From Shirley Temple’s nemesis to Josephine the Plumber: Jane Withers

My blog today is a part of the Children in Film Blogathon hosted by the wonderful Comet Over Hollywood, May 24-26, 2013.  I decided to focus on Jane Withers, who is still alive and thriving and who herself is a fan of classic films.   I was most familiar with Jane from her tv commercials as the bubbly,  helpful plumber, Josephine, extolling the cleaning virtues of Comet Cleanser.  I was not as familiar with Jane’s early beginnings in the entertainment industry and here is what I discovered.Children in film blogathon Jane Withers was born in Atlanta, Georgia on April 12, 1926.  She was an only child, much loved by her parents, Walter and Ruth Withers.  By the age of 3, Jane was achieving local fame on an Atlanta radio station as “Dixie’s Dainty Dewdrop” with her singing and imitations of famous movie stars.   Soon, it was on to Hollywood to try and make it into show business and Jane did child modeling and won a few bit parts in some movies in 1932 and 1933.   Her big break came in 1934, co-starring in the movie Bright Eyes, with Shirley Temple.  Jane was glad to be cast in the movie, but worried about playing a character who is mean to Shirley Temple!  She was concerned audiences wouldn’t like her and that that could be the end of her career.  In Bright Eyes, Shirley is the daughter of a maid for the rich and mean Smythe family.   Jane played Joy Smythe, the rich family’s daughter.  In one of her meanest scenes, she told Shirley’s character,” There aint’ any Santa Claus because my psychoanalyst told me!”  David Butler, the movie’s director, told Jane years later that she stole that film from Shirley.  Mrs. Temple, an ever present person on the movie’s set, must have sensed how good Jane’s acting was  because she limited how much time Shirley could spend with Jane and she also ordered that Jane wash her hands before and after all scenes that she had with Shirley!   Jane adored Shirley and they did manage to become friends in their teen years and are still friends today.

Shirley and Jane, still friends today.

Shirley and Jane, still friends today.

Jane being mean to Shirley in Bright Eyes.

Jane being mean to Shirley in Bright Eyes.

Bright Eyes was a box office hit and Jane received many positive notices from movie critics.   20th Century Fox took notice of Jane and she was signed to a long-term contract.    In 1935 she starred in the films Ginger and The Farmer Takes a Wife.  1936  arrived and Jane starred in the film Little Miss Nobody.  She was also listed as one of the Top 10 Box Office Stars for 1937-1938. In the 1940s, Jane was in 16 films, produced by Fox, Columbia, and Republic Studios.  In 1943,  Jane was in the cast of the film The North Star and received excellent notices for her role  She also wrote the screenplay for the 1941 film Small Town Deb. As I read about Jane, and looked up pictures from her career, I saw that her persona was used to sell children’s clothing, Jane Wither dolls, and as she arrived in her teen years, she was featured in many movie fan magazines.  Whitman Publishing Company even created  Authorized Editions which were 16 books, published from 1941-1947, featuring famous actresses in mystery adventures, similar to the popular Nancy Drew books.  Jane was featured in three of these books: Jane Withers and the Hidden Room, Jane Withers and the Phantom Violin, and Jane Withers and the Swamp Wizard.The Swamp Wizard!

Jane on the cover of a fan magazine.

Jane on the cover of a fan magazine.

In 1947,  Jane married Texas oil man William P. Moss, and they had  three children: William, Wendy, and Randy.  Sadly, the marriage ended in divorce in 1955.  That same year Jane wed for a second time, to Kenneth Errair, one of the singers in the group The Four Freshman.  This marriage was successful and produced two children, Ken and Kendall Jane. With her roles expanding as wife and mother, Jane’s acting career took a bit of a back seat at times.  She did appear in the 1956 film, Giant, starring Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, and James Dean.   Jane played Vashti, a good friend of Elizabeth’s character, Leslie.  During filming, Jane got to be very good friends with James Dean.  Dean had a favorite pink cowboy shirt that he was hesitant to have washed as he was worried that the studio’s laundry would ruin it or lose it.  Jane offered one day to wash the shirt for Dean and from then on, he had her wash that shirt for him.  One afternoon, she washed it as usual, not realizing that Dean would never wear it again; he tragically died in a car accident that evening.  Jane still has that pink shirt and keeps it as a very special reminder of a great friend.  Jane’s parents were christians, active at their church in Atlanta, helping to teach Sunday School classes, and Jane has said that that strong, spiritual faith has helped  her through many personal challenges.  I would like to add how refreshing it was to read about  a child actor who made it successfully to the level of adult actor, without any bitter comments or experiences to share.  Her parents were loving and supportive of Jane, not conniving to spend all of her earnings, not negative “stage parents”,  which sadly seems to be the case for a lot of child actors.

