Rollin’ With a Cowboy

Listen and read…

Jane Withers sings Baby’s a Big Girl Now from the 1942 film Johnny Doughboy.  Jane was 16 at the time (although she is shown driving a car while singing this song), because of her height, she was often cast in older roles.  Johnny Doughboy is about a former child star who rebels against studio heads and wants to play older roles.  The studio brings in the head of her fan club (a look-alike, also played by Jane Withers) to fill the roles.  Actual former child stars, Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer, George “Spanky” McFarland, Baby Sandy, and others also appear in the film as themselves.

Jane's Chocolate Roll as it looked when I made it for dessert at our Easter table

Jane’s Chocolate Roll as it looked when I made it for dessert at our Easter table

JANE WITHERS’ CHOCOLATE ROLL…LITTLE SLICES OF HEAVEN

This blog features the recipe for the wonderfully delicate and light but full of flavor, Jane Withers’ Chocolate Roll.  It’s little fork fulls of chocolate clouds.   A classic 1950s dessert that’s fast and easy to make. The presentation is a perfect visual finale to any meal with versatile flavoring options.  If you’re only interested in the recipe, you can find it HERE.   Otherwise, read on and meet Jane , read about her fascinating career and the impact James Dean had on her life.  (You can click on any of the photos within this blog to see them larger.)

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BECOMING THE BIG GIRL

Scene from "Bright Eyes" (1934)

Scene from “Bright Eyes” (1934)

Jane Wither’s career began at the age of 3 when she was a radio show regular, singing and doing celebrity impressions.  She and her family moved from Atlanta, GA to Hollywood where her first big movie break came in 1934 with Bright Eyes, co-starring with Shirley Temple (and Terry the dog, who 2 years later would star as Toto in The Wizard of Oz).  She played the role of Joy Smythe, the doll-ripping, pigtail-pulling, trike-riding, spoiled, rich brat to sweet little Shirley Temple’s portrayal of the maid’s daughter.  Wither’s feared that playing such a mean character might spell the end of her career…but audiences loved her.  Her child-star status sky rocketed.  Shirley Temple’s mother felt threatened by the young actress’ talent and charisma…limiting future appearances together and insisting that little Jane be required to wash her hands before and after any scene with Shirley.  Despite this interference, Shirley and Jane would remain lifelong friends, up until Shirley’s recent death in 2014.

Jane had a prolific career in the 30s and 40s.  She was one of the top 10 box office stars in 1937-38.  Gene Autry and The Ritz Brothers numbered among her “big-name” co-stars.  Over her life long career, Jane would garner more than 71 TV and film credits.

Check out this adorable clip of 9-year old Jane Withers performing Got a New Kind of Rhythm in the 1935 film This is the Life.

She remained popular through her early teens and even wrote the story (under a pseudonym) for the movie Small Town Deb (1942) in which she starred.  Her likeness was replicated in dozens of doll designs by Madame Alexander and Lensi, there were a number of paper dolls produced, a series of Nancy Drew-like mystery novels, and a mountain of fan magazines.  As opportunities  began to dry up in her later teenage years, Jane retired from film, got married and raised a family.  She later divorced, remarried, and made her re-entry into films in George Steven’s epic Giant (1956) co-starring with James Dean.  (Her ceremony for the second marriage was postponed 3 times, due to Steven’s shooting schedule.)  She and Dean would become good friends.

Jane’s biggest claim to fame as an adult actress came as the Comet cleanser spokeswoman, Josephine the Plumber in the 1960s-70s.  She did a lot of television work and is also known for the voice-over work she did for Disney feature animated films such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996).  She still does regular appearances, meet-and-greets, and interviews at fan conventions.

(CLICK ON ANY IMAGE TO START THIS SLIDESHOW OF HIGHLIGHTS FROM JANE’S EARLY CAREER)

JANE AND JIMMY…IN HER OWN WORDS

“In the beginning, I was naturally very interested in Jimmy as an actor and as a person. I’d never ever met him and he stayed very much to himself and was very, very distant. So I thought, okay…”

Jane Withers

Withers was cast in the role of Vashti Snythe in Giant, the closest neighbor to the Benedict Ranch whose upcoming marriage announcement overshadows Leslie’s recent nuptials to Bick.  She’s the local girl that everyone loves (and the character that George Stevens describes as the “heart and soul” of the movie).  Despite some initial jealousy, Vashti becomes Leslie’s closest (and only) friend.  Vashti ages from 18-80 in the movie and Stevens gave Withers full artistic control over makeup, wardrobe, and development of the character.

