The Original Jo the Plumber: Celebrating Jane Withers

jane-withers-portraitIt’s tough to believe that the little girl that gave sweet Shirley Temple the heebie-jeebies as the terrorizing, beret-clad, spoiled rotten brat in 1934’s Bright Eyes would grow up and become Josephine the Plumber on those Comet cleanser commercials.

But that’s what happened to Jane Withers. In the interim, she became one of Hollywood’s most beloved child stars.

With help from her persistent stage mother, the Atlanta native started her star trek at a very young age, taking voice and dance lessons at three years old, starring in her own local radio show as “Dixie’s Dainty Dewdrop” by the age of five, and showing off her ability to impersonate popular entertainers by the time the family moved to Los Angeles to pursue her career in show biz.

She landed a role in 1932’s Handle with Care and then, uncredited, got to do a pantomime hopscotch sequence with W.C. Fields in the 1934 classic It’s a Gift. Though the comic actor was famously not a fan of kids, he told Withers’ mother that “You have a very talented little girl here—I think she’s going to go far.”   

She got further with that aforementioned role in Bright Eyes, which got Withers a contract offer from Fox and the chance to star in low-budget films. She proved to be the studio’s irascible yin to Shirley Temple’s sweet little curly-topped yang. Jane’s nickname? “The Tomboy Rascal.”

Among the little star’s popular films from Fox (many just released on DVD) were Paddy O’Day (1935), with Withers as a newly-orphaned immigrant girl who finds entertaining a way to deal adapting to a new environment; Little Miss Nobody (1936), in which she plays an orphan who discovers her real father is looking for her, but swaps identities to help another orphan get adopted; Rascals (1938), about a gypsy leader (Withers) who accepts an amnesiac into her band; Chicken Wagon Family (1939), in which her clan of nomadic Cajun traders hopes to settle in New York City; Golden Hoofs (1941), starring Jane as a trainer of trotters who falls for the millionaire who  buys her grandfather’s farm; and High School (1940), in which Withers slips into the role of a spoiled home-schooled Texas teen who learns how to get along with others when she attends a San Antonio classroom.

Some of the young actress’s rules as told to an interviewer in 1935:

Drink at least one glass of buttermilk daily.

Never talk when others are talking.

Never say, “I can’t.”

Be thankful for everything you have.

Help mother and everyone as much as possible.

And her motto? “Anything that’s worth doing is worth doing well.”

Thanks to her giant fan base, Withers was able to do something rare at the time in Hollywood: Work for two studios. Fox allowed her to make a film with Republic where she would star with cowboy Gene Autry in Shooting High. In fact, Withers, then the number six box-office draw in the country, wielded such power that she sat in on story conferences for her films, a real rarity among performers at the time, and even was credited for the story for 1941’s Small Town Deb, a film designed to bring her more mature roles.      

The grown-up Jane eventually jumped to Republic full-time, where she made six movies during the war years, including My Best Gal and Affairs of Geraldine. She was also featured in Lewis Milestone’s 1943 wartime propaganda film The North Star, a pro-Russia drama, with Dana Andrews and Anne Baxter. During World War II, Withers campaigned tirelessly for bonds and other wartime charities.

Thanks to Jane’s work and smart investing, Withers and her family reportedly did very well by Hollywood standards, and purchased a house on Sunset Boulevard that became a popular tourist attraction. The grounds were every little girl’s dream, including badminton and tennis courts, a swimming pool, a huge playhouse and a private ice cream parlor where Jane played “soda jerk” for other Hollywood kids.    

jane-withers-bookHer mother had successfully licensed her name and image for a series of dolls and accessories, as well as a detective book series. The actress herself was a huge doll collector—her amalgamation of figures eventually totaled in the thousands—and reportedly, Withers’ doll collection inspired Walt Disney’s doll-centric attraction ”It’s a Small World” at Disneyland. 

After a charity tour of the collection in 2004—she did the same for the war effort during World War II—Withers’ impressive assemblage was auctioned off. In it, one could find celebrity dolls of Shirley Temple, Deanna Durbin, Sonja Henie, several Disney characters, Princesses Margaret and Elizabeth, and even a Charlie McCarthy figure with a trunk given to her personally by ventriloquist Edgar Bergen. 

Withers, who has been married to Texas oil man William P. Moss, Jr. and Four Freshmen singer Kevin Errair, took a hiatus from Hollywood in the early 1950s until producer-director George Stevens, who she met while attending college classes for film directing,  cast her in Giant (1956).

Her role was Vashti Synthe, the ranch heiress rejected by Bick (Rock Hudson).  During the shoot, she became friends with co-star James Dean; he gave her his pink cowboy shirt to wash shortly before his fatal car accident, and she still cherishes the garment today.

Following her return in Giant, Withers—a religious woman who said in a 1973 interview that her parents’ greatest gift to her was to teach her that “God was her friend, her partner”–remained busy as a character actress in television and films. Perhaps her most attention getting big-screen role of the time came in the 1963 Gregory Peck vehicle Captain Newman, M.D., playing the psychiatric ward matriarch.

jane-withers-josephineStill, she is most famous to those born after her child-star heyday as Josephine, the assertive plumber in white overalls and white hat, ever ready to demonstrate how and why Comet was better than all competing cleansers. Jane was chosen for the part over 100 other actresses, including Ann B. Davis, aka “Alice” of “The Brady Bunch.” The popular commercials began in black-and-white in the 1960s, and ran well into the 1970s in color.

The character even inspired the California rock band The Fingerpuppets to plunge into the character with a satirical ska-ish song called “Josephine the Plumber,” in which they question why Josephine never married Mr. Clean, Mr. Greenjeans or Steve McQueen.

Jane Withers celebrated her 87th birthday on April 12.  

“If I had my own life to live over,” she once said in an interview, “I wouldn’t change a single thing. In fact, I’d love to live it all over again.”