Jane Withers had the biggest heart of anyone I’ve ever met. She remembered details about every movie she ever made and kept in touch with former colleagues—even members of her crew. She still used words like gosh and golly in her everyday speech.

Jimmy Lydon, who worked with her in three movies, said the first time he met her he thought she was too good to be true. “I don’t get this girl,” he said to himself, “Nobody can be like that; this is a put-on. Well, I’ve known Jane now for more than 60 odd years and you know, she’s still the same. She’s just a love, she really is.“

Jane and Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer in Wild and Wooly (1937)

Although she started working at the age of six and became a bona fide star in the 1930s she remained an unabashed fan. In fact, she persuaded a fan magazine editor to let her conduct interviews with some of her favorite stars.

“I was dying to meet Deanna Durbin,” she told me. “We had lunch together at Universal and I said, ‘You know, I haven’t been here since I did extra work in The Good Fairy.’ She said, ‘You did what?’ I said, ‘Yes, I did extra work. You can actually see me in the opening scene, the very first shot in the movie.’  In fact, Rock Hudson told me ‘I’ve got a thousand dollar bet on that that’s you in The Good Fairy.’ I said, ‘How did you know?’ He said, ‘Are you kidding? There’s only one you!’

Jane walks two of her canine costars while making Pepper (1936)

Here is a story that sums up Jane Withers perfectly; it was on the set of The Good Fairy, which starred Margaret Sullavan. “I got in a fight; a little girl tried to push me out the window, because her mother got so mad that I was chosen instead of her. So she sent the little girl upstairs to go get in the window before I got there. I said, ‘I’m terribly sorry, the director told me to come and sit where you’re sitting.” She said “Oh, no, this is the one chance I’ve got to get a closeup, my mother said, and you’re not doing to sit here, I am.’ And we got into this terrible argument; she tried to literally push me out the window, and I was hanging there for dear life. Finally the assistant director said, ‘What’s going on up there?’ So they put her off the set, and I felt just terrible. Now, time passed, and I had my own pictures, and they were looking for a little girl to be my stand-in. They called in about sixty little girls and she was in the line. I wanted to help pick out my stand-in, so when we got to her, her eyes were down; she never looked at me, and I said, ‘Oh, we’ve met before; we had a nice time together on a film called The Good Fairy. We didn’t really get to know each other, but maybe if she’s my stand-in, we’ll have that chance.’ And she had dark hair and wore the same size, and she was my stand-in for five years. Funny, but a true story, and we became very close friends; she only passed about five years ago and I knew her up till then.”

Jane with two old friends and costars at a 2004 reunion: Rand Brooks and Jimmy Lydon

Generous to a fault, Jane made friends wherever she went. People responded to her because she was so dear. “When I was going to sign my contract for Giant, I was reading all the fine print and I said, ‘Uh-oh, I can’t sign this contract.’ They said, ‘Why on earth not?’ I said, ‘Well, it says in here that you can’t take any photographs or movies. I have taken both 16mm movies and snapshots on every film I’ve ever made, even when I did extra work. It would break my heart, especially on this movie—I’ve waited my whole life to work with George Stevens—not to be able to take pictures.’ And he said, ‘I don’t know what Mr. Stevens is going to do. Let me talk to him.’ So he came back and he was smiling. He said, ‘There’s no problem at all. George has it all worked out.’ He had a gold card made for me and it said, ‘Jane Withers, Third Unit, Giant.’  And it says ‘OK’ down in the corner, signed George Stevens. Isn’t that fantastic?”

Yes it is…and so was she. 

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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May 2024