Vera White (1893-1956) Life in Hollywood’s golden age


The Call and WA Sportsman 1919
The Five Second version
Born in Melbourne Australia in 1893, Vera White had a career in vaudeville “low comedy” and then in Hollywood. Like her Australian-born contemporaries Nina Speight and Mae Dahlberg, Vera arrived in the US with a theatrical husband. Joe Everett was an acrobat comedian with whom she developed and refined an act, touring the US, Australia and New Zealand. She was picked up by the Hal Roach studio in late 1920. She appeared in numerous films in the silent era, mostly uncredited roles in comedies. She married three times and died in California in 1956.
Above: Vera White in a glamour shot during the return tour of Australia in 1919. The Weekly Judge, (Perth WA) 4 July 1919, P2. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

In early August 1928, Australian – born film extra Vera White was injured in a car crash when she drove into a truck after an arduous day’s filming near Palm Springs, California. She explained to the press that she and the two other occupants of the car, Fred Howell and Charles Berger, also extras, were tired after a long day’s work and didn’t see the truck until they struck it. The car was a write-off and Vera spent time in Los Angeles’ Good Samaritan Hospital. (San Pedro News Pilot, 2 August 1928)

Vera’s 1928 car accident is a reminder of the lot of under-paid and over-looked extras in the golden age of Hollywood. When the accident happened Vera had been working in Hollywood for eight long years.The most thorough analysis of her filmwork suggests she probably had made more than 40 film appearances by 1928. But she was still an unknown to the public and remained so for her entire career – another of the huge group of former vaudevillians now struggling to be noticed on the screen.

Born in Melbourne, Australia, on 20 August 1893, Harriet Vera Gertrude White was not from a theatrical family and her four sisters and brother did not join her on stage. Her father Hubert (sometimes Herbert but usually known as “Bert”) Fairchild White was a railway engineer, her mother was Amelia nee Williams. Perhaps tenacity runs in families – Bert made numerous attempts to join the Australian Army in World War One, and was rejected each time because of his age. In January 1913, Vera, by then working as a cinema cashier in Sydney, had married Joseph Thomas Everett (professional name Joe Vincetti), a US-based but English-born acrobat-comedian, who was touring Australia.

Above: Vera White at about the time of the car accident – with Oliver Hardy in We Faw Down (1928). Screen grab from a copy mounted on youtube.

Building a stage career 1913+

In December 1913, Joe and Vera appeared on stage together in Australia as “eccentric” and “popular” comedians, even though Vera had no prior experience. Joe had been performing in an acrobat comedy troupe – Henchy, Vincetti and Bush, part of the ill-fated Bud Atkinson touring circus which collapsed financially in April 1913. Now, working with Vera, the couple appeared under their real names – Joe Everett and Vera White. A few months later however, they had adopted the title “The Two Vincettis”, apparently refining their act before boarding the SS Niagara in April 1914. They travelled to the US under their stage names – Joe and Vera Vincetti – a practice which appears to have been not uncommon before World War One.

Above: The Two Vincettis while touring the US, San Bernardino News (California), 30 Sep 1915, P14. Joe is wearing clown makeup – see also below. Via Newspapers.com

We are fortunate in that evidence of their act survives. After several years touring as the Two Vincettis, acrobatic comedians, in April 1917 they re-presented themselves as Joe and Vera White and their act was now called Vaudeville Chop Suey. In October 1917, the trade paper Variety reviewed this new act with its characteristic frankness: “When confining their efforts to their style, Joe and Vera White present an enjoyable acrobatic specialty, but through striving continually for comedy with considerable kidding and using numerous aged gags, they hinder themselves. The girl has a comedy vein she employs to advantage, but suffers from lack of material. She also does well a Chaplin impersonation around the opening. While it is passe, she accomplishes it so well its retention should prove beneficial. The man occasionally tries to handle some comedy, but is a much better ground tumbler, and should confine himself to that alone. They work fast, and when rearranged should find sufficient bookings.

The act was about 15 minutes of fast action and with patter that today might sound very lame ;
“Suppose you take a bath in the bath tub?”
“Where do you take yours – in the sink?”
“You’ve been looking in my window”
(Variety, 26 October 1917)

Above: This crude illustration of the Two Vincettis act appeared for the forthcoming Carter County Free Fair, in The Daily Ardmoreite (Oklahoma) 1 Sep 1918, P6. But by 1918 they almost always appeared simply as Joe and Vera White. Via newspapers.com

In early 1919, Joe and Vera were engaged to play their Vaudeville Chop Suey act for the Fuller circuit in Australia – which meant they toured extensively across Australia and New Zealand, now with Texas, a “prarie dog” as part of the act. (Whether Texas really was a prairie dog imported into Australia is not recorded, and most Australians were unlikely to know, of course. The poor creature was accidentally killed in February 1920, just before Joe and Vera’s return to the US). It was also while they were in Australia that Joe claimed he had played “the big ape” in Tarzan of the Apes (1918) while Vera said she had appeared in the ballroom scene in its sequel The Romance of Tarzan (1918). It is easy to dismiss these stories, as one does with the fanicful claims that Vera’s uncle was Field Marshal Allenby (Long Beach Telegram 27 June 1921) or her grandfather was “the first white man to settle in Australia.“(Long Beach Telegram 7 Oct 1921). However, an earlier Variety report indicates Joe and Vera had indeed started in films for First National in 1918 (Variety 18 Oct 1918). Unfortunately, of the two films, only Tarzan of the Apes has survived, and naturally whoever is dressed as an ape is unrecognisable.

