Heads bowed in remembrance today for Jane Withers (1926-2021).
Though I had seen many of her performances over the years, I didn’t particularly take notice of her until a year or two ago when I watched the highly peculiar pro-Soviet movie The North Star (1943). The film is one of the strangest movies I have ever seen, because it was made by Hollywood, a pro-Soviet propaganda made by Sam Goldwyn studios! This strange development came about because the U.S.S.R. were our allies at the time (World War Two), it made a kind of expedient sense for a brief moment. And because of the U.S. and U.S.S.R. were briefly strange bedfellows we have the unusual spectacle of Walter Huston, Dana Andrews, Walter Brennan and Anne Baxter as Ukrainian peasant farmers extolling the virtues of the collective, in jolly songs written by Aaron Copland and Ira Gershwin. (It was written by Lillian Hellman, the least surprising thing about it).
At any rate, one takes notice of Withers because she is quirky and funny and odd and a little awkward. One wonders how she got cast, and then you learn she had been a star for nearly ten years by that point. The North Star is relatively late-ish in the first leg of her career.
She began as a child star at the age of three on a local Atlanta radio program called Daisy’s Dainty Dewdrop. Success there emboldened the family’s move to Hollywood, where Jane was cast in bit roles as early as 1932 (age six). She has small parts in the original Imitation of Life (1934) and W.C. Fields’ It’s a Gift (1934), among others.
In 1934 she was cast as Shirley Temple’s rival in Bright Eyes (1934), and thereafter she began to star in her own films like Paddy O’Day (1936) and Little Miss Nobody (1936); by the end of the decade she was one of the country’s top box office draws. How could there be room for TWO female child stars at Fox at the same time, you ask? This still from Little Miss Nobody may answer your question:
Shirley Temple sang “Good Ship Lollipop”. Jane Withers punches boys. While not as popular as Temple (NO ONE was), Withers was well loved enough to have a series of books published in which a fictional “Jane Withers” had a series of Nancy Drew-like adventures in the 1940s. By The North Star, she was a teenager, and seemed to be transitioning into older roles quite well. The first phase of her career doesn’t end until 1949, where she played an adult part in the B movie noir Danger Street.
Her marriage to movie producer William P. Moss, Jr. (1947-1955) took her away from screen acting for a time, but she returned for a memorable turn (and a great role) in the classic Giant (1956).
She went on to lots of character parts in films and television over the decades. But during this phase what she became best known for was playing the character of Josephine the Plumber in a series of tv ads for Comet Cleaners which ran in the 1960s and ’70s.
Jane Withers last professional credit was in 2002.
To find out more about show business past and present and other sundry arcane forms of entertainment, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. To learn more about comedy film history please check out my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc