When I was pitched the opportunity to chat with Jane Withers in connection with Fox Cinema Archives’ reissue of seven of her films from the 1930s and 1940s on DVD—The Farmer Takes a Wife (1935), Paddy O’Day (1935), Little Miss Nobody (1936), Rascals (1938), Chicken Wagon Family (1939), High School (1940), and Golden Hoofs (1941)—I hesitated for a moment, not because I didn’t instantly want to chat with someone with as long a history in Hollywood as Ms. Withers has, but simply because I didn’t know where I’d be able to place the piece. In the end, I finally just asked, “Would it be acceptable if I just did the interview for my own site?” I’m glad I did, since, as you can see below, News, Reviews & Interviews was indeed deemed a worthy home for this lovely, lengthy chat with Ms. Withers, who, even at the age of 87, is still more bubbly than just about anyone I’ve ever interviewed.
News Reviews and Interviews: So I’ve been indulging in a marathon these movies of yours that are finally hitting DVD.
Jane Withers: [Bursts into a fit of giggles.] Oh, and it’s so exciting! To think that, after all these years, they’re finally reproducing my old movies again…
NRI: I have to admit that I haven’t had time to get through them all, but I came darned close. Of the seven films, the only one I didn’t have a chance to put into the DVD player was Golden Hoofs.
JW: Oh, for heaven’s sakes! Well, Golden Hoofs I especially loved because I got to work with Buddy Rogers, and, of course, he was married to Mary Pickford, who was one of my great idols when I was growing up. I only met her when I was eight years old, but I still remember that she said, “Oh, you’re the only child ever in films that reminds me of me.” And I thought, “Good gravy!” Here she is, she has beautiful, blonde curls, and I have dark hair in a straight bob. But she said, “We both got into a lot of mischief, didn’t we?” And then I realized what she meant. Because I always got into a lot of mischief in my movies, as I’m sure you now know! [Laughs.] But, you know, I would always make sure that, if I had done something that I, as a little girl, shouldn’t do that wasn’t right and wasn’t funny, if there weren’t some sort of repercussions for what I had done, then I wouldn’t do it. I flat out wouldn’t do it. I said, “That’s a bad influence on all the other kids that come and see my movies, and I can’t do anything like that that I don’t get punished for by the end of the movie.”
NRI: You mentioned meeting Mary Pickford, but what it was it like working with her husband?
JW: Oh, Buddy Rogers was a real doll. He was just a beautiful human being. He had a beautiful spirit and he was lots of fun, with a great sense of humor. But, you know, I don’t think I ever worked with anybody that wasn’t terrific in their own unique way.
I have to tell you, I was and am probably the biggest movie fan in the world, and God bless Turner Classic Movies and all the other places that show the old films, because there are so many tacky things on TV today that I just don’t like. But I really appreciate the old movies. They always send good morals and happy endings. That’s what I like. [Laughs.]
NRI: Is there anything on TV that you do watch?
JW: Oh, well, I love Antiques Roadshow. And I love anything about history. I’m always so interested in other countries and other people’s cultures. Always have been. And I love to travel. I just love people, so I can’t think of any business in the world that’s more wonderful to be connected with than show business when you love people, because you meet them in all walks of life, all over the world.
You know, there aren’t too many ladies who start working at the age of two-and-a-half years old. [Laughs.] And, of course, I started in radio! I had my own radio show when I was three-and-a-half years old, in Atlanta, Georgia—that’s where I originally came from—live every Saturday morning. And before that, I had done a show called Aunt Sally’s Kiddie Review, where I used to sing and dance, and then I impersonated all of the movie starts of the ‘30s, like Eddie Cantor and Maurice Chevalier and Greta Garbo and Zazu Pitts and people like that. I just loved doing that. I also used to do amateur nights in Atlanta. You know, where they hold the envelope over your head and you pray you win…? [Laughs.] And I was really lucky, because I would usually win, but I always felt so badly when there were wonderful acts who would be doing acrobatic things, very hard things, and all I did was sing and dance and impersonate.
Would you believe that I still correspond with the first girl that ever wrote me a fan letter? It was in 1934, after she saw me in Bright Eyes, with Shirley Temple. So my fans have always been very special to me, and I’m grateful to say that I have them still, some of them in their ‘90s! Meanwhile, I just had my 87th birthday. Yee-haw! [Laughs.] It’s so much fun to be this age. I waited a long time to get to this age, but I sure do have a good time…
NRI: I know that Bright Eyes was your big break, but what was it that led you and mother to make the jump from Atlanta to Hollywood? I mean, that’s a pretty bold move for anyone even in 2013, but for a child actress in the early ‘30s…that’s quite a jump.
JW: Oh, you bet your boots. That’s a huge leap. But my daddy said, “It’s time for Jane to go to Hollywood.” I had all my fans by then from my radio show, so we just decided that we would go and give it a try. We came with 17 scrapbooks of my credits, and, of course, nobody could care less. [Laughs.] It took almost two years for me to even get inside a studio gate. But I started doing extra work—you know, when you’re just an extra person in the background of a scene—and I went on to have 48 starring roles as a child star, and then, of course, I’ve done a lot of others since then. I’ve had a most unique and interesting life.
But I stepped away from Hollywood because I wanted so much to get married and have a family. I always wanted five children, which I had, and my kids, three of them are involved in show business. Well, two of them, really. My youngest son, Kenneth, has his own DVD company, and he does all of these religious shows for broadcasting, does all of the recordings for these different churches for TV, and my youngest daughter, Kendall Erair, she works with Barbra Streisand all the time, and also Billy Crystal, and she has a wonderful time. To me, Barbra’s one of the best movie stars, and so is Billy. I just love both of them. And being a fan of both of theirs, it’s so much fun for me to know that Kendall’s working with them. And then my other two children… [Hesitates.] Well, I had one son that died of cancer at 33. My Randy. But then I have an older daughter, Wendy, and an older son, William. William’s in the oil business, and Wendy has a company called An Affair to Remember. She gives big, wonderful parties for different people around the world.
NRI: Well, I wanted to talk about some of these reissues, starting with the oldest of the bunch, The Farmer Takes a Wife. You didn’t have a huge part in that one, but at least you can say that you worked with Henry Fonda on his very first film.
JW: Oh, and we became buddies on that movie, too. I know in one scene I was standing next to him, and he was just shaking all over, and I said, “Are you afraid?” He said, “Well, this is the first time I’ve ever been in a movie! I’m really pretty terrified.” I said, “Honest injun, you don’t have a thing in the world to be afraid of. I watched your scene a few minutes ago, with you and Janet Gaynor, and, honest injun, you’re terrific. I think you’re gonna be one of Hollywood’s biggest stars!” [Laughs.] But he was still shaking all over, so I said, “Come with me just a few minutes.” We had a break before we had to start the movie again. So I took his two big hands in mine, and I said, “Now, I want you to close your eyes and bow your head.” He said, “Why?” I said, “‘Cause we’re gonna say a little prayer.” So I said a prayer with him. I said, “Lord, this is Henry, you know because you created him, and he’s scared to death. And I just know, ‘cause I saw him do his work, that he’s gonna be a big star in this town, and he’s such a nice man, but, please, Lord, don’t let him be afraid.” So we had this wonderful moment together in prayer, and I know it meant a lot to him because, years later, I met Jane Fonda in a store in Beverly Hills, and she said, “You’re the little girl who my daddy said taught him how to pray!”
For all of the rest of his life, we would visit each other on our sets on the studio. We were just good buddies and good pals until he died. I visited him at home when he was dying of cancer, and he told his wife, Shirlee, “Please go upstairs and look in my closet. On the shelf on the top, there’s an old sack. Bring me that.” Well, in it was the cap that he wore in The Grapes of Wrath, and he wanted me to have it for my movie memorabilia collection.
I’ve collected things from films, all kinds of things from sets and costumes from so many different films, and I have over 4,000 autographed pictures. I’m so thrilled that, after so many years, they’re finally creating a new Hollywood Museum, and I can hardly wait for it to get built so that all of the stuff I have can be shown and people from all over the world can enjoy it. Do you collect anything?
NRI: I collect autographs to a limited extent, but generally just musicians signing their CD booklets or album covers. I feel like what I collect more than anything else are encounters, just getting to talk to people. I don’t necessarily have anything to show for most of them—maybe a photo once in awhile—but I’ve got the experience…and the resulting article, of course.