Above: Vera and Joe, while performing Vaudeville Chop Suey in Australia in 1919. It is only one photo, but Joe’s idiosyncratic attire may show the influence of contemporary Hollywood film comedians, like Harold Lloyd, Snub Pollard and Stan Laurel. The Sun (Syd) 16 March, 1919, P18. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Starting a Hollywood career 1920

Steve Massa’s Slapstick Divas, a comprehensive survey of women in slapstick films, aptly describes Vera as “the woman of a thousand faces”. Her stock in trade performance seems to have been the outraged bystander or shocked innocent party, although she sometimes played the key comic protagonist’s wife or a poo-faced society lady. In every case, her exaggerated facial expression became part of the comedy. While touring in 1919, a New Zealand paper had described her “grotesque facial contortions” as particularly amusing. (The Sun, Christchurch, 19 Nov 1919)

Above: Another scene from The Cobbler (1923) showing Vera with one of her characteristic poses. The cobbler was played by Welsh-born actor Richard Daniels, the father of Our Gang member Mickey Daniels.

Vera’s first identifiable appearances in Hal Roach comedies seem to have occurred in late 1920, soon after she and Joe returned to the US on the SS Sonoma in August. Newspaper reports show the couple still sometimes performed on stage, but their efforts had largely turned to cinema. Vera can be found in the cast of Cash Customers (1920), featuring fellow Melbourne vaudevillian Snub Pollard, and directed by another – Alf Goulding.

It is extremely likely she also appeared in other films that are no longer recorded – after all, this was the era of uncredited supporting players working on films that were churned out by studios at rapid speed. Park Your Car (1920) – another Goulding directed, Snub Pollard comedy from the Hal Roach studio was made at almost the same time as Cash Customers, and it also appears to briefly feature Vera White as an outraged homemaker.

Above: Outraged homeowner in Alf Goulding’s Park Your Car (1920), likely to be Vera White. Snub Pollard has just driven through her house. Via the Eye Film Museum, Netherlands.

One must wonder whether Vera got her start with Hal Roach through some connection or an appeal for a break to the two fellow Australian vaudevillians. Even if that is wistful speculation by this writer, as Massa points out, Hal Roach and leading players like Stan Laurel were quite aware of Vera’s abilities, and used her repeatedly despite her lack of public profile.

Above: Screen grabs of Vera White in two of her early films, demonstrating her skills in facial expressions. These are currently widely available. Left – Now Or Never (1921), Right – (at rear) in Among Those Present (1921).

In early 1922, Vera and Joe’s marriage came to an end. They stopped touring together, and in April, Vera took Joe to court seeking a divorce and alleging cruelty – and The Los Angeles Times outlined her allegations of serious physical violence in some detail. (4 Aug 1922) However, in June 1922 Joe told Everyone’s Magazine that the action was a result of Vera’s “swelled head”, a result of meeting with “a little success in pictures.” Joe had also appeared in several Hal Roach comedies in 1921.

Above: Joe White in The Pickaninny (1921) one of his few credited roles. The film is now in the public domain and can be see here at the Internet Archive.

Finding Vera’s later career

Vera did indeed have success in pictures. She had written to Everyone’s Magazine only a few months before the divorce, encouraging Australian readers to watch “all Harold Lloyd and Snub Pollard pictures [as] I play in every one of them”. (24 August 1921). To date, David Lord Heath’s Another Nice Mess website has identified about forty films Vera White appeared in for the Hal Roach studio, by methodically going through the process of watching each film to confirm the cast. Steve Massa has identified several more. But despite this sterling effort, a definitive list of her appearances may still ellude us.

Unfortunately a number of other freely-editable websites (including wikipedia) still muddle up Clara Guiol with Vera White, and these errors tend to be replicated across the internet. Guiol was born in 1906 or 1908 and thus was at least 13 years Vera’s junior, and her career took off later than Vera White’s. Although the two did slightly resemble each other, cursory observation shows they were two different people. An example of this is Stage Fright (1923), another of the Our Gang series, where the role played by Vera White is often incorrectly attributed to Guiol.

Above: Vera as Miss Ochletree, the director of the disasterous play, in Stage Fright 1923. The film is now in the public domain and can be watched here at the Internet Archive.

