Jane Withers is an American actress 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.
Withers began her career as a child actress, first on local radio broadcasts in Atlanta, Georgia as “Dixie’s Dainty Dewdrop”. By the age of three, she was singing and imitating adult celebrities. In the early 1930s Withers and her family moved to Hollywood; she worked as an extra and a bit part player in several films in 1932 and 1933.
Withers’s 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. In a 2006 interview on TCM’s with Robert Osborne, Withers recalled that she was hesitant to take this role because she had to be so “mean” to Shirley Temple and she thought the public would hate her for it. In a humorous scene of the two little girls playing with dolls, Withers tells Temple that she is going to the kitchen to get “the biggest knife I can find and operate on YOUR doll!” She also tells Temple: “There ain’t any Santa Claus, because my psychoanalyst told me!” Withers received positive notices for her work, and was awarded a long-term contract with Fox.
Through the remainder of the 1930s she starred in several movies every year, including Ginger, The Farmer Takes a Wife and Little Miss Nobody, 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 and Gene Autry. Withers also took a flyer in screenwriting: she wrote the original story filmed as Small Town Deb, under the pseudonym “Jerrie Walters.”