JW: Isn’t that grand? It’s an interesting life, it really is. I’ve always loved collecting autographs, and I have so many people who…well, not only people who I’ve worked with, but I used to stand out in front of the Brown Derby years and years ago, when we first moved out here, and I have seven autograph books filled just from standing outside there. It was so much fun. And I feel like I grew up in films in such a wonderful era, because the stars that were stars then, they were just so different—their personalities and just the guys that they were—than people who are in films today. Don’t you agree?
NRI: They certainly grew ‘em larger than life back then.
JW: I just…oh, I don’t know, being the fan that I was, I was just very sincere, getting all the movie magazines and making scrapbooks. I made all kinds of scrapbooks. Later, Eleanor Powell and I became very close friends, which is funny, because I made seven scrapbooks of Alice Faye and Eleanor Powell. [Laughs.] And Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, and Jimmy Stewart. Oh, I just loved Jimmy Stewart. And later on, his wife Gloria and I were Sunday school teachers together for five years at the Beverly Hills Presbyterian Church. Those kids taught me so many wonderful things. I just loved all of ‘em.
NRI: In watching Paddy O’Day, you get to dance and sing a bit, including the song “Keep That Twinkle in Your Eye.”
JW: Oh, let me tell ya… [Laughs.] Now, I just love this story, because it’s true. I was visiting the set of a Warner Oland movie, Charlie Chan in Egypt, while I worked at Fox, and there was this beautiful young girl—oh, she was just gorgeous!—playing a ballroom dancer. And I asked the director who she was, because she had a smile that was just fabulous, and she was a wonderful dancer. I’ve always loved dancers, probably because I’ve always felt like I was such a klutz, but she was just scrumptious. So I remembered her name, and that night when I got home, they had sent my new script that I was to do next, which was Paddy O’Day. And when I read this script, I said, “Oh, Mama! That girl I saw today on the set? She would be wonderful in this movie as the girl who comes over from Russia with me on the boat!”
Well, long story short, I went to bat for Rita Cansino, as her name was then, and I told the studio…I called the casting director and said, “Mr. Ryan, I saw the most beautiful girl dancer on the Charlie Chan set, and, honest injun, she would be awesome in my new movie, Paddy O’Day!” And he said, “Well, she’s just a dancer!” I said, “Well, how do you know? Have you ever tested her for acting?” He said, “Well, no…” I said, “If you would just take a few minutes, I think she’s already under contract here as a dancer, but if you get out a picture of her and look at that smile, she’s just…well, honestly, I just know she’d be terrific in the role!” Sure enough, they tested her, she got the role, and then later on she became Rita Hayworth! And, again, our friendship continued until the day she passed away. All these sweet people that I’ve had the honor and the privilege of working with when I was a little girl, our friendship remains until they pass away. But Rita and I were very close friends. Oh, I just adored her. And I know when I met her daughters, they both said, “Mama always said she wanted a little girl just like Janie Withers.” [Laughs.] I thought that was so cute, and it meant so much to me that it she said it that way, that I’ve always remembered it.
NRI: Having grown up with a father who loves his cowboys, in watching Chicken Wagon Family, I couldn’t help but recognize Leo Carrillo, who probably best known for playing the Cisco Kid’s sidekick, Pancho.
JW: Oh, he was such fun! He was the most fun of any gentleman. He had the greatest sense of humor. Of course, he would speak what I would call broken Spanish, but he really taught me how to speak Spanish properly when we worked on that film, which has come in handy all my life. We used to go to his ranch when I was a little girl. He had a wonderful ranch. And he gave me a little tiny baby burro, which ran around our property. We had five acres of ranch on our property, so I had 39 dogs, 29 cats, a baby burro, and two baby deer. [Laughs.] I loved animals, and I always had about half an acre of orphan animals. But they’d all run around the property together. The burro was so tiny, though. He was about the size of a Great Dane. But, oh, how I loved him…and I named him Leo Carrillo, because that’s who gave him to me!
Keep your eyes pealed for Pt. 2 of my conversation with Jane Withers in the near future—coming very soon, I swear!—featuring her reminiscences of working with Shirley Temple on Bright Eyes and James Dean on Giant.