Here’s a fascinating three minute clip from Mervyn LeRoy’s 1930 talkie “Showgirl In Hollywood” starring the always strange Alice White. (Shamefully, I’ve yet to see this film–though it’s happily extant and reputed to be quite good). It shows the making of an early musical number–complete with views of the cameras in booths, reverse shots of the crew, overhead angles that include glimpses of the on-set orchestra (playback had not yet been developed and musical numbers were recorded live, on camera, with the accompanying musicians standing off to the side and playing out of camera range). There are even shots taken from inside the booths that were then required to hold the cameramen and their cameras–the whirring sound of the cameras, which you will hear, necessitated the airless, sound-proof booths which commonly caused the cameramen to pass out from lack of oxygen. All in all, this is an invaluble, not to be missed piece of film history lore…one that I somehow managed to miss for thirty-some years despite my long obsession with the early sound years.
Who was Alice White? Ubiquitous for a few years during the early talkie transition, White was a local girl–she went to Hollywood High and began working in the industry as a secretary for Josef Von Sternberg. Despite having no real talent–her good looks aside she has the acting abilities of your pree-teen cousin’s best friend–she wound up clawing her way up the First National ladder as a leading lady. And despite not being able to sing, she became one of the early talkie era’s most employed singing stars. The role she played in “Showgirl In Hollywood”, a chorine named Dixie Dugan, was further developed by the writer J.P McEvoy into a popular comic strip which used White as its model. From secretary to movie starlet to lead dancing and singing star to comic strip inspiration, you would have thought she had it made..and yet there was something about Alice White that seemed to seriously piss people off. Was it the talent-free perfomances? The blithe, devil-may-care persona? The boring name? Or was it something more sinister? Well, it seems that, in the mid-thirties, White was involved in a career-ending scandal involving her romances with two separate men–one of whom she later married.
One evening, in 1933, after leaving a party in Beverly Hills, White–who was engaged to a screenwriter named Sy Bartlett–was beaten up by another man she was romantically involved with, English actor John Warburton. The beating was so severe that White had to have corrective surgery to her nose and was rumored to be “unphotographic” as a result. This heinous event did not go uncorrected. Bartlett apprarently hired two men to supposedly “rob” Warburton but who, in fact, beat the crap out of him. Once the fighting was all over, White and Bartlett were on their way to matrimonial bliss…and White’s career was effectively over. Scandals involving valuable stars were generally covered up (viz the murder of Ted Healy, reputedly at the hands of Wallace Beery who was immediately sent to Europe for a few months to recover from “exhaustion”) but White had worn out her welcome with the studios and they flushed her away in yesterdays tabloids.
Presumably eager to stage a comeback, and having no real abilities to rely on, White hit the papers with another sex scandal in 1950. By then she was divorced from Bartlett and had married and divorced another man, the boringly named John Roberts. Roberts had stopped paying her alimony and she sued him. She was currently married to a man named William Hinshaw whose ex-wife, Barbara, was currently living with John Roberts. This strange scenario, with its sordid whiff of couple-swapping, didn’t quite launch the comeback White was looking for. There’s an excellent blog called immortalephemera which will tell you more than you need to know about Alice White–in case I haven’t already. Meanwhile, click the above link to watch the “Showgirl In Hollywood” clip.