She was there as a threat to Shirley Temple, but Jane Withers had a style all her own. And though not technically a child star, Jane Powell started as a young teenager and had a long at successful career at MGM.
These two young women burst onto the screen and captured the hearts of many.
The better known of the two, now in her late Eighties, Powell was a top star at MGM for twenty years. She sang and danced opposite Fred Astaire. She was indeed an image of the girl next door, one who just happened to possess a supple soprano voice worthy of grand opera.
Born Suzanne Lorraine Burse in the Pacific Northwest in 1929, Powell arrived in Hollywood at age 15 after multiple radio appearances, and found herself typecast as a child movie star opposite Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, W.C. Fields and Bonita Granville in 1944’s Song of the Open Road.
Powell’s early career at MGM comprised appealing turns in musicals and light romances, but by the end of the Forties things clicked into a much higher gear.
Powell famously appeared with Astaire in 1951’s memorable musical, Royal Wedding. Directed by Stanley Donen, the chief characters are drawn from Fred and Adele Astaire, whose longtime brother-sister dance act originally made a splash in New York before migrating to London in he early 1920’s where it made an even bigger splash.
(Fred’s Hollywood career commenced after his professional separation from sister Adele.)
In Royal Wedding, Fred pulls off his usual terpsichorean pyrotechnics including dancing with a hat rack and on the walls and ceiling of his hotel room. What is a bit of a surprise is how well Powell keeps pace with the master.
Her most enduring musical is 1954’s Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, another Donen masterpiece which confirmed Powell’s status as a bona fide STAR. Dore Shary, the executive who succeeded mogul Louis B. Mayer as MGM head during a five year period beginning in 1951, had his ideas about stardom.
Declared Schary: “This motor is not make-up or clothes or hair. It is not stature, size, kindness, or even talent. Three smaller than lifesize ladies, June Allyson, Debbie Reynolds and Jane Powell, have ‘motors’.”
Motorized or not, Powell belied her girl-next-door image offscreen. She had a busy romantic life, grinding through four husbands in 32 years. Her fifth marriage, to former child actor Dickie Moore in 1988, stuck. (Classic movie fans should note that Moore, who died a year-and-a-half ago, was terrific in 1947’s Out of the Past as the muted “kid”.)
Jane Withers was more famously the child star — a sort of second banana Shirley Temple at 20th Century Fox. (She is outstanding as that nasty brat — nearly upstaging Temple — in 1934’s Bright Eyes. The cast also includes another of our Janes — Jane Darwell.)
Withers began on radio at age 3, often featuring impersonations of such big stars as W.C. Fields and Charlie Chaplin. During the 1930’s, she established herself with such titles as Pepper and Angel’s Holiday, finishing the decade with a punch by being named No. 6 on a list of top 10 box office favorites. She was just 11 years old at the time.
Withers went on to a career lasting nearly 70 years (remember, she started very young) and covering some 71 credits. Withers was also an accomplished singer, and tv personality — best known for her “Josephine the Plumber” character in those 1970’s cleanser commercials.