Editor’s Note: Playing Around has been recently released on made-on-demand DVD by Warner Archive.
In the late 1920s, every studio was looking for their own answer to Paramount’s “It Girl” Clara Bow. No one succeeded — how can anyone compete with Clara Bow? — but First National Pictures came close with their peppy blonde firecracker Alice White. Starting at the end of the silent era, White was cast in a series of films with salacious titles, trifles like Naughty Baby and Lingerie and Hot Stuff. By the time talkies came in, however, White had garnered quite a following, much to the chagrin of film critics everywhere.
The musical romantic comedy Playing Around (1930), with her frequent co-star William Bakewell and up-and-comer Chester Morris, capitalized on White’s popularity, but didn’t exactly set audiences on fire. It was a strange time, an era where actors who couldn’t sing were given their own musical numbers, and where these musicals were also made in a silent version for theaters not yet equipped for sound. Alice White was adorable but, as some theater owners groused to the studio, she couldn’t sing and didn’t exactly put a lot of butts in seats. Critics hated her, too; the New York Times’ Mordaunt Hall was so taken by Morris he focused almost entirely on him, and even titled his review “The Good-Looking Gunman,” while calling Alice White merely “acceptable.”
Alice plays Sheba, a perky little lady whose dull boyfriend Jack (Bakewell) is well into his 30s yet can’t get work as anything but a soda jerk. He takes her to a swanky nightclub even though he only has a few bucks to his name, then demands they leave because it’s too expensive; how else are you gonna win over girl, right? Irritated yet again, Sheba is about to stalk out when she overhears an announcement for a “best legs” competition. She jumps right in while nightclub regular Nickey (Morris) stares at all the great gams, finally judging Sheba’s to be the best. For a thank you speech, she sings a song, and Jack’s “Are the rest of you seeing this shit?” look as she warbles a tune is just about the best thing in the film.
Nickey acts like a big deal, but considering he’s a shmuck who is constantly out of cash, he isn’t strictly in the mob, or if he is, he’s so far down in the gangster food chain he might as well be plankton. The guy doesn’t even have three bucks to pay for his girl’s spaghetti, but he does have a swell car, he can afford nightclubs where legendary Cotton Club acts like Carolynne Snowden perform, and his eyeliner looks pretty great, so she happily continues dating him.
It’s hard to believe Sheba is as naïve as she is, even after being warned in some fine pre-Code dialogue with her pal Maude, played with aplomb by Marion Byron, just seconds before she would appear in the cinematic train wreck known as Golden Dawn (1930). Maude, listening to Sheba go on about her hot date with Nickey, asks what it is Nickey wants from her.
“Why, he doesn’t want anything,” Sheba protests.
“Sure he does!” says Maude. “They all do. Find out what it is and then be sure and leave it home.”
Solid advice from a woman who knows.
Alice White was not a good actress, but those of us who love her do so in spite of, and sometimes because of, her utter lack of talent. In comedies, a straight man will often appear to be acting in a whole other film — think Graham Chapman in The Holy Grail or Margaret Dumont in Duck Soup — and it’s the utter obliviousness to their own reality that makes them so much fun. Alice White had that same obliviousness, but not just in comedies: she had it constantly. Numerous articles were (and continue to be) written about her supposedly inexplicable fame; in 1929, The New York Graphic in 1929 hissed that White was “a coarse, untalented young woman,” while Hollywood columnist Dan Thomas asked: “How does she do it? She can’t act and she’s dumber than all get out!”
He goes on to be more complimentary, but the idea that she’s just a dumb blonde remains, and it’s more than a little unfair. Alice White was not precisely ditzy and not completely detached, but just a little off-center in front of the camera, like she forgets she’s being filmed and honestly doesn’t care one way or the other, it’s all the same to her. She’s a revelation, the embodiment of the idea that, in 1930, at the dawn of sound in film, you can actually be in a movie and not give a damn about any of it. She’s so cool and casual that the ultra modern Chester Morris looks stilted in comparison. The only problem is that it doesn’t always make for good cinema, but again, for some of us, that’s not a problem at all.
Playing Around comes smack dab in the middle of White’s heyday, one that came to a screeching halt only one year later in 1931. There’s an unsurprising lack of clarity when it comes to the details of this disaster; White reportedly chalked it up to a contract dispute, while rumors of promiscuity and Breen Office irritations swirled about. She would make a comeback in 1933 with the now-classic Employees’ Entrance, but lost any career momentum she had after being severely beaten by her boyfriend, actor John Warburton. Her face was disfigured and she spent months recuperating, only to return to the screen looking significantly different than she had before. Her soon-to-be husband, producer Sy Bartlett, reportedly hired some goons to do to Warburton what Warbuton had done to White, but they failed to injure him and Bartlett escaped being charged. A few years later and her career was over, though mostly on her own terms. In an interview with Bob Thomas in 1958, she recounted her early years in Hollywood, and without bitterness. “What’s past is past,” she declared. “I never even saved a clipping when I was a star.”
Playing Around has been recently released in a made-on-demand DVD from Warner Archive.