Reporting of the Weiss brothers 1928 comedy The Cockeyed Family, highlights another problem. It featured Ben Turpin as Amos Gillig and Vera White as his wife. However, the IMDB entry for the film currently does not acknowledge a character called Mrs Gillig at all, although it is a leading role opposite Turpin. Of course, the challenge of identifying actors of this era is made all the more difficult because some films are now lost, titles of cast and crew on surviving films were at best brief and sometimes non-existant, and other supporting records are sparse.

Above: Vera White as Mrs Gillig in The Cockeyed Family (1928). The joke, very much of its time, is that both Amos and his wife are cross-eyed, and the children are predictably getting into trouble.

The sound era saw numerous actors fall by the wayside and Vera White appears to have been another one of them. Of her later career, we know little. Jack Gavin, an Australian actor resident for much of the 1920s in Hollywood and a friend of Vera and Joe’s, regularly included them in his reports for Everyone’s magazine until about 1924, when he lost contact.

Vera remarried in 1924 – to Nicholas Richard Block, who was a studio property manager. A year after Block’s death in September 1936, she married Raymond F McCarthy, who like Vera listed his occupation on the marriage certificate as motion picture actor, persumably also an extra.

Vera died aged 63 in 1956, by now living very modestly in a bungalow at 6624 Ajax Avenue, Bell Gardens, Los Angeles. Her death certificate lists her usual occupation as an actress in motion pictures, but how much work she was doing by then we do not know. Intriguingly, an Australian born woman by the name of Vera McCarthy was reported as being in Lincoln Heights Jail during the 1940 US census, which, if her, may suggest a much less happy experience in later life.

Joe White stayed on in the US. Although there were reports he became a driver, he can still be found in live performances as a comedy acrobat – with his second wife Irma Button in 1923, and as late as 1929 in touring circus groups.


Nick Murphy
5 November 2021


References

Acknowledgement

  • Special thanks to Jean Ritsema in Jackson, Michigan, USA, who assisted with many of Vera’s US documents, including her US marriage and death certificates.

Films online

NSW Births Deaths & Marriages

  • Marriage Certificate Joseph Thomas Everett & Harriet Vera Gertrude White Jan 19, 1913

Vic Births Deaths & Marriages

  • Birth Certificate Harriet Vera Gertrude White 20 August 1893

Ancestry.com and Familysearch

  • US census returns, US shipping manifests

Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University

Websites

Text

  • Steve Massa (2017) Slapstick Divas. The Women of Silent Comedy. Bear Manor Media.
  • Steve Massa (2013) Lame Brains and Lunatics. The Good, The Bad and The Forgotten of Silent Comedy. Bear Manor Media.
  • Brent Walker (2010) Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory. McFarland & Co.

National Library of New Zealand – Papers Past

  • New Zealand Herald 3 Sept 1919, P14
  • The Sun (Christchurch) 19 Nov 1919, P9

National Library of Australia – Trove

  • The Herald (Vic) 6 Dec 1913, P8
  • The Sun (NSW) 16 March 1919, P18
  • Table Talk 17 April 1919, P19
  • The Weekly Judge, (Perth WA) 4 July 1919, P2.
  • Newcastle Sun (NSW), 1 March 1920, P3
  • The Mail (SA) 24 Jan 1920 P6
  • Everyones Magazine 25 May 1921
  • Everyones Magazine 24 Aug 1921
  • Everyones Magazine 21 Dec 1921
  • Everyones Magazine 14 June 1922
  • Everyones Magazine 7 Oct, 1925
  • Everyones Magazine 30 June 1937

Lantern, The Digital Media Project

  • Variety, 26 Oct 1917
  • Variety 18 Oct 1918
  • New York Clipper 7 Jan 1920
  • The Billboard 15 April 1922

Newspapers.com

  • Austin American-Statesman (TX) 16 Jul 1915, P8
  • Long Beach Telegram and The Long Beach Daily News (CA) 28 Sep 1915, P9
  • San Bernardino News (CA) 30 Sept 1915, P14
  • The Deming Headlight (NM) 23 June 1916, P9
  • Springfield Leader and Press (MI) 22 May 1917, P8
  • The Daily Ardmoreite (OK) 1 Sept 1918, P6
  • Long Beach Telegram and The Long Beach Daily News 27 June 1921
  • Long Beach Telegram and The Long Beach Daily News 7 Oct 1921
  • Los Angeles Times 4 Aug 1922
  • Los Angeles Evening Post-Record 20 July 1923, P8
  • The Californian 18 Mar 1925, P 5
  • Los Angeles Times 1 Aug 1926, P12
  • The Ventura County Star and the Ventura Daily Post 16 Feb 1929, P10
  • The Hanford Sentinel (CA) 29 May 1939, P1

California Digital Newspaper Collection

  • Los Angeles Herald 10 Aug 1918
  • Los Angeles Herald 13 Aug 1918
  • San Diego Union & Daily Bee 19 Nov 1918
  • San Pedro News 2 August 1928

This site has been selected for archiving and preservation in the National Library of Australia’s Pandora archive

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