The death this weekend of Jane Withers – the last surviving box-office star of 1930s Hollywood – reminds me that I have been largely apathetic about the Fox “B” films that made the spunky little girl a household name. But it was the first movie she made after leaving Fox in 1942 that attracted my attention during research for my latest book.
That film was Johnny Doughboy, which was actually a step down for the then-16-year-old Withers. It was a production of Republic Pictures – the most prestigious of Poverty Row studios, but still a Poverty Row studio. Twentieth Century-Fox and Withers parted by mutual consent after eight years because Fox (as with Withers’ more famous contemporary, Shirley Temple) didn’t know how to handle her inevitably awkward transition from adolescent to adulthood. Republic thought it could, and the “B” company better known for Westerns and serials inked Withers to a three-year, three-pictures-per-year contract while publicizing her as quite a get.
Because Withers yearned to play grown-up roles rather than hoydens, Republic commissioned a script to take advantage of the circumstances of her presence. Movie star? Check. Sweet sixteen? Check. Wanting to be taken seriously? Check. Named for the famous Great War song but set during World War II, Johnny Doughboy adds up to an appealing mix of comedy and music – and to a modern viewer cursed by hindsight, sadness at a supporting cast full of former child stars who, unlike Withers, were no longer wanted in the movies – and knew it.
Withers (1926-2021) capably handles a dual role, as a headstrong movie star who flees Hollywood to find love and as a look-alike girl mistakenly petitioned by the “20 Minus Club” to star in their proposed variety show. The fictionalized club members include singer Bobby Breen, “Our Gang” standouts George “Spanky” McFarland and Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer, comic brats Butch and Buddy, ex-moppets Baby Sandy and Cora Sue Collins, and former Skippy and Sooky actor Robert Coogan (Jackie’s brother). The “20 Minus” kids are depicted as so painfully self-aware that their big number, shown in rehearsal, is titled “All Done, All Through.” They sing of life becoming “a bitter cup” as soon as “they don’t pick your option up” (which in Baby Sandy’s case, means “going back to kindergarten”). Alfalfa assumes the screechy high voice he used in “Our Gang” song sequences, with somehow the same front tooth missing as in his salad days. The whole thing is fascinating yet unsettling.
Meanwhile, the movie-star Withers – who declares, “I may not look like Hedy Lamarr, but I feel like Veronica Lake!” – develops a crush on a tweedy playwright played by Henry Wilcoxon, who tries to let her down easy. His bowing out stirs her re-romance by an erstwhile juvenile actor played by film newcomer Patrick Brook. Although Withers had been kissed in at least two previous pictures, Brook’s buss of her was proclaimed by Republic as her first. Plucked from the star-making Los Angeles-based stage revue Meet the People, Brook landed the movie role with the help of Withers, a longtime friend. He dressed as a messenger boy who presented a singing telegram to Johnny Doughboy director John H. Auer, who was so impressed he asked the young man to take a screen test.
Among the “has-beens,” Breen was a particularly anticipated presence, as the former RKO headliner had not appeared on screen since 1939. His kiddie soprano had disappeared into something considered not quite presentable, and even his speaking voice came out as if time-compressed – thus he was given no song solos in Johnny Doughboy. This was Breen’s final film, although he re-established his show-business career as a nightclub singer and talent agent. Meanwhile, the clock was ticking on McFarland’s film career (two more features), but Alfalfa Switzer soldiered on as an actor until his death in 1959.
As for Cora Sue Collins, the little girl who appeared in scores of 1930s films (most notably at MGM), her cameo in Johnny Doughboy came as her acting career was starting (voluntarily) to wind down. Earlier this year, Collins recalled her kinship with Withers and her contemporaries.
“I know Jane very well. She was a very close friend. … I knew everybody in Johnny Doughboy, Bobby Breen and all of them,” Collins told me.
“… The majority of [former child actors] wanted to continue with their careers. I wasn’t at all interested in continuing. But it was very difficult for them. They were at the awkward age when they were neither fish nor fowl. There were very few parts written for that in-between age. For some, it truly was an awkward age. Now, Shirley [Temple] never changed; she was a beautiful person. But the majority of those people had great difficulty trying to get parts.”
Johnny Doughboy (which circulates online if you know where to look) managed to give its star a career boost. “Jane Withers is burning her bridges behind her,” said the New York Times in a positive review. Withers “carries most of the load like a real trouper,” the Film Daily complimented. “The script calls upon her to do many things, and she does all of them well.” The same young men who watched her grow up on screen for seven years were seeing Withers glammed-up – and appreciated it. “I’ve never had so much fan mail in my life,” Withers glowed in a 1943 interview, “and it’s all Johnny Doughboy and most all of it from soldiers and sailors and marines.”
Withers followed Johnny Doughboy with a juicy dramatic part in The North Star (United Artists, 1943) and reappeared at Republic in the 1944 musical My Best Gal (opposite Jimmy Lydon, still with us at age 98). Withers’ descent in Hollywood was much slower, and more voluntary, than the “20 Minus” kids. In 1947, she retired from acting for marriage and a family, but audiences saw her rally with a prominent role in Giant (1956) and a long stint as the Josephine the Plumber in 1960s and ’70s TV cleanser commercials. By all accounts, off screen she was a kind, gentle person of great faith.
If you know Withers only for her “Josephine” ads, she wouldn’t have minded. But there was so much more to her, and she deserves to be remembered.
Author interview with Cora Sue Collins, March 4, 2021.
“At the Palace,” New York Times, May 6, 1943.
“Gamin Grows Up,” Newspaper Enterprise Association interview, cited from the (Butte) Montana Standard, April 4, 1943. Newspapers.com
“Reviews of the New Films: Johnny Doughboy,” Film Daily, December 24, 1942.
“They Do Such Strange Things,” syndicated article, cited from Richmond (Virginia) Times-Dispatch, September 30, 1942. Newspapers.com