The death this weekend of Jane Withers – the last surviving box-office star of 1930s Hollywood – reminds me that I have been largely apathetic about the Fox “B” films that made the spunky little girl a household name. But it was the first movie she made after leaving Fox in 1942 that attracted my attention during research for my latest book.
That film was Johnny Doughboy, which was actually a step down for the then-16-year-old Withers. It was a production of Republic Pictures – the most prestigious of Poverty Row studios, but still a Poverty Row studio. Twentieth Century-Fox and Withers parted by mutual consent after eight years because Fox (as with Withers’ more famous contemporary, Shirley Temple) didn’t know how to handle her inevitably awkward transition from adolescent to adulthood. Republic thought it could, and the “B” company better known for Westerns and serials inked Withers to a three-year, three-pictures-per-year contract while publicizing her as quite a get.
Because Withers yearned to play grown-up roles rather than hoydens, Republic commissioned a script to take advantage of the circumstances of her presence. Movie star? Check. Sweet sixteen? Check. Wanting to be taken seriously? Check. Named for the famous Great War song but set during World War II, Johnny Doughboy adds up to an appealing mix of comedy and music – and to a modern viewer cursed by hindsight, sadness at a supporting cast full of former child stars who, unlike Withers, were no longer wanted in the movies – and knew it.
Withers (1926-2021) capably handles a dual role, as a headstrong movie star who flees Hollywood to find love and as a look-alike girl mistakenly petitioned by the “20 Minus Club” to star in their proposed variety show. The fictionalized club members include singer Bobby Breen, “Our Gang” standouts George “Spanky” McFarland and Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer, comic brats Butch and Buddy, ex-moppets Baby Sandy and Cora Sue Collins, and former Skippy and Sooky actor Robert Coogan (Jackie’s brother). The “20 Minus” kids are depicted as so painfully self-aware that their big number, shown in rehearsal, is titled “All Done, All Through.” They sing of life becoming “a bitter cup” as soon as “they don’t pick your option up” (which in Baby Sandy’s case, means “going back to kindergarten”). Alfalfa assumes the screechy high voice he used in “Our Gang” song sequences, with somehow the same front tooth missing as in his salad days. The whole thing is fascinating yet unsettling.
Meanwhile, the movie-star Withers – who declares, “I may not look like Hedy Lamarr, but I feel like Veronica Lake!” – develops a crush on a tweedy playwright played by Henry Wilcoxon, who tries to let her down easy. His bowing out stirs her re-romance by an erstwhile juvenile actor played by film newcomer Patrick Brook. Although Withers had been kissed in at least two previous pictures, Brook’s buss of her was proclaimed by Republic as her first. Plucked from the star-making Los Angeles-based stage revue Meet the People, Brook landed the movie role with the help of Withers, a longtime friend. He dressed as a messenger boy who presented a singing telegram to Johnny Doughboy director John H. Auer, who was so impressed he asked the young man to take a screen test.
Among the “has-beens,” Breen was a particularly anticipated presence, as the former RKO headliner had not appeared on screen since 1939. His kiddie soprano had disappeared into something considered not quite presentable, and even his speaking voice came out as if time-compressed – thus he was given no song solos in Johnny Doughboy. This was Breen’s final film, although he re-established his show-business career as a nightclub singer and talent agent. Meanwhile, the clock was ticking on McFarland’s film career (two more features), but Alfalfa Switzer soldiered on as an actor until his death in 1959.
As for Cora Sue Collins, the little girl who appeared in scores of 1930s films (most notably at MGM), her cameo in Johnny Doughboy came as her acting career was starting (voluntarily) to wind down. Earlier this year, Collins recalled her kinship with Withers and her contemporaries.
“I know Jane very well. She was a very close friend. … I knew everybody in Johnny Doughboy, Bobby Breen and all of them,” Collins told me.
“… The majority of [former child actors] wanted to continue with their careers. I wasn’t at all interested in continuing. But it was very difficult for them. They were at the awkward age when they were neither fish nor fowl. There were very few parts written for that in-between age. For some, it truly was an awkward age. Now, Shirley [Temple] never changed; she was a beautiful person. But the majority of those people had great difficulty trying to get parts.”
