Alice White is one of the most endearing stars of the late silent era and early talkies. Although limited in acting range, she was the perfect image of the flapper with her big eyes, tousled blonde hair, and boop-a-doop voice. Virtually forgotten today, White ranked as a major star for a brief time and was First National’s (and then Warners’) answer to Clara Bow. And like Bow she was badly used by her home studio, especially after talkies came in. White was cast over and over in musicals even though her singing voice was sometimes dubbed (this is still a debatable issue) and her dancing talents were limited.
Born in 1904 in Paterson, NJ, White moved to Hollywood with her grandmother after her mother’s death. She attended Hollywood High School along with future stars like Joel McCrea and Mary Brian. After school White landed a script girl job with Josef Von Sternberg, but after clashing with him, she worked for Charlie Chaplin, who decided she had potential as an actress.
Crash and Burn
White made her film debut in 1927 in The Sea Tiger with Milton Sills and Mary Astor, one of the dozen silent films she made. She was rarely the leading lady but worked with some big stars: Billie Dove (in her signature role) in The American Beauty (1927); Constance Talmadge in Breakfast at Sunrise (1927); Norma Talmadge in The Dove (1927); Sally O’Neil in Mad Hour (1928); Arthur Lake in Harold Teen (based on a famous comic strip) in 1928; and Astor again in Three-Ring Marriage (1928).
White finally got her big break in 1928 as the star (in the role of Dorothy Shaw) of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, based on the hit Broadway play. After playing a succession of flappers and gold diggers, she attracted the attention of the director/producer Mervyn LeRoy and got a big career boost. Her first sound films included Show Girl (1928), which introduced the character of Dixie Dugan, and Broadway Babies (1929) in which White plays the hilariously named Delight Foster and sings “Jig, Jig, Jigaloo,” “Wishing and Waiting for Love,” and “Broadway Baby Dolls.” This film was White’s biggest box-office hit and established her as a talkie star. In this one, White throws over her loyal boyfriend and uses an older man to advance her Broadway career while her pals (Marion Byron and Sally Eilers) pursue rich millionaires.
White also appeared in The Show of Shows (1929), the big all-star Warner revue, Playing Around (1929) with Chester Morris, and Show Girl in Hollywood (1930). In both Show Girl films, White played Dixie Dugan, a character from J.P. McEvoy’s comic strip “Dixie Dugan.” Although Dixie was famously based on Louise Brooks, White landed the film roles.
Show Girl in Hollywood is notable for a few reasons. The film takes on an almost documentary feel as Dixie is shown around the Warners’ lot and introduced to filmmaking. During one musical number, the charming “Ooh, I’ve Got My Eye on You,” the camera is placed behind the scene and looks out across the set while White sings (apparently for herself) and dances. This film also boasts a stunning performance by silent superstar Blanche Sweet as Donnie Harris, the washed-up actress who clings to comeback hopes. With art imitating life, it’s especially tragic that the talented Sweet failed to make much of an impression on Depression audiences in a handful of early talkie roles and disappeared. It’s also interesting that White’s character of Dixie becomes pushy and obnoxious as she tries to leverage her way to stardom by shamelessly using her old boyfriend (played by Jack Mulhall).
With the coming of talkies, as Sweet vanished from the screen, White became a popular Warners’ star, but she was usually confined to playing flappers and gold diggers. In 1930 she starred in Sweethearts on Parade with Marie Prevost, Lloyd Hughes, and Ray Cooke. This film included 4 songs but was also released as a silent, seemingly the only version to survive. White and Prevost play department store sales girls who set out to trap millionaire husbands but end up with likable sailors (Hughes and Cooke).
In 1930, White also starred in Sweet Mama with David Manners (his debut) and in The Widow from Chicago with Edward G. Robinson in which White plays a woman determined to get the guy (Robinson) who killed her brother. 1931 saw her tangle with Myrna Loy in The Naughty Flirt, her last starring role. White was earning the reputation of being “difficult” with a penchant for uncooperative behavior, including a salary dispute with her studio that cost her a big role (the lead in No, No, Nanette, which went to the long-forgotten Bernice Claire). Her relationship with LeRoy faded, and the studio lost interest in her. After a supporting role in the B film, Murder at Midnight, White left films and tried for a quick comeback on stage.
But in 1933, her comeback attempt was severely damaged by a sex scandal that erupted in the tabloids over her involvement with John Warburton (a minor British actor) and writer/producer, Sy Bartlett. The lurid love-triangle headlines (even the staid New York Times ran some scorchers) involved White in a series of trials that accused Warburton of beating her and, in retaliation, had White and Bartlett hiring thugs to rob Warburton and disfigure his face. Although she later married Bartlett, her public reputation was tarnished and she appeared only in supporting roles after this.
Among her notable supporting roles was her comeback film, Employees’ Entrance (1933) with Loretta Young and Warren William. White plays the snappy Polly Dale, the blonde bombshell who’s not as dumb as people think. She also co-starred in Jimmy the Gent (1934), with James Cagney and Bette Davis, but her studio days were ending. She played successively smaller roles up to World War II. She made her final film appearance with Joan Crawford in Flamingo Road (1949).
Alice White had a movie career that was typical of the times: she rose quickly to stardom in the late silent period, made a good transition to sound, but then was stereotyped and pushed into a series of bad films before virtually disappearing. Her best film, Show Girl in Hollywood, is more notable for the appearance of Blanche Sweet than for White’s contribution. White was cast in musicals even as the first musical craze was fading. Film historian Richard Barrios, in his great book, A Song in the Dark: the Birth of the Musical Film, rather harshly judges White, accusing her (in Broadway Babies) of “a truckload of misread lines and pouty pseudo cuteness, plus some of the most amateurish musical performing in history. Visually White can make some moves that might pass for dancing, but all she can offer vocally is a childish soprano and erratic pitch.”
I disagree here with Barrios; in my opinion her dancing doesn’t look that bad. You have to remember that White starred in musicals at the dawn of movie musicals, before dancing became polished in a cinematic way. Early film dancers like Marilyn Miller and Ruby Keller can look pretty clunky by today’s standards, not to mention Bessie Love and Joan Crawford. As for singing, White was not a trained stage singer like Bernice Claire, Carlotta King or Vivienne Segal, and didn’t have a natural voice like Bebe Daniels (superb in Rio Rita), but her voice (and dancing) fit her kewpie-doll screen persona perfectly. Aside from the merits of her singing and dancing, White simply never escaped the typecasting as a brassy gold-digger so it’s difficult to judge her acting ability. Combined with her troubled private life and behavior on the set, White was quickly out of the Hollywood limelight. Indeed, she returned to working as a secretary.
Alice White died of complications from a stroke on February 19, 1983 in Los Angeles. She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1501 Vine Street.