RIP Jane Withers (1926-2021)

How strange it is that I was only watching Jane Withers yesterday as a spunky little girl and then learned today that she died at 95 years old. Withers vehicles were like her other 20th Century Fox counterpart, Shirley Temple’s, except they had a more programmer-type formula to them that also made them delightful to watch. The big shame is that they aren’t released and seen as much today as Temple’s are. They offered great chances to see some of the talent from 20th Century Fox’s roaster of names, including dependable character names to upcoming stars. Withers’s film career started out like most stars in the business, as an extra and bit player. She can be spotted in such films as Zoo in Budapest (1933), Imitation of Life (1934), and It’s a Gift (1934). Withers had already been in show business shortly after her birth and knew how to dance and do voices. Her knack for voices led Withers to her big break.

When 20th Century Fox was building up Shirley Temple and releasing one of her first signature vehicles, Bright Eyes (1934), they needed another child to play the anti-Shirley role, a full out brat. Jane got the part by imitating a machine gun at her audition, something that was incorporated into the movie. The opposite types of children plot with Shirley vs. Jane was no different than plotlines seen in many films before, nice but poor and orphaned Shirley is often picked on by rich, snobby, and very bratty Jane. This time, however, the plot stuck out more than usual because Withers did such a good job playing the annoyingly spoiled Joy to Shirley’s sweet Bright Eyes. Withers stole every scene she was in, something that didn’t go unnoticed by Shirley Temple’s famous stage mother, who tried to get director David Butler to give her less screen time, which he refused to do so. Withers’s character made Shirley’s even more likable and gave the film the edge it needed (the movie even ends on her and not Shirley). 20th Century Fox was impressed enough to start giving Withers her own vehicles like Temple’s but made on a smaller budget.

Withers’s first starring role was as the titular Ginger (1935), but now playing a sympathetic orphan. She continued her streak of likable films playing sweet children with This Is the Life (1935) (playing another orphan) and in a supporting part in the A-production The Farmer Takes a Wife (1935), best-known today as the film debut of Henry Fonda. The Withers vehicle really hit its stride in 1936 with Withers appearing in five films tailored to her talents. Famous humorist Irvin S. Cobb supported her in Pepper (1936), she danced with a young Rita Hayworth in the fun Paddy O’Day (1936), played another spunky orphan in Little Miss Nobody (1936), one of her most famous vehicles, has Tom Brown and Marsha Hunt support her in Gentle Julia (1936), and had her own musical Can This Be Dixie? (1936), one of Fox’s many “old South” tales.

For the next few years, Withers’ star continued to shine in several other Fox “B” films where her co-stars included Walter Brennan in Wild and Woolly (1937), Tony Martin and Joe E. Lewis in The Holy Terror (1937), the always funny Stuart Erwin and Una Merkel in Checkers (1937), Gloria Stuart and Henry Wilcoxon in Keep Smiling (1938), Leo Carrillo in The Arizona Wildcat (1939) and Chicken Wagon Family (1939), and The Ritz Brothers in Pack Up Your Troubles (1939). During that time, she played such roles as a horse trainer, a gypsy, a film actress, a wannabe sleuth, an army brat, and, of course, an orphan. Her vehicles continued into the ‘40s, but with Withers noticeably growing up, she played more adolescent roles compared to her previous plunky children, as evidenced with such titles as High School (1940), Her First Beau (1941), A Very Young Lady (1941), Young America (1942), and Small Town Deb (1942). Her films were also morale boosters that were seen by the barrel-full during WWII but given the Americana touch often associated with 20th Century Fox. Withers co-stars of the time included Gene Autry, Jackie Cooper, Charles “Buddy” Rogers, and several other former child stars in Johnny Doughboy (1942).

Withers’s best acting role came around this time with the WWII piece The North Star (1943). Shamelessly cut and re-edited into a Red Scare type film (Armored Attack) in the ‘50s, The North Star is really about a group of young Russians who go on a walking trip while their country is overrun by Nazis and how each of them handles the situation. Withers is the more wide-eyed, innocent girl of the group, who has a very cute crush on Dana Andrews (who can blame her?). The film also starred up-and-comers Anne Baxter and Farley Granger and the plot exposed some of the horrors the Nazis did during the time, which the film does not shy away from. After Withers gave a memorable performance, including a scene where she finally conquers her fear and stands up to the oppressors, she was back to more familiar territory with My Best Gal (1944) and Affairs of Geraldine (1946) where she was ideally cast with Jimmy Lydon. Withers, however, did make two more dramatic but rarely seen films Faces in the Fog (1944) and Danger Street (1947).

Withers temporarily left the screen after she was married for the first time but came back to acting in the ‘50s. This time Withers was seen in character roles in films and on TV, such as in Giant (1956) and Captain Newman, M.D. (1963). Later in her career, she brought back her talent for doing voices with voice work for cartoons. She notably took over voice acting for Mary Wickes when she died during The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) and continued to lend her voice to some work for Disney. Unlike many child stars of her time, Withers retained an optimistic view of life and collected movie memorabilia. Withers was through-and-through a real trooper who brightened up the screen many times during the ‘30s and was one of the last living stars of that decade.

~Bianca

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