Johnny Doughboy (which circulates online if you know where to look) managed to give its star a career boost. “Jane Withers is burning her bridges behind her,” said the New York Times in a positive review. Withers “carries most of the load like a real trouper,” the Film Daily complimented. “The script calls upon her to do many things, and she does all of them well.” The same young men who watched her grow up on screen for seven years were seeing Withers glammed-up – and appreciated it. “I’ve never had so much fan mail in my life,” Withers glowed in a 1943 interview, “and it’s all Johnny Doughboy and most all of it from soldiers and sailors and marines.”
Withers followed Johnny Doughboy with a juicy dramatic part in The North Star (United Artists, 1943) and reappeared at Republic in the 1944 musical My Best Gal (opposite Jimmy Lydon, still with us at age 98). Withers’ descent in Hollywood was much slower, and more voluntary, than the “20 Minus” kids. In 1947, she retired from acting for marriage and a family, but audiences saw her rally with a prominent role in Giant (1956) and a long stint as the Josephine the Plumber in 1960s and ’70s TV cleanser commercials. By all accounts, off screen she was a kind, gentle person of great faith.
If you know Withers only for her “Josephine” ads, she wouldn’t have minded. But there was so much more to her, and she deserves to be remembered.
Author interview with Cora Sue Collins, March 4, 2021.
“At the Palace,” New York Times, May 6, 1943.
“Gamin Grows Up,” Newspaper Enterprise Association interview, cited from the (Butte) Montana Standard, April 4, 1943. Newspapers.com
“Reviews of the New Films: Johnny Doughboy,” Film Daily, December 24, 1942.
“They Do Such Strange Things,” syndicated article, cited from Richmond (Virginia) Times-Dispatch, September 30, 1942. Newspapers.com
April 19, 1935, was a big day on the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lot. At least it was for Cora Sue Collins. A child actress under contract to the world’s most glamorous movie company, she received special attention on that day from studio chief Louis B. Mayer.
Collins, who has just turned 94, delights in recalling her one-of-a-kind “seventh” birthday party, which attracted names big and small from all over the MGM space. Among the many guests were Jean Harlow (fresh from shooting a scene opposite Clark Gable in China Seas), Mickey Rooney, Jackie Cooper and Jean Hersholt.
“L.B. Mayer gave May Robson, who was a very famous actress whose birthday was April 19 … a birthday party” to share with Collins, Cora Sue said in a recent Zoom interview. “She was turning 77 and I was turning 8. And Mr. Mayer said, ‘It would be better for publicity if we’d say that I was just going to be 7.’
“… The party was unbelievable. It was not an invitation, it was a command performance from Mr. Mayer, so everybody came. … The biggest stars in the business, the biggest producers and directors. … They gave me this … great, big, hand-carved autograph book with a wooden cover and a wooden back [she gets out book to show to the Zoom camera] … It has a little plaque saying, ‘From May Robson, April 19, 1935.’ Anyway, the autographs in here are absolutely amazing because they are the biggest names in Hollywood. And nowhere has there been a collection of such big names as this, because they were rarely in one place at one time. …”
Collins performed with – and often portrayed pre-adolescent versions of – stars such as Greta Garbo, Claudette Colbert, Fredric March, Norma Shearer, Bette Davis, Leslie Howard, Myrna Loy, Frances Dee, Merle Oberon and Fay Wray. Garbo’s hand-picked choice to play her title character as a child in Queen Christina (1933), Collins appeared with the enigmatic superstar, and March, in Anna Karenina (1935). Collins and Garbo remained friends until the latter’s death.
Although life as a child star was difficult for her, Collins cherishes memories from a film career that began in 1932. Here are highlights from our interview:
On acting at such a young age: “I did not enjoy my childhood. I worked six days a week, we worked from Monday through Saturday in those days, and I started to work when I was 3. And [speaking sarcastically] they were so generous, kind. They gave me an hour off at the age of 3. … So I wasn’t worried about my career at all [when older]. I couldn’t wait to stop acting.
“I would say the majority of [other child actors from her generation] wanted to continue with their careers [as they became older]; I wasn’t at all interested in continuing. But it was very difficult for them. They were at the awkward age when they were neither fish nor fowl. There were very few parts written for that in-between age. For some, it truly was an awkward age. Now, Shirley [Temple] never changed; she was a beautiful person. But the majority of those people had great difficulty trying to get parts.”
