films to raise their three children and was married to Marchisio until his death in 1973.

But there’s a wonderful kicker to this story! Lawrence became a presenter at annual gatherings of the Sons of the Desert, the international Laurel and Hardy fan club. In 1987 she married Sons of the Desert founder and Laurel and Hardy biographer John C. McCabe. We comedy and show biz nerds revere the late McCabe, for he also wrote books on Chaplin, Cagney, George M. Cohan and others. I corresponded with McCabe shortly before he died in 2005 — his reply to me was whimsical and modest, as I recall. At any rate, McCabe was eight years Lawrence’s junior. She passed away in 1997 at the age of 84. It’s delightful to know that her last decade was spent enjoying the same kind of adulation as her character’s in In the Country Fell a Star.

To learn more about vaudeville please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on silent film and classic comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.