Alice White: A flapper’s life

alice-white-2
Alice White was a Jazz Age movie charmer whose relatively short starring career was followed by many tumultuous years.

Here’s a happy 114th birthday to that blonde jazz baby Alice White, whose spunk and cuteness made her a popular star of light comedy and musical films of the late-silent/early sound era.

The title of a 1929 fan-magazine story praised Alice as “The Girl Who Licked Hollywood” – meaning that this 5-foot, 98-pound spitfire had shot to the top of her profession quickly, and through the force of her vivacious, no-nonsense personality. That personality wasn’t always an asset, however.

New Jersey-born and Hollywood-bred, White was a script girl for Charlie Chaplin and a secretary for a spell. But the camera liked her better in front of it.

“I was so stubby and fat and pink-looking that everybody there called me ‘Peter Rabbit.’ I had no thought of becoming a movie actress,” White recalled in 1958. “One day, the still cameraman had a new lens he wanted to test, and he said, ‘Peter Rabbit, how about posing for me?’

“So I put on an act with gestures … [and] the pictures turned out fine. When Mr. Chaplin saw them, he said, ‘Peter Rabbit, you ought to go into the movies.'”

Upon losing nearly 40 pounds, White moved up fast. She cagily signed a studio contract that demanded no worse than second leads. White’s first big hit was in a synchronized silent, First National’s Show Girl (1928), in which she portrayed Dixie Dugan, the wisecracking Broadway chorister made famous in J.P. McAvoy’s popular novels and comic strip.

She couldn’t play Dixie, at least not by that name, in every picture, but similar roles at FN and Warner Bros. kept on coming – in films with self-descriptive titles such as Naughty Baby (1928), Hot Stuff (1929), Broadway Babies (a 1929 musical/crime drama opposite frequent co-star Charles Delaney), The Girl From Woolworth’s (1929), Playing Around (1930), Show Girl in Hollywood (a delightful 1930 musical Dixie Dugan sequel), The Naughty Flirt (1930) and Sweet Mama (1930). When called upon to sing and dance, White could do so adequately but no better than that, and although she did take on a few serious roles, her lack of range or growth as an actress caught up to her.

Some of White’s talkies are occasionally shown on TCM and are available on DVD for modern appraisal, but while she lived, White’s onscreen achievements were overshadowed by personal setbacks, both self-inflicted and by chance.

In 1931, after an argument with a studio executive over money, she was bumped down to a Poverty Row chiller, Tiffany’s Murder at Midnight (which you can watch here). She spent most of ’31 and ‘32 refocusing her career with a vaudeville tour.

White returned to the movies in 1933 and even landed some parts back at the majors, opposite Joe E. Brown, for example, in Warners’ A Very Honorable Guy (1934). But a headline-grabbing scandal emerged. In the fall of 1933, two men were indicted in Los Angeles for the robbery and attempted disfigurement of an English actor, John Warburton. It was alleged the defendants were acting at the behest of White and her longtime boyfriend, banker-turned-actor-turned-agent-turned-screenwriter Sy Bartlett, in retaliation for a vicious beating of White by Warburton during a party in Beverly Hills.

“He beat me up all over the street and grabbed me by my hair,” White said in newspaper accounts of her testimony to a grand jury about Warburton’s alleged attack. “It’s a wonder I didn’t die.”

White and Bartlett were exonerated in the affair. They soon married but were separated within a year and a half. By 1937, their union was kaput, and White – in search of what turned out to be a temporary $65-per-week alimony award — told a judge that she had $100 left in the bank and was living with a friend because she couldn’t afford to pay rent.

White’s final film appearance saw her on screen with another ‘20s jazz baby, Joan Crawford, in Warners’ Flamingo Road (1949). By this time, Crawford was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood and White’s ninth-billed “comeback” role as a roadhouse hostess was little more than a novelty.

alice-white-joan-crawford
By the time Alice White (left) made “Flamingo Road” (1949), she was firmly in support of Joan Crawford, her jazz-baby contemporary of the ’20s.

Another wild marriage to a screenwriter, one Jack Roberts of Columbia Pictures, fizzled in divorce in 1949 after eight years. According to the Los Angeles Times, White told a divorce court that Roberts “called her vile names, threw things around and was carrying on with other women.” White and Roberts accused each other of spouse-swapping allegations involving a studio musician, William Hinshaw, and his wife, actress Barbara Brown.

White found new work in her old occupation as a secretary. In 1957, she fell off a ladder while trimming her garden, landed on a pair of scissors, and was temporarily blinded for several months as a result.

“My life isn’t so frantic anymore,” she said in a 1958 wire-service interview when asked if she missed her acting career. “I never look back. What’s past is past. I never saved a clipping when I was a star.”

Childless and now a redhead, Alice White died in 1983 after suffering a stroke in her Hollywood Hills home. Her death made headlines nationwide, so at least she had not been forgotten.

The moral of our story: Even if you think you have the movie biz licked, the Hollywood fates can lick right back.

 

SOURCES

“The Girl Who Licked Hollywood,” The New Movie Magazine, December 1929.

“Alice White Charges Actor ‘Beat Me All Over Street,’” Associated Press report in Philadelphia Inquirer, October 14, 1933.

“Slugging of Ex-Sweetie Reveals Alice White’s True Love – Or Does It?” New York Daily News, October 15, 1933.

“Alice White’s Husband Forced to Pay Alimony,” Los Angeles Times, September 2, 1937.

“Alice White Making a Comeback,” Associated Press report in Newport (R.I.) Daily News, May 23, 1958.

“Actress Alice White Dead at 76 [sic],” United Press International report, February 25, 1983.

“Former Actress Alice White Dies,” Los Angeles Times, February 26, 1983.

“Alice White, 76 [sic], Flapper Movie Star in ’30s,” Associated Press report in Chicago Tribune, February 27, 1983.

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Alice in her heyday, as we’d like to remember her.

Author: bradleyedwinm

My name is Edwin M. Bradley … but please call me Ed. I am an editor of a university historical journal and film curator at an art museum in Michigan. I was a daily newspaper movie reviewer for 20 years. I have authored three books about early film history, with emphases on pre-1940 musicals and the transition to sound. (A fourth tome is coming soon.) My "Unsung Hollywood Musicals of the Golden Era, 1929-39" was named by Huffington Post and Classic Images magazine as among 2016's best new movie-related books.

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