Movie actress Jane Withers recently turned 87, and 20th Century Fox celebrated by releasing seven films she made as a child that have not been available previously. I also had the opportunity to chat with the classic film star; read my interview here.
Withers started performing at the age of three, but it took all of five years before she hit it big. As a co-star in a Shirley Temple movie, she hit her stride at eight as the clever and ornery complement to Shirley Temple’s sweetly dimpled personality. The movie was “Bright Eyes,” and for several years after that, Jane was under contract to 20th Century Fox and making three to five B movies a year.
Besides her precocious intelligence and skill at mimicking others, (“I imitated the stars of the late twenties and the thirties … Eddie Cantor, Al Jolson, Ethel Merman, Sophie Tucker, Marie Dressler”) she knew how to dance and sing, and the directors generally found an excuse to have her do at least one musical number in each show.
She took several years off in the 1940’s after a serious bout with rheumatoid arthritis and her marriage in 1947, but returned to play a major role in the George Steven’s production of “Giant” in 1955.
As an adult, she segued from the bratty child actress to character roles, like that in “Giant.” And today’s Baby Boomers will remember her in her third career, playing Josephine the Plumber in TV ads for 21 years.
Withers smashed through many of the barriers and stereotypes surrounding child stars, and when you view the seven films just released as M.O.D. (Manufacture on Demand) DVDs, you can instantly see why she was such a hit. Despite the fact that she generally plays an ornery little girl, her innate goodness and boundless energy shine through.
Here are the seven films, all part of Twentieth Century Fox’s Cinema Classic Collection.
“The Farmer Takes a Wife” (1935)
Jane Withers’ first role under the new contract was small. History buffs will enjoy seeing life on the Erie Canal on the brink of extinction by railroad.
The plot is a bit formulaic and, of course, the trips down the Erie Canal look hokey to us today with the projected backgrounds. But the acting of a varied cast makes up for those dated qualities.
This was Henry Fonda’s first movie role, and he is aw-shucks wonderful. Janet Gaynor’s portrayal of her feisty character shows that good acting holds up over the decades. Finally, you get fine character actors, including Charles Bickford, Margaret Hamilton and Andy Devine. Quite impressive company for the 9-year-old actress.
“Paddy O’Day” (1935)
This was my favorite of the batch for several reasons. Jane Withers at ten years old is adorable and gives a more intelligent performance than you generally get from a child. Her role as an Irish immigrant girl traveling alone to America comes complete with authentic accent.
Although Withers’ could steal any scene from most any adult, the beautiful young Russian emigre who comes to her rescue draws the viewer’s eye. This was the debut acting role of dancer Rita Cansino, later to become Rita Hayworth, and it is easy to see how she became the huge star that she was. As they say in Hollywood, the camera loved her.
“Little Miss Nobody” (1936)
Withers’ established persona really fit this role like a glove. It looks like she is having such fun that the viewer has to have a good time, too. She plays an orphan girl who sacrifices her chance to have a real father by little white lies that make it look like her friend is the daughter.
While she pulls stunt after stunt, drawing her deeper in trouble, she still finds time to do a song and dance number to entertain the other children. Again, despite dated qualities and some eye-rolling overacting, this film had me laughing along and holding my breath, wishing the best to Little Miss Nobody.
Surprisingly, the “rascal” of the title is not Jane Withers. This time she is the child-queen of a troupe of gypsies – a great excuse for her to be singing and dancing along with Borrah Minevitch and His Harmonica Rascals (credited on the film as “his gang”).
The New York Times called this “perhaps the best of Jane Wither’s Twentieth Century Fox films.”
“Chicken Wagon Family” (1939)
As in “Rascals,” the child star had top billing over big actors like Leo Carrillo and Spring Byington. If you remember “The Beverly Hillbillies” on TV, this movie is a bit like that comedy.
A country family takes their mule and wagon into New York City to sell chickens. The father gambles away their money and the daughter, played by irrepressible Withers, comes up with money-making schemes. TV Guide calls it “a painfully bad comedy.”
“High School” (1940)
While most child stars have trouble making the step from cute 8-year-old to teen, Withers seemed to weather the changes pretty well. In “High School,” when she was thirteen years old, her name appeared above the title once again.
In the tried and true formula, the comedy arises as the rough-edged outsider from the ranch tries to make her way in a more sophisticated world in a San Antonio High School. Interestingly, Withers later married a Texan and lived in Austin, and when George Stevens was planning to film “Giant,” she volunteered to give him tips on how not to insult Texans.
“Golden Hoofs” (1941)
Part of the reason she transitioned from child actor to young adult roles may have been that she was taller and more mature looking than her age. At 14, when she made “Golden Hoofs,” she easily looks much older – otherwise the almost-romance in the story would have been a bit icky.
Again she gets the above-the-title credit, even surpassing the popular Buddy Rogers, who plays her love interest. As you might guess, this is a horse picture, centered around sulky racing. There is more warm drama and less comedy in this movie than in her earlier ones.
Are you a Jane Withers fans? Leave thoughts and memories in the comments below, and buy the DVDs on Amazon.