As a teenager, Collins moved back into the acting spotlight in 1942-43 in the stage comedy “Junior Miss.” “My first [stage] experience was a month in New York on Broadway before going on the road. It was wonderful, every night was something different. They had offered me a run-of-the-play contract … for a year. I loved it, loved every minute of it. But then I was ready to move on.”
On being known as a good “crier”: “I did a film called The Strange Case of Clara Deane. My mother [in the film] was supposed to leave me, as a child, at an orphanage. We were getting ready to do the first scene, and my [real] mother would read the script to me the night before, cover to cover, set directions, everything. So on the set, they said, ‘Camera, action,’ and two huge men dressed as policemen grabbed my mother, who was just standing there, and dragged her off the set. And the director [then] said, ‘Cry.’ … So I cried.”
Why was she so often cast as a younger version of characters played by leading ladies? “I must have a very common face, because they made me up to look like anybody. And I played so many of them as a child and I played so many of them as their children, and I had accents and whatnot. I was good at accents because I had a great acting instructor [Josephine Dillon, Clark Gable’s then-wife] who became a very close friend of my mother. And Miss Dillon was a wonderful coach.”
On Garbo: “I’ll tell you how I met her. I was 5 years old. For an audition, we were on one of those huge soundstages [at MGM], and [I was] standing in front of this huge velvet drape, with little girls, [lined up] tall to small. And finally, I was standing alone on this very big stage. Finally, this woman came up, and she spoke with an accent and we chatted for a while. [Later,] my mother came to get me and said, ‘That was Garbo; you got the job.’ We became friends, and she [Garbo] would invite me to tea in her dressing room. I can remember it so well. … She was a lovely woman but a very private person, but that was her prerogative. If she didn’t want to know someone, she wouldn’t know someone. She shouldn’t be forced to get to know people. And look how strong a star she was with L.B. Mayer, and [she] had him twirled around her finger.”
On Judy Garland: “The very first picture I played [at Universal in 1932] in called The Unexpected Father. And I met this girl whose name was Judy Gumm at that time, and I didn’t know until many years later, when a friend of mine was interviewing her about an autobiography, or something she had written about herself. And she said I stole a part from her. … Judy had been signed … to play my part, but they wanted a younger child. …
“ It was amazing I got the job, and the first day I got a starring part with Zasu Pitts and Slim Summervile, who were the Lucy and Desi of their era … . And the first day of shooting, I was supposed to say something, and then Miss Pitts was supposed to say something, and I would answer, but she flubbed her line, I said – I didn’t know any better – ‘Oh no, Miss Pitts, you were supposed to say this and then I say such-and-such and the camera dollies to a two-shot ….’ She said, ‘That’s it’ … and walked off the set. I didn’t know why. Then she came back – she was really wonderful, by the way – with an enormous pillow strapped to her derriere, and stretched out over the director’s chair and told the director to spank her because if a 3-year-old could know her lines better than me, I will never set foot on a soundstage again without knowing my lines. … Years and years later, 25 years later, we were friends … she was introducing me to some friends of hers, and she said [about me], ‘She is the reason I can star on Broadway today; she’s the reason I know my lines.’ ”
On working for major studio versus minor studios: “As a child, I don’t think I realized much of a difference because MGM loaned me out so much. … [We] have records where I did three films on the same day, a scene from one and a scene from the other. I didn’t pay any attention to it. I did what I had to do. … MGM was a monopoly. All the major film stars to the directors to … you name it, [Mayer] owned them. It was different.”
One of Collins’ roles in “B” fare was as the daughter of Stephen Foster, played by Douglass Montgomery, in the 1935 Mascot Pictures musical “Harmony Lane.” “I have such a funny story to tell you. I have three children – boy, girl, girl – and the oldest girl was named Melinda. And somehow or other, I heard that Harmony Lane was going to be on television. I asked, “Would you like to see Mommy working as a child?” And they said, ‘Oh, yes,’ because my children had never seen any of my films. So here Melinda and me were, sitting in front of the TV. … As you know, Stephen Foster was an alcoholic. When it ended, Melinda turned to me and said, with tears in her eyes, “I didn’t know Granddaddy was an alcoholic!” I said, ‘No, Mommy was just working!’”
