Despite a 60-year film career as an ingÃƒÂ©nue, character actress, and TV commercial icon (remember Josephine the Plumber?), Jane Withers's greatest success came during the 1930s, when she was a huge child star at 20th Century-Fox. Indeed, she was one the Top Ten box office stars of 1937 and '38 beating out, among others, Fred Astaire, Tyrone Power, and Gary Cooper.
Nonetheless, she's not quite in the same league, familiarity-wise, as Shirley Temple, Mickey Rooney, or Judy Garland, stars still fairly well known even now, or the late Deanna Durbin, who maintained a modest but fiercely loyal following long after her retirement. Mainly this second-tier status seems due to Withers's movies being shown much less frequently on American television during the Ã¢â‚¬Ëœ50s-Ã¢â‚¬Ëœ80s, a time during which Shirley Temple's films, also made at Fox, enjoyed a big resurgence that's continued into the DVD era. (Even here in far-flung Japan, where a popular chain of children's clothing stores is named after Temple.) Today Withers is probably more famous as Shirley Temple's foil in Bright Eyes (1934), as the spoiled brat with the memorable line, "There ain't no Santy Claus because my psychoanalyst told me!" rather than for her two dozen or so starring films.
Little Miss Nobody (1936) is very much a Withers vehicle in the Shirley Temple mold: broadly humorous, highly sentimental, outrageously manipulative, and unforgivably melodramatic. It's the kind of movie that can be highly enjoyable if one accepts it on its own terms, agonizing if you don't. The picture boasts an excellent cast, including Harry Carey, Jane Darwell, Ralph Morgan (Frank's lookalike brother), and Sara Haden. It's also fascinating to compare Withers's performance and screen persona to Temple's, as both were peaking around this time.
The movie arrives courtesy of 20th Century-Fox's Cinema Archives' manufactured-on-demand DVD line, part of a series of Jane Withers DVD releases that also include Rascals, High School, Paddy O'Day, Chicken Wagon Family, and others. Fox's MOD video transfers have been wildly inconsistent, with Little Miss Nobody falling somewhere in the middle: not great, but acceptable. No extras.
Judy Devlin (Withers) is a well-meaning but troublesome resident of the Sunshine Foundling Home. She's scolded for dousing Harold (Donald Haines), the sadistic son of the orphanage's crotchety grocer, Mr. Slade (Clarence Wilson), with a pail of water. Later, when Slade refuses to deliver the home's Thanksgiving turkeys because they're short on cash ("But it's Thanksgiving and the children will be so disappointed!"), Judy steals them from the back of Slade's truck, then lies about how she obtained them.
Meanwhile, Judy's lifelong friend, Mary Dorsey (Betty Jean Hainey), is on the verge of being adopted by insufferably snooty Sybil Smythe (Claudia Coleman), who's only interested in acquiring a playmate for her obnoxious, bratty son, Junior (Jackie Morrow). With Mary terrified she'll be torn away from her lifelong pal, Judy turns a fire hose on Junior, hoping to dissuade the drenched louse and his mother from returning for Mary.
When that fails, Judy makes a heroic, selfless gesture: Judy has just discovered evidence, a unique crest embroidered on her old baby clothes, proving that wealthy district attorney Gerald Dexter (Ralph Morgan) is her long-lost father. However, when the Smythes come to claim Mary, Judy switches the archived baby clothes so that Dexter will claim Mary, not Judy, as his flesh and blood. Martha Bradly (Jane Darwell), patroness of the home, Dexter and others discover Judy just as she's making the switch, accusing her of trying to fool Dexter into adopting her instead of Mary. Judy, wanting to save Mary, doesn't deny it. Dexter adopts Mary and Judy is shipped off to reform school.
With her carefully groomed pigtails, thick Georgia accent, and cherubic features, Withers makes an interesting contrast to Temple, almost exactly two years younger. Except for the pre-1938 Our Gang kids, who due to their careful handling delivered extremely naturalistic performances, child stars of the 1930s-'50s had a tendency to be extremely talented and versatile yet singularly unreal. Shirley Temple was unusual in that she all the requisite talent and then some (she could sing, she could dance) yet in her early films could deliver an emotional honesty to her performances that still astonishes.
Withers is much more mannered; indeed, I would bet shaking herself of her many signature child-star mannerisms as an adult performer probably took some effort. She comes off extremely polished, more so than Temple at this point, but also a bit less believable by today's standards. The film's script, by Lou Beslow, Paul Burger, and Edward Eliscu, from Frederick Hazlitt Brennan's story, doesn't help; it's shamelessly manipulative, with Dickensian villains and situations (including a climax all but lifted from Oliver Twist) but which 1936 audiences loved and which still makes for fun family viewing, though small children might find it just a bit too traumatizing.
Silent and early-talkie Western star Harry Carey has a nice role as pet shop owner (and, it turns out, wanted man) John Russell, who takes in runaway Judy, she terrified at the prospect of reform school. Betty Jean Hainey, who probably could have been a huge star herself if not for the glut of child performers in the middle 1930s, is excellent as Mary, and Jane Darwell is what you would expect as the sympathetic patroness.
Video & Audio
Fox's Little Miss Nobody is presented in its correct 1.37:1 full frame, and the transfer looks okay. The image is a bit wobbly and dirty, but even on big monitors comes across reasonably well. The audio, English only with no alternate audio or subtitle options, is likewise good and the disc is region-free. No Extra Features.
Cut from the same cloth as Shirley Temple's mid-1930s vehicles, Little Miss Nobody offers a similar showcase for the studio's other big child star, Jane Withers. Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.