Jane Withers (born April 12, 1926) is an American actress, model, and singer. Beginning a prolific career as a child actress at the age of three, Withers is a Young Artist Award–Former Child Star "Lifetime Achievement" Award honoree, best known for being one of the most popular child film stars of the 1930s and early 1940s, as well as for her portrayal of "Josephine the Plumber" in a series of TV commercials for Comet cleanser in the 1960s and early 1970s and probably best known for playing the obnoxious Joy Smythe in the movie she paired with Shirley Temple, Bright Eyes. Also a singer, she debuted the Jule Styne-Sammy Cahn torch song "Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out to Dry" in 1944 in Glad To See You, a musical intended for Broadway which closed out of town in Philadelphia.
Withers was born in Atlanta, Georgia to Ruth and Walter Withers who taught Bible class at the local Presbyterian church. Her mother gave her the name Jane so it would fit on a marquee. She began her career as a child actress at the age of three, first on local radio broadcasts in Atlanta as Dixie's Dainty Dewdrop. In the early 1930s, Withers and her mother moved to Hollywood where she worked as a child model and a bit part player in several films in 1932 and 1933. Her big break came when she landed a supporting role in the 1934 Shirley Temple film Bright Eyes. Her character Joy Smythe was spoiled and obnoxious, a perfect foil to Temple's sweet personality.
Through the remainder of the 1930s, Withers starred in several movies every year, including Ginger (1935), Paddy O'Day (1935), The Farmer Takes a Wife (1935), and Little Miss Nobody (1936). She was usually cast as a wholesome, meddlesome young girl in films less sugary than Temple's vehicles. Moviegoers flocked to see her films, and Withers became one of the top 10 box-office stars in 1937 and 1938. Her popularity was such that Fox gave her "name" co-stars: the Ritz Brothers (in Pack Up Your Troubles) and Gene Autry (in Shooting High).
She wrote the original story filmed as Small Town Deb (using the pseudonym Jerrie Walters). In 1979, she was honored by the Young Artist Foundation with its very first Former Child Star "Lifetime Achievement" Award recognizing her outstanding achievements within the film industry as a child actress.
Depictions in fiction
Withers was the heroine of two novels, Jane Withers and the Hidden Room (1942, by Eleanor Packer) and Jane Withers and the Phantom Violin, (1943, by Roy J. Snell), published by Whitman Publishing Company, where "the heroine has the same name and appearance as the famous actress but has no connection ... it is as though the famous actress has stepped into an alternate reality in which she is an ordinary person." However, in 1944's Jane Withers and the Swamp Wizard (1944, by Kathryn Heisenfelt), "the heroine is identified as a famous actress". The stories were probably written for a young teenage audience and are reminiscent of the adventures of Nancy Drew. They are part of a series known as "Whitman Authorized Editions", sixteen books published between 1941-47 that featured a film actress as heroine.
Withers kept working in the 1940s; she made sixteen films for Fox, Columbia, and Republic Pictures. Her "sweet sixteen" birthday party was filmed by Paramount for the Hedda Hopper's Hollywood series.
Josephine the Plumber fame
Withers appeared in various television series in the early 1960s, including the CBS sitcom Pete and Gladys, in the role of Wilma in the 1962 episode "Step on Me"; the CBS anthology series General Electric Theater, hosted by Ronald W. Reagan; and the CBS adventure series The Aquanauts, starring Keith Larsen and Jeremy Slate. She was cast in 1963 as Edith Swinney in the episode "How to Get Rid of Your Wife" on CBS's The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.
By the middle 1960s, she gained recognition again as "Josephine the Plumber", a character in a long-running series of television commercials for Comet cleanser, and the veteran TV-ad pitchwoman's well-known character lasted into the 1970s, and even further in the 1980s when her niece, JoAnn or Jo, would show her customers a picture of her Aunt Josephine. During this time, she continued to do voice-over work and occasional guest-starring appearances on television. A December 15, 2008, Advertising Age article about Flo, the Progressive Insurance TV commercial character played by Stephanie Courtney, said that Flo, "... is a weirdly sincere, post-modern Josephine the Plumber who just really wants to help. She has: The brand is flourishing."
Withers married film producer William Moss on September 20, 1947. In June 1968, Withers' husband at the time, the former singer Kenneth Errair, died in a plane crash near Bass Lake, California.
|1932||Handle with Care||Bit part|
|1933||Zoo in Budapest||Little girl at zoo|
|Mary Stevens, M.D.||Little girl in lobby|
|1934||Imitation of Life||Peopla's front row classmate|
|Tailspin Tommy||Mary Elizabeth|
|It's a Gift||Little girl playing hopscotch|
|Bright Eyes||Joy Smythe|
|1935||The Good Fairy||Girl in orphanage sequence|
|The Farmer Takes a Wife||Della|
|Redheads on Parade||Young girl|
|This Is the Life||Geraldine Revier|
|1936||Paddy O'Day||Paddy O'Day|
|Gentle Julia||Florence Atwater|
|Little Miss Nobody||Judy Devlin|
|Can This Be Dixie?||Peg Gurgle|
|1937||The Holy Terror||Corky Wallace|
|Angel's Holiday||June 'Angel' Everett|
|Wild and Woolly||Arnette Flynn|
|45 Fathers||Judith Frazier|
|Keep Smiling||Jane Rand|
|Always in Trouble||Jerry Darlington|
|1939||The Arizona Wildcat||Mary Jane Patterson|
|Boy Friend||Sally Murphy|
|Chicken Wagon Family||Addie Fippany|
|Pack Up Your Troubles||Colette|
|1940||High School||Jane Wallace|
|Shooting High||Jane Pritchard|
|Girl from Avenue A||Jane|
|Youth Will Be Served||Eadie-May|
|1941||Golden Hoofs||Jane Drake|
|Her First Beau||Penelope Wood|
|A Very Young Lady||Kitty Russell|
|Small Town Deb||Patricia Randall|
|1942||Young America||Jane Campbell|
|The Mad Martindales||Kathy Martindale|
|Johnny Doughboy||Ann Winters/Penelope Ryan|
|1943||The North Star||Clavdia Kurin|
|1944||My Best Gal||Kitty O'Hara|
|Faces in the Fog||Mary Elliott|
|1946||Affairs of Geraldine||Geraldine Cooper|
|1947||Danger Street||Pat Marvin|
|1958||The Heart Is a Rebel||Grace|
|1961||The Right Approach||Liz Fargo|
|1963||Captain Newman, M.D.||Lt. Grace Blodgett|
- Hollywood Hobbies (1939)
- Meet the Stars #1: Chinese Garden Festival (1941)
- Meet the Stars #6: Stars at Play (1941)
- Hedda Hopper's Hollywood No. 2 (1941)
- Hedda Hopper's Hollywood No. 4 (1942)
- Screen Snapshots: Fashions and Rodeo (1945)
- Screen Snapshots: Hollywood Small Fry (1956)
- Boxes (2005)