14 October 2003 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
Shirley Temple's evil twin
Jane Withers's film career had the bad luck to occur at the same time as Shirley Temple's, and under contract at the same studio (Fox). Both of these child actresses were very similar in their talents and appeal. But Shirley was much prettier than Jane, and just that bit more talented as an actress, singer, dancer and impressionist. When they appeared together in 'Bright Eyes', it made perfect sense to cast Shirley as the good-girl orphan and Jane Withers as the spoilt brat.
In adulthood, Jane Withers had some minor fame as a character actress (most notably in 'Giant') and she had steady employment for many years in a long-running series of commercials as the dungrareed Josephine, a 'lady plumber' who encourages her clients to use Comet cleansing powder. (Were any little girls ever inspired by Josephine to become plumbers?)
Another problem with Jane Withers's child-actress career is that she had second choice of Fox's songwriters, scriptwriters and directors, with Shirley always getting first pick. '45 Fathers' is typical of Jane's star vehicles ... meaning it's very sub-Shirley. In this one, Jane plays a bubbly orphan whose father was a member of the Rod & Gun Club. The by-laws of the club state that, if any member's death leaves minor children surviving, the membership as a whole are to adopt the orphans if no family member comes forward. So, the Rod & Gun Club collectively adopt little Jane. Unfortunately, all the clubmen are a bunch of old codgers.
Of all these geezers, it falls to Bunny Carothers to be the one actually to take Jane into his home. With a name like Bunny Carothers, I thought he'd be hanging about with Raffles the cracksman ... but that's another film. Bunny's nice young nephew Roger lives with him. Roger has a girlfriend Elizabeth who's just a gold-digger. When he wises up and gives her the brush-off, she sues him for breach of promise ... expecting to get some of old man Carothers's Bunny-money. It's no surprise that little Jane puts everything right.
There's nothing here that you won't get more enjoyably in a Shirley Temple movie. Shirley's speaking voice and singing voice are pleasanter to hear than Jane's, and Shirley's smiling face is easier on the eyes than Jane's. I was hoping the members of the Rod & Gun Club would change the title of this movie to 'COLT .45 fathers': in the last reel, they would take the shotguns out of their gun racks and start gunning for little orphan Jane. (And they could save a few cartridges for bit player Chester Clute.) Oh, well. I'll rate this movie 3 points out of 10.