James Dean on the set of Giant.

James Dean on the set of Giant.

Throughout the 1960’s, 70’s, 80’s  Jane appeared on many television shows.  She has also done voice work for animated features in the 1990s.  Check out Jane Withers at IMDb for a  full list of her acting work.  In 1979, Jane was  honored by the Young Artist Foundation with its first Former Child Star Lifetime Achievement Award.    I would be remiss in not mentioning another blog, Journeys in Classic Film.  Kristen, who writes this great blog,  was able to attend Turner Classic Movies Film Festival  in Hollywood in late April and she got to meet and interview Jane Withers!  Click on the link for that interview and some more pictures of Jane at the festival.  I’ll close with some more great photos I found of Jane from her career.

Jane Withers today.

Jane Withers today.

Jane as Josephine the Plumber.

Jane as Josephine the Plumber.

Jane and Carol Burnett

Jane and Carol Burnett

Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, and Jane.

Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, and Jane.

Colorized shot of Jane from Bright Eyes.

Colorized shot of Jane from Bright Eyes.

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15 responses to this post.

  1. […] the cocktail area, I saw Jane Withers alone. I headed towards her until I spotted Julie Adams on a sofa chair surrounded by no one with […]

    Reply

  2. Thank you so much for this lovely biography! She sounds like a perfectly wonderful person! And what a bittersweet story about James Dean…

    Reply

  3. Jane seems like everyone’s favourite aunt, a fun lady.

    Reply

  4. I love Bright Eyes, but I must admit I knew very little about Jane Withers. Thank you for rectifying that oversight, this is a delightful read, thank you!

    Reply

  5. Aw, thanks for linking back to my interview with Jane (although sadly I didn’t get the chance to attend the TCM fest this year…fingers crossed for next). Jane is a humble, charismatic woman who has so many stories in her. She’s definitely a gem!

    Reply

  6. I love Jane Withers…she’s most famous for being a “child star” but I haven’t seen any of the movies she made during her childhood yet. She just seems like one of the most genuine people in Hollywood. I hope she writes her autobiography..what a great read that would be!

    Reply

  7. The relationship between Jane Withers and James Dean came as quite a surprise – how interesting! I saw her on TCM’s child stars special a few years ago – Jane, Margaret O’Brien, Darryl Hickman and Dickie Moore were featured – it was fascinating. Every so often it pops up on the schedule. Very nice tribute.

    Reply

  8. I knew few about Jane Withers, and learned a lot with your post. I’d be also nervous to be the little villain in a Shirley Temple movie! So glad they became friends.
    I was aware of the book collection with many titles involving Jane, but the touching James Dean story was totally new to me.
    Thanks for the comment on my blogpost. I loved yours!
    Kisses!
    Le

    Reply

  9. It’s so refreshing to read about a child actor who had “normal” parents.

    I laughed at Withers’ mention of stealing the film “Bright Eyes” away from Shirley Temple. She very nearly did!

    Thanks for a lovely tribute to a interesting and remarkable woman.

    Reply

  10. […] Portraits by Jenni explores Jane Withers‘s career and her performance in “Bright Eyes” with Shirley Temple. […]

    Reply

  11. I adore Jane Withers and I’m so happy you decided to spot light her. I must admit I teared up a little when you wrote about James Dean’s shirt-I had never heard that story. Thank you for sharing it.
    Have you seen her in the Child Star TCM Private Screenings from 2006? She’s so cute and giggly. She seems like a very down to Earth, happy lady with good, grounded parents.
    Thank you so much for participating!

    Reply

    • Oh you are so welcome! I had a lot of fun researching Ms. Withers and would love to see that special TCM aired with child stars. Here’s to hoping they’ll rebroadcast it.

      Reply

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