Collins, who retired from show business and raised a family, on being one of the last acting survivors from her era: “I had hated my childhood, I would never talk about it, never enjoy it. [And I would think,] ‘Why do I remember those incidents? Why can’t I suppress them?’ But now I love talking about my childhood and reliving memories.
“I think I’ve been very lucky. I had the most wonderful friendships. Together on the lot, the MGM actors and actresses became my friends. Not long ago, a journalist asked me, ‘Weren’t you intimidated by these big stars?’ I said, ‘No, they were my friends, my neighbors.’ Now if you had introduced me to a famous baseball player, I would have been catatonic … in awe!”
It’s taken five years to put together, but my book Hollywood Musicals You Missed: 70 Noteworthy Films of the 1930s is now available. Like my previous effort, Unsung Hollywood Musicals of the Golden Era, it’s a look at some less-heralded films, this time grouped by themes that reflected trends in the Depression-era American movie musical.
There is a chapter on early musicals worth re-evaluation, including extensive entries on the rarely viewed Are You There? (1930), Beatrice Lillie’s disastrous talkie starring debut, and It’s Great to Be Alive (1933), Fox’s quirky mix of musical, romantic comedy, science fiction, and gender role reversal. Other sections of the book deal with early “hillbilly” musicals, singing cowboy Westerns (among Gene Autry’s sci-fi-tinged The Phantom Empire and the all-“little people” sagebrusher The Terror of Tiny Town), songwriter tributes, opera-singer vehicles, and swing’s intro to film. We also look at some of the less-inspired 1930s efforts by some of Hollywood’s biggest musical stars.
In 1934, in a time dominated by Great Depression worries at home and world-impacting unrest in Europe, The Witching Hour must have seemed like a relic from a simpler era.
This new, pre-Code movie melodrama was old at its core, set circa 1870 and derived from a 1907 play by Augustus Thomas that had brought occult thrills to many a tank-town stage for a generation. This tale of hypnotism, telepathy, murder and lost love also was done twice for the silent flickers, in 1916 and 1924.
The great silent-film comedian Raymond Griffith was said to have permanently impaired his voice by screaming at the top of his lungs through stage performances in The Witching Hour as a youth. It was jolting stuff in those days, not long past the turn of the century — but maybe not in ’34, when Paramount trotted out the property again after negotiations for talking-picture rights with the American Play Company.
The film’s producer was Bayard Veiller, the esteemed playwright best known for writing The Trial of Mary Dugan and the eerie The Thirteenth Chair. The director was Henry Hathaway, who was just beginning his long and prolific career. That their Witching Hour stands up so well 80-plus years later, despite its old-fashioned subject matter and non-big name cast, is a tribute to the efficiency and resources of Hollywood studio-system filmmaking.
The Witching Hour concerns the inadvertent supernatural powers possessed by Jack Brookfield (John Halliday), who runs a gambling parlor out of his Kentucky mansion. One of his regular customers is a young Northerner architect, Clay Thorne (Tom Brown), who is engaged to Brookfield’s daughter, Nancy (Judith Allen).
Brookfield is aware of his strange, secret gift through his ability to know what cards his customers hold, and the premonitions he gets when he thinks the local authorities are planning to raid his place, but he shows ethical restraint by not engaging in gambling himself.
Brookfield is visited by town political boss Frank Hardmuth (Ralf Harolde), and the two argue. Brookfield responds by punching Hardmuth and predicting he has not long to live. Clay, who has been unintentionally hypnotized by Brookfield through a cat’s-eye ring the older man wears, overhears the incident, then goes to Hardmuth’s office and shoots him dead.
Brookfield now must prove Clay’s innocence without implicating himself. Can a man be “killed by a thought”?
The compact screenplay by Anthony Veiller, the son of the film’s producer, wraps up matters within 69 minutes, making The Witching Hour ideal for the bottom of double-feature bills. Its titular familiarity had to carry it for potential patrons, for the “name” value of its cast was low.
Billed first in the on-screen credits was Sir Guy Standing, the English actor who appears in a fairly small role as an aged barrister friend of Brookfield’s who warns the latter to “guard his thoughts” against using them for ill. The retired judge is prompted to return to the courtroom for Clay’s trial when beset by the spirit of a sweetheart (Gertrude Michael) lost years before. Despite the presence of the young couple, the “otherworldly” Standing and Michael characters best exemplify the romantic qualities of The Witching Hour.
Halliday is the film’s acting standout in one of his typically suave roles, here as always with a vaguely English accent that hid his origins in Brooklyn. He is supported by such seasoned players as Olive Tell, William Frawley, Purnell Pratt, Ferdinand Gottschalk and, as a gambling-house devotee who wishes Brookfield would bend his ethics a little, Richard Carle.
Tom Brown, borrowed from RKO for this picture, had attracted attention as the title character in Universal’s Tom Brown of Culver (1932). He was soon to build his reputation as Anne Shirley’s would-be sweetie in RKO’s Anne of Green Gables (1934).
The ingenue, Judith Allen, had only a short period in significant films, but she did perform alongside Bing Crosby (Too Much Harmony and She Loves Me Not) and W.C. Fields (The Old Fashioned Way).
The Witching Hour, seeing no need to stray outside the play’s original time setting, remains unabashedly retro with underscored instrumentals of “Beautiful Dreamer” and “Believe Me, If All Those Endearing Young Charms.” By 1934, even with the pseudo-spook and gambling angles, this was deemed all-ages entertainment, with the Legion of Decency classifying it “suitable for family patronage.” A sentimental wrap-up helped.
The Witching Hour was not a big money maker, but it was pleasing to much of the audience. Even in 1934, apparently, The Witching Hour play hadn’t been seen everywhere, as evidenced by this trade-publication report from an Ohio picture-house owner: “The most unique murder play that I have ever seen. The people will go for this play.”
In New York, where The Witching Hour had played for nearly a year on Broadway, and where audiences fancied themselves more sophisticated, the reaction was not so promising. Twenty years before, opined the New York Daily News, this material “was startlingly new and created something of a sensation. Today all the talk of hypnotism in the picture … seems puerile. It earned snickers here and there from the audience at the Paramount Theatre.”
On the plus side, Variety opined that the film “still packs a punch for those who do not insist of extreme plausibility, and the master touch of one of our few great native dramatists,” meaning Thomas, “still stands out.”
The Witching Hour is skillfully directed and acted, and if it seems quaintly nostalgic, that’s a good thing for a Golden Age fantasy devotee.
“Remake Witching Hour,” The Hollywood Reporter, January 9, 1934.
“Witching Hour a Thriller; Half a Sinner Pleasing,” The Hollywood Reporter, April 11, 1934.
“Journal of a Crime Study in Psychology,” New York Daily News, April 28, 1934.
“Film Reviews,” Variety, May 1, 1934.
“What the Picture Did for Me,” Motion Picture Herald, July 21, 1934.
Happy 120th birthday to Frank Richardson, who was billed as the “Joy Boy of Song.” He brought his high energy and even higher tenor to a few early Fox musicals before the fickle demand for Hollywood songsters necessitated his return to vaudeville … and obscurity.
What we remember from Richardson – most notably in the box office hit Sunnyside Up — was accomplished on the West Coast, but this vocalist and comedian left his heart in Philadelphia. He was born in that city in 1898, died there in 1962, and wrapped up his documented showbiz career as master of ceremonies of a live Christmas show starring the Three Stooges in nearby Haddonfield, New Jersey, in December 1961.
Richardson was well known to Philadelphians long before his film debut, in William Fox Movietone Follies of 1929. He made his theatrical debut at the precocious age of 8, in response to a “Tryout Night” offer from a local theater, but his high “boy soprano” never fully broke. He performed in minstrel troupes in the Philadelphia area and with the Emmett Welch Minstrels on the “Million Dollar Pier” in Atlantic City, then went solo on stage and ditched the blackface. He recorded for the Victor label in 1923-24.
His act was lauded by Variety in 1927 thusly: “Frank Richardson … blasted into pop songs and semi-ballads that kept him bending and encoring until he had gargled every ditty in his rep. The youngster has come out from under cork and has a delivery like twin ambidextrous pitchers. He can yoddle [sic] a tenor ballad with the best, works like a beaver, has a hop on his fast one and enough personality for a railroad passenger agent.”
