The Classic Connoisseur’s Guide to the Best Films & Stars
Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment recently released seven films featuring child star Jane Withers that have not previously been available. Read more about these films here.
I had the privilege of talking with Jane (as she insisted I call her) by phone and let me tell you, she is the most enthusiastic, cheerful person I have ever met! (Excuse the exclamation mark, but it is difficult to talk about Jane Withers without !!!!)
“I’ve been waiting a long time to get to this age (87),” she says. “I’m just having such a good time.” And she loves old movies – not just her own. “I see – I would say – ten old movies a week.”
Lest you think she is just sitting around looking at old movies, she says, “I’m working on – what started out as one, but has become – four books. It’s all about my happy memories and happy experiences and all the people who taught me such wonderful things.”
She has plenty of material. “I took home movies and had a Kodak camera, and I have over 5000 pictures that I have taken of my career… I have so many things that I think future generations should have. I have entire movie sets. I have a ‘My Fair Lady’ set that I just love.”
I read in an interview that she nearly refused to sign the contract for the movie “Giant” with director George Stevens, because it said she was not allowed to take photos. They rewrote the contract, giving her free access.
How Jane Became Jane, the Movie Star
“It was my darling, precious mother … She loved old films. And when she was fourteen years old, she used to pray every day that she would marry Mr. Right and he would understand that she wanted one child only – a girl – and she wanted her to have a life … in the movies.” Gazing at movie marquees convinced her that: “She will have to have a short first name … to look right on the marquee.”
A Different Kind of Child Actor
“I’ve never in my entire life had a director tell me anything. They’d say, ‘.. the important thing is how do YOU feel about the character you’re playing … I never had a [acting] lesson in my life. All you have to do is read and think and do. You read the script, think about it, make notes if you’re not sure, try it different ways until it feels natural. I don’t know any other way.”
When they called in a dialect coach for her Irish immigrant role in “Paddy O’Day” (1935 when she was nine years old), he said she was doing it perfectly and they did not need him.
Starting at eight years old, she requested and got permission to attend writer’s conferences, she says. “Sometimes I would change the ‘lyrics’ as I called them. [dialogue] I would tell the writers, ‘Don’t forget, you all are adults. I’m only eight years old … the ways it’s written, I think some of them are too “grown-uppy”… and I think we should change the ‘lyrics’ so kids my age can understand them.'”
Her Religious Belief
Jane Withers is known for her religious faith which leads everything she has done, and may account for her stability in a business fraught with dangers for young people.
“She [her mother ] taught me to be visionary in life. Visualize your life, put it into prayer and let God be your partner in everything you do. If it is right for you to have, nothing can keep you from it.”
Jane gave me an example of how that worked in her life. “…when I signed my contract when I was eight years old, I said, ‘I don’t care anything about money, but the people I’m going to share my time with means everything in the world. And I want the same crew on all of my films.’ They said, ‘That’s not possible.’ I said, ‘Oh yes it is. In Matthew 21:22 it says, ‘all things whatsover, you shall ask in prayer and believing, you shall receive.’” … [And of course Jane being Jane, it turned out the way she hoped.] “I had the same crew on 49 films growing up.”
Learning About Movie Making
Asked who she learned the essentials from, she said, “Harold Schuster was one of my favorite directors – I did three films with him. [Schuster was film editor on “The Farmer Takes a Wife” (1935), director on “A Very Young Lady” (1941 and “Small Town Deb” (1941)] And my cameraman, Joe McDonald … and there were several others. [I learned that] if they couldn’t see my eyes – if they didn’t put a baby spot on my eyes – my eyes tell everything. They always had a Janie spot, they called it a baby-baby spot – it was always focused on my eyes.”
Discovering Rita Hayworth
“’Paddy O’Day’ is one of my favorite movies … [When making ‘Paddy O’Day’] I visited the Charlie Chan set next door to me. And on the set was a beautiful girl who was dancing ballroom with her partner in a film … I was only eight but I felt so strongly about this girl – she was just dynamite. I asked to meet her, her name was Rita Cansino … She was painfully shy. She said ‘I just love to dance and I’m just thrilled to be in the movies.’ I said,’Have you ever acted?’ and she said, ‘Oh no, I’ve never acted, I’m a dancer.’ I said, ‘You don’t need to learn acting, it just has to be in your heart.'”
“Later on that day, my script for ‘Paddy O’Day’ had arrived, so my mom and my dad and I sat down to read it … and I said, ‘Oh, Momma, there’s the most wonderful role in here for the Russian girl that comes over to the United States. I saw a girl today who would be perfect in this role.’ I said to [the director,Lewis Seiler], ‘I saw this girl in a Charlie Chan movie, and she had never acted but I talked to her for just a minute. Honest injun, Mr. Seiler, I know she would perfect for the role. Let her have this opportunity.'”
“Well, she became the girl in the movie and she was just wonderful.”
When my conversation with Jane Withers was interrupted by the P.R. woman to tell us the time was up, Jane said, “Oh, that’s tacky! I’ve enjoyed this so much, can we do this again?”
And then she had a message for all of you: “I’m so glad your readers like classic films!”
And how could we not love the cheerful, bubbly personality of Jane Withers in all those wonderful, corny, old B-movies?