I was beyond honored to be able to speak with actress Jane Withers at the beginning of the month. If you’ve watched any of her films, her distinctive voice and exuberant personality haven’t changed in her 87-years on this Earth (she just had a birthday April 12th), and she’s sweetness personified. Hopefully she doesn’t take this as an insult, but speaking to her is like talking to the coolest grandmother on the planet! While we only had a few minutes (and I only crossed a few questions off my lengthy list), I was fascinated by the fantastic stories Jane had to tell, and she definitely needs to get down to writing a book (according to her she has enough stories to fill five books). I was unable to ask her about James Dean, her later career, and a slew of other things; however, she did discuss her early career, her relationship with Shirley Temple, and her life as a classic film fan.
There’s no introduction quite like hearing Jane Withers say hello. Despite her lengthy career in films, starting in the 1930s, she still finds the “Golden Era” to be the best time in the world, and one of the most wonderful times in her life; “I’m the luckiest girl in the world.” Her love for classic films knows no bounds, and while walking the red carpet at this year’s TCM Classic Film festival, to guests wishing her happy birthday, it’s apparent that fans haven’t forgotten her place in film history. “They made me cry with tears of joy and gratitude.”
The child star has taken on dark connotations in today’s day and age; almost every day it feels like we’re hearing a horror story about the dark side of being an actor when you’re young. With that, I had to ask Jane about her experiences growing up in Hollywood, and whether she had any horrific stories. Jane didn’t have a “motion picture mother” aka one who was intent on her child ascending to stardom, “Thank God I had the most thoughtful, conscientious, kind and loving mother that any child could ever pray to have.” Her mother, Lavinia Ruth Withers, originally worked in a shoe store called Rich’s in Atlanta, Georgia. According to Jane, her mother would go everyday to study the marquee at the Box Theater across the street from work. “She said, ‘Now when I marry, I’ve got to marry Mr. Right because I want one child, a girl.’” Her mother even picked out Jane’s name with the marquee in mind. Jane says, her mother realized Withers is a long last name, and thus her daughter needed a short first name; ultimately coming up with Jane Withers. (At the age of eight, when Withers signed her first contract, the studio wanted to change her name. Jane adamantly refused: “This is my mother’s visionary thoughts and what she prayed about for a long time and my name is Jane Withers and that’s what it’s gonna be!”) From there, Jane says she came out of the womb “singing and dancing.” Her mother sent her to tap-dancing school where at the age of two Jane was entertaining people “on the streetcar going to and from tap-dancing lessons.” Those lessons certainly paid off because at 2 ½ Jane had her own radio program “all over the South as ‘Dixie’s Dainty Dewdrop.” Her radio show consisted of her doing impersonations of the popular stars of the twenties and thirties, including President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was one of her biggest fans (and according to Jane had a vault of all her movies). After doing the radio show for a while it was decided that Jane should try her hand in movies.
Her first motion picture was the 1934 Shirley Temple film Bright Eyes, a role that left Withers “thrilled and so excited” because she was a fan. During the time, Temple and Withers were meant to be seen as rivals, even though Withers was the antithesis of Temple – lacking curls and dimples. However, there was no friendship established in Bright Eyes because “I wasn’t allowed to talk to Shirley unless we were doing a scene together. I could never play with her. I had to wash my hands before I went into a scene with her.” Withers never elaborated on whose rules those were, although she says “Mrs. Temple didn’t want this friendship between us in any way, shape, or form.” Withers found the relationship between Shirley and her mother to be interesting. Temple’s mother wasn’t the most well-liked of studio moms: “She was a very dictatorial mother and she really wasn’t very well-liked by anyone at the studio because of her attitude. The director would have to say ‘All right Mrs. Temple you can come in now’ and then she would come in and get in front of Shirley and say, ‘All right Shirley, sparkle! Sparkle Shirley, the way you make the world happy.’ Then she’d go out and we’d tape the scene. I’d never seen anything like that in my life.” It wasn’t until Withers was fourteen that she finally got the chance to establish a friendship with Temple, telling a hilarious story of calling her on her birthday: “I used to call every year on her birthday, which just past, and they’d say ‘May we ask who’s calling?’ I’d say, ‘Yes, tell her it’s Joyce Smythe….’ – that was my name in Bright Eyes – when she’d come to the phone she’d already be chuckling. And she said, ‘Is this really Joyce Smythe?; I said ;You bet it is!’…We’d both laugh and we’d have a lovely conversation.” Withers has nothing but niceties to say about Temple who she calls a “magnificent lady. I was so proud of the lady she grew up to be and we’ve been friends for a very long time.” Thankfully, Withers never felt the need to live up to Temple or act like her. “I was just the opposite of her,” she says; “There was nothing about me in any way, shape, or form that I could ever be like Shirley Temple. I was just plain Jane – no curls, no dimples, no anything – just me.”