With such force in his act, why not the movies? His “audition” of sorts came in 1928 with two Vitaphone shorts filmed in Los Angeles. In the single-reelers, he sang such familiar tunes as “Bye Bye Pretty Baby,” “My Blue Heaven” and “Red Lips (Kiss My Blues Away).”
Richardson was signed by the Fox studio in March 1929 and placed in Movietone Follies, appearing as himself in color revue scenes and introducing the song “Walking With Susie.”
He gained even more followers in a full-fledged part, as a “ham” songwriter who was part of a secondary comedy couple with blonde cutie Marjorie White, in Sunnyside Up (1929). Richardson, White and funnyman El Brendel played in support of Fox’s popular romantic duo of Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell, but they attracted much attention on their own. Richardson and White get to sing the B.G. De Sylva-Lew Brown-Ray Henderson title song and “You’ve Got Me Pickin’ Petals Off of Daisies,” and Richardson adds a suggestive verse of “Turn on the Heat” to the film’s blistering-hot dance chorus number.
White, Richardson and Brendel are also part of the massive cast of the Fox studio revue Happy Days (1930), in which Richardson sings “Mona” and then dresses as a clown(!) to accompany Dixie Lee and tap dancer Tom Patricola in the elaborate “Crazy Feet” number.
White and Brendel were signed to co-star in the next De Sylva-Brown-Henderson musical comedy, Just Imagine (1930), but Richardson was placed in a less-prominent song show, Let’s Go Places (1930), in which he played the flippant manager of a movie-crashing singer (newcomer Joseph Wagstaff). Richardson also was heard briefly in unbilled, singing, non-dialogue parts at Fox in Masquerade (1929), High Society Blues (1930) and John Ford’s action drama Men Without Women (1930, in which he sings “Frankie and Johnnie”).
When Richardson wasn’t working before the camera, he was indulging his passion for golf and dutifully making personal appearances on behalf of his films and those of others. He was especially popular in Philadelphia, the trades noted.
Fox knew better than to keep Richardson and White apart, and they were reunited for the “New” Movietone Follies of 1930. They lead the blackface number “Here Comes Emily Brown,” which boasts a Southern horse racing motif – and a chorus that, according to studio publicity, numbered in the triple figures.
Brendel is also on hand, and, as a valet who poses as a lumber magnate, he steals the film from Richardson, White and romantic leads Buster Collier and Miriam Seegar. Unfortunately for all involved, the 1930 Follies hit theaters at midyear, just as musicals were going out of vogue with the public. Fox chose to falsely advertise it as a non-musical — to the satisfaction of no one.
And with that, Frank Richardson’s film career was over. By the fall of 1930, he was back in vaude, on the RKO circuit. He would spend most of the rest of his life as a nightclub performer, mainly in the Philadelphia area, and as an official of the American Guild of Variety Artists, for which he served as president of the Philly chapter.
An odd incident in Richardson’s life came to light in 1933, when it was reported that a showgirl named Joan Williams had filed a $100,000 breach-of-promise suit against the performer. She asserted that Richardson had asked her to marry him and that she had accepted the proposal – only to learn that Richardson was already married. (He had married the former Adele Boyer in 1919.)
A few months later, Williams dropped the suit, and she and Richardson married after he had divorced his first wife. Upon Richardson’s death from a heart attack at his Philadelphia home on January 30, 1962 – six weeks after he hosted the Stooges – Richardson was cited as her widower. Two sons survived him.
Like most skilled singers, Richardson won over his audiences through the force of his personality – genial, in his case – and not just the power of his tones. Sunnyside Up, Happy Days, Movietone Follies of 1930 and Men Without Women all survive today, so we’re fortunate to have of him what we do.
“Vaudeville Reviews,” Variety, November 9, 1927.
“Frank Richardson Has Been on Stage Since 8,”Philadelphia Inquirer, March 2, 1930.
“Vaude Notes,” Inside Facts of Stage and Screen,” December 6, 1930.
“Sang After School, Won Film Contract,” Philadelphia Inquirer, June 19, 1932.
“Vanities Girl Sues Frank Richardson for $100,000 Balm,” Philadelphia Inquirer, April 25, 1933.
