Born Alva White in Paterson, New Jersey, but raised in Los Angeles. White attended Hollywood High School along with future actors Joel McCrea and Mary Brian. After leaving school she became a secretary and "script girl" for director Josef Von Sternberg. After clashing with Von Sternberg, White left his employment to work for Charlie Chaplin who decided before long to place her in front of the cameras.
Her bubbly and vivacious persona led to comparisons with Clara Bow, but White's career was slow to progress. After playing a succession of flappers and gold diggers, she attracted the attention of the director and producer Mervyn LeRoy who saw potential in her. Her first sound films included Show Girl (1928) made in the Vitaphone sound-
With the advent of talking pictures, White began to attract a level of popularity she had not achieved in silent movies. Her most notable film of this era was Jimmy the Gent, in which she appeared opposite James Cagney and Bette Davis.