As a young actress, Withers always knew what she wanted, including having the same crew and changing questionable dialogue in her films. “I wanted so much to do things that would make the fans that came to see me happy. A lot of times I said ‘Don’t forget ladies and gentleman, you all are adults; I’m only 8-years-old. Sometimes the lyrics or lines that you write for me, I feel, are too adult for what I have to say as this character in this film. Now I made some notes and let me try it your way, and then may I share with you the words and the lyrics that I’ve written…so it’ll be more believable and honest to the kids watching my movies.’ And that’s what we did from then on. I went in on all the script conferences with the writers, I went over the script with them after I read it, I gave them the changes I made…and they always used it. And kids would always tell me ‘we’re so comfortable with your films. We feel like we’re your friends.’” It is her fans that mean the world to her, and several times she mentions her close relationship with her fans. Withers: “I wanted to meet my fans. I worked on fan letters three nights a week, and had five secretaries. I dictated the letters because it was impossible to write individual letters. I had five different letters that I felt answered basically most of the questions that I was always asked. I’d simply say ‘Letter A…B,’ whatever it was. I had a wonderful friendship with thousands of kids all over the world. There were several hundred Jane Withers fan clubs all over the world, in five different languages and I still correspond with the first lady that ever wrote me a fan letter in 1934? She’s 97 years old.” Withers also worked with the same crew on all her films, maintaining a relationship with several of the children and grandchildren of those original crewmembers!
The life Withers has lived is simply fascinating. While film fans are aware of her keeping James Dean’s shirt, you might not know of her extensive doll collection. Withers: “My fans sent me over 8,000 dolls and 2,500 teddy bears and I have given those dolls to the History Museum here in California. Every Friday volunteers go in that are doll people…We’re unpacking all of these dolls and teddy bears, [and] it’s been my dream for my dolls to be shared with everyone whose been kind enough to send them to me. They’re not just displayed dolls in glass cases, they’re in little movie sets of the period of time they represent; everything’s built to scale around the dolls and it’s really something to see.” In her personal life she’s raised five children, five grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren, all of whom are growing up with the films of the classic era (which she purchases). With her love for older films, it’s easy to understand Withers is not a fan of modern motion pictures. She’s a devout lover of the Hallmark channel “because they don’t have tacky language. They have family films and that’s for me!” In fact, if Withers had her say now she’d be working for the Hallmark channel (I had to agree with her although I’m hoping to snag a job with TCM at some point in life!). What she misses most is the sense of community, “People really cared about each other” and she has nothing but fond memories of the people she’s met while working in Hollywood.
Withers says that “the people were so different.” While only able to touch on a few stories she discussed a few of her favorite film people: “I’d go to Alice Faye’s house for swim, I almost drowned there once; her brother saved my life…One of my closest girlfriends is Ann Blyth. She is, I believe, one of God’s special angels on this planet. She is a precious lady and I was so thrilled that they honored her this year [at the TCM Classic Film Festival]. She is still one of the most beautiful ladies I’ve ever seen in my life…we’ve been friends 70 years.” Withers is also well-known for giving Rita Cansino aka Rita Hayworth, her first role. She explains: “I discovered her on a Charlie Chan series…and I got her the role in Paddy O’Day. That was her first acting role and we were friends until the day she died. Her daughter said, ‘Momma always told us she always wanted a little girl just like Jane Withers.’”
Withers is certainly a sly one, and while she knows her fair share of stars, she came up with a rather ingenious way to do so. She mentions being offered the chance to write a series of pieces for Photoplay magazine, and came up with the idea to start interviewing her favorite stars (she’s certainly inspired me to take up the idea). “I’m such a movie fan, and there’s so many people…I only met once…never really had time to talk to them; I’d like to interview them. So for Photoplay magazine, every month for twelve months, I would interview one of my favorite stars…And I had the best time!” In her twelve months she got to the chance to interview titans of films like Clark Gable, Lana Turner, Walter Pidgeon and others. She considers herself a devout classic film fan, proclaiming that she watches ten a week and keeps scrapbooks on her favorite stars (including Alice Faye and Eleanor Powell). A brief tidbit Withers included: “Eleanor Powell and I taught Sunday school, years later, at the Beverly Hills Presbyterian Church for five years [with] Gloria Stewart, Jimmy Stewart’s wife; we were the Sunday school department for. Eleanor Powell is one of the greatest ladies I’ve ever known and Alice Faye was like my second mother.” With that, and considering it’s turning into a standard question with all those I interview, I had to ask Withers what were some of her favorite films. She was actually surprised I asked but said: “I love Gregory Peck in anything. I love things like Mrs. Miniver, Keys to the Kingdom, The Shoes of the Fisherman. I love any Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland film. I love musicals; anything Eleanor Powell ever did I will see over, and over, and over again. Ann Miller was a close friend of mine and I adored her dancing and we both were born on April 12th and we were good friends for many, many years till she passed. I love Around the World in 80 Days, I love anything Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon ever did.”
There’s just so much that Jane had to share, and I honestly wish I had more time. She presented a grateful, humble star who truly has a love and reverence for classic film, and who was truly surprised to see someone like me writing about it! In talking to her, she found plenty of moments to praise me for doing what I do and I felt truly humbled and awe-struck. I really do hope Jane gets the chance to write those books because I didn’t get the chance to tell you about her relationship with President Roosevelt, and a few other stories she had to share (we only had a short time to talk and towards the end she was rushing to get everything said, haha). Thanks so much to Ms. Jane Withers for taking the time to speak to me, and I hope you all have enjoyed my Four Days with Jane!
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.