“News From the Dailies,” Variety, November 7, 1933.
“Philly AGVA Vote May 26,” Motion Picture Daily, May 5, 1942.
“Frankie Richardson, Singing Star, Is Dead,” Philadelphia Inquirer, February 1, 1962.
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.
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.
“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.
When the audience at Capitolfest applauded at the sight of Eleanor Boardman, I knew I was in the right place.
My son and I had driven from Michigan to attend our first Capitolfest, the annual classic-film extravaganza in Rome, New York, expressly to sit through the 68 minutes of the 1933 science-fiction musical It’s Great to Be Alive. (I am writing about that Fox picture for a book project I am soon to finish.) But we wouldn’t be getting our money’s worth without attending some of last weekend’s other screenings, which brings me to Boardman and the newly restored 1930 adventure Mamba.
For the uninitiated, it’s common to applaud familiar names at insider events such as this, and even if most of the world has forsaken Boardman – a striking blonde whose acting career ended in 1935 – we buffs haven’t forgotten. She looks great, if not terribly expressive, in Mamba, which is a thing now because, as Hollywood’s all-Technicolor talking drama, it’s back in circulation after being feared lost.
Jean Hersholt delivers a colorful performance as the nominal star of the piece, produced by the third-tier Tiffany studio (which, probably not coincidentally, went bankrupt not long after). In German West Africa not long before the outbreak of World War I, a powerful plantation owner (Hersholt) is called “Mamba” by the locals and hated by both the occupying Germans and British. To curry favor, the planter secures an arranged marriage to the daughter (Boardman) of an Austrian creditor, and when she moves with him to Africa, she becomes mutually attracted to a German military officer (‘30s Poverty Row reliable Ralph Forbes).
Mamba was restored at UCLA from a unique 35 mm nitrate print that was owned by a collector in Australia. (The back story is told in a charming short documentary, The Theatre of Dreams, which preceded the Mamba showing in Rome.) Mamba is not an ideal restoration – the source material was in terrible shape – and I am not one to criticize painstaking efforts to preserve rare cinema. I was disappointed in Mamba as a movie, although given the constraints of the script and the resources of the producing company – even if Tiffany was spending more than its usual – this might have been expected.
Mamba is a not-insignificant piece of history, however, and if this restoration were available to me on DVD or Blu-ray tomorrow, I’d not hesitate to buy it.
A surprise for the positive at Capitolfest was another 1930 talkie: The Storm, an early William Wyler-directed drama from Universal. Some inventive camera work and exciting exterior action scenes give way, over the course of 80 minutes, to a taut, intimate account of a love triangle in a cabin deep in the Canadian wilds. The participants are portrayed by Lupe Velez, William “Stage” Boyd and Paul Cavanaugh, three actors for whom I have no special affection, but who do good work. Velez masks her strong Mexican accent by adapting it to French-Canadian, and Cavanaugh proves he had more to him than the debonair clubman roles to which he would become typecast.
Wyler wrote in his autobiography that he considered The Storm to be his worst film. Maybe his memory was faulty.
Ronald Colman was the designated star of Capitolfest 16, and this event showed one of my Colman favorites, Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back (1934), a lively mystery drama that also sends up the private-eye genre. I had not seen The Night of Love (1927), a Colman teaming with frequent co-star Vilma Banky, but this story of Gypsy revenge in medieval Spain is first-rate, especially when Colman and heavy Montagu Love play mind games with each other in the first half hour, with innocent maidens as the victims.
I will have much more to say about It’s Great to Be Alive at a date TBA, but I certainly did not regret the effort taken to view the print restored by New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Brazilian tenor Raul Roulien, a Maurice Chevalier type without the charisma, is top-billed as a playboy who ends up being the last man alive on Earth (no kidding!), but Edna May Oliver steals the futuristic show. The songs are unmemorable, but the offbeat humor is highly enjoyable. And in what other picture can you hear Edward Van Sloan call Emma Dunn “Sugar”?
Next year’s Capitolfest stars are to be Joel McCrea and Frances Dee, so expect plenty of early RKOs and Paramounts. The Capitol Theatre looks great, and once the marquee is restored to its original 1928 state (as, we were told, is planned), it will look even better. I eagerly await a Roman return.