Obituary: Rosina Lawrence

Rosina Lawrence was an actress, singer and dancer in many films of the 1930s, primarily for Fox and Hal Roach studios.

Two of Roach's biggest names were Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy: Lawrence gave her best-remembered performance, as the heroine, Mary Roberts, in Laurel and Hardy's 1937 vehicle Way Out West. This is the film where the comedians perform a duet to "The Trail of the Lonesome Pine" with, at its conclusion, a gag in which Lawrence's soprano voice is dubbed over that of Stan Laurel. The recording was issued on disc in 1975 (reaching No 2 in the UK charts) but without label credit to Lawrence.

Lawrence was born in Canada to British parents in 1912; her childhood was spent variously in Canada, Boston, Great Britain and Los Angeles, where her father, George F. Lawrence, worked as a builder of film sets. The young Rosina learnt dancing as part of a then revolutionary means of combating a leg injury. She performed in stage productions during school holidays, and then sought professional tuition, taking singing lessons and studying under the renowned Shakespearian actor Joseph DeGrasse.

Lawrence made her film debut at the age of 10 in Lady of Quality (1923), starring Virginia Valli; subsequent stage musicals and vaudeville work led to a second screen role, in Angels of Broadway (1927). In addition to her dancing in the film, her hands were used to double in close-ups for those of the star, Leatrice Joy (the first of several such jobs Lawrence was to perform). Her other early films include Paramount on Parade (1930), Will Rogers's A Connecticut Yankee (1931), Dance Team (1932), with Sally Eilers, Disorderly Conduct (1932), with Spencer Tracy and Reckless (1935), starring Jean Harlow.

During a return to vaudeville in 1934, Lawrence had met a father-and-daughter act called the Dancing Cansinos, the younger of whom became known later as Rita Hayworth. Both she and Lawrence were signed by Fox, where Lawrence appeared in five films: Ten Dollar Raise and Your Uncle Dudley (both 1935), with Edward Everett Horton; Welcome Home (1935); Music is Magic (1935), with Bebe Daniels and Alice Faye; and Charlie Chan's Secret (1936).

Her career at Fox was terminated when the studio's merger with 20th Century ended all existing contracts. Her luck did not improve when, in 1936, MGM excised her two best production numbers from their overlong biopic The Great Ziegfeld. She may still be glimpsed in the final cut, as Sally Manners, the character based on the stage star Marilyn Miller.

Her fortunes improved when, the same year, she was signed by the producer Hal Roach. Lawrence joined his "Our Gang" comedies (known later as "The Little Rascals") as the schoolteacher; she may be seen in several of these, including the series' only Oscar-winner, Bored of Education (1936), and the Gang's feature-length General Spanky (1936). Also at Roach, she appeared in Mr Cinderella (1936) with Jack Haley, and played the wife of the star comedian Charlie Chase in two 1936 shorts, Neighborhood House and On the Wrong Trek. She worked with Chase once more in the feature-length Kelly the Second (1936). The "Kelly" of the title was Patsy Kelly, with whom Lawrence also appeared in a short subject, Pan Handlers (1936), and the feature films Nobody's Baby (1936) and Pick a Star (1937, to which Laurel and Hardy contributed two guest sequences).

In 1938, Roach sent her to Italy to star in a planned co- production of Rigoletto; when this fell through, a different Italian studio cast her as a visiting American girl in a 1939 film In Compagne e Caduta una Stella (released in the United States in 1947 as In the Country Fell a Star). On its completion, war broke out in Europe and she returned to the United States.

Lawrence retired from show business on her marriage to a Brooklyn lawyer and judge, Juvenal Marchisio, with whom she had three children. Following her husband's death in 1973, she became one of the most sought-after guests of a world-wide society of Laurel and Hardy admirers, the Sons of the Desert. It was at one of their gatherings, in England during 1984, that she became close to John McCabe, an actor and college professor who is the authorised biographer of Laurel and Hardy. Lawrence married McCabe in New York in 1987.

Rosina Lawrence never quite reached major stardom, despite her great beauty and considerable talents, both as a singer and dancer. It is possible that this gentle, soft-spoken woman lacked the aggression to promote herself fully within a notoriously hard-boiled industry. Her attitude was, however, sanguine: "It was all fun," she recalled in later years, "and I loved every minute of it."

Rosina Lawrence, actress: born Westboro, Ontario 30 December 1912; married first Juvenal Marchisio (died 1973; one son, two daughters), 1987 John McCabe; died New York 23 June 1997.

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