Jane’s hobby was photography.  Her Brownie camera and 16mm home movie camera were constantly within reach.  When it came time to sign the contract for Giant, Jane exclaimed, “Uh-oh…I can’t sign this contract!” nearly giving the studio staff a heart attack.  There was a clause in the contract prohibiting cast members from taking photos.  She got George Stevens on the phone, who made an exception for her…even having golden press pass printed up that read, “Jane Withers, 3rd Camera Crew of Giant.”

“He said, ‘Well that’s alright. If you want to take some pictures of me, I don’t mind.’ I said, ‘That would be super. I’d love that.’ So that was the beginning, that was the first step, and the steps came more regularly–and more often.”

Jane Withers, on first meeting James Dean
Jane Withrs photographing Dean on the set of Giant.

Jane Withers photographing Dean on the set of Giant.

Jane Withers photographing Dean on the set of Giant.

Jane Withers photographing Dean on the set of Giant.

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“I joined the cast of Giant after a long absence from the movies. So much had happened, I wasn’t sure I could catch up. Then I met Jimmy. He was the most wonderful tease in the world. And he made me laugh. He must have guessed that laughter was what I needed. I find that remembering him still makes me smile. I think that would please him.”

Jane Withers

(THESE ARE PHOTOS TAKEN BY JANE OF JAMES DEAN.  CLICK TO VIEW LARGER.)

Jane was always known as the thoughtful hostess.  She came prepared for the long shooting schedule in the middle of nowhere, Texas by bringing a trunk full of board games.  “It was 115 in the shade, and there was no shade.”  She regularly hosted “alcohol-free” parties for the other cast members where they played games and listened to music.  Dean rarely attended these, choosing instead to sneak in through the window after all the guests had gone.  Jane didn’t approve and nailed the windows shut, forcing him to use the door.

“Sometimes, we’d just sit and talk, or listen to music for a couple of hours at a time without saying a word. Sometimes he’d get up and dance. He used to do modern interpretive things. Jimmy had a wonderful pantomimic gift–I couldn’t compare him to anyone else. He had a style and quality all his own.”

Jane Withers, Cosmopolitan, Aug 1956

Dean found a confidant and mother figure in Jane.  She scolded him on his behavior to other cast and crew members.  She came to the understanding that he enjoyed the attention and “mystery” when others talked about his “odd” mannerisms.  But as someone who’d been in the business since the age of “two and a half,” she told him that he’d better stop acting like a child or she’s treat him like one.  Jane started referring to Jim as her “3rd son.”  (Jane had 3 children from her first marriage, 2 boys and a girl.  Jane would have 2 more in her second marriage.)

Jimmy had a favorite shirt that he wore regularly when not in costume.

“For 3 weeks that boy used to come into the hotel dining room for dinner wearing the same sport shirt. One night, I went up to him and said, ‘Look, I’m getting tired of that shirt, aren’t you?’ And he said, ‘No, I like this shirt.’ I said, ‘Then let me wash it for you?’ And he said, ‘No, I like the shirt the way it is.’ “

Jane Withers, Cosmopolitan, Aug 1956

(HERE’S THE PINK SHIRT OF THE STORY.  CLICK TO VIEW LARGER.)

“This is Jimmy’s pink shirt. And he didn’t want it to go to the laundry because he’s lost 2 other shirts that he just loved. So he was at the house one night and we had been reading and playing games, Monopoly, with everyone else that—he finally did come with some of the others there. And long story short, I said, ‘Jimmy, when was the last time you washed that shirt or sent it to the laundry?’ He said, ‘They’re not getting this one. I love this shirt with a passion.’ “

Jane Withers

That time she DID convince him to let her launder it, and Jim kept bringing it back to her.  Even after shooting had wrapped, Jim would drop the shirt off at her home in LA.  He dropped the shirt off on Sept 29th, saying that he’d be back for it after the race in Salinas.  The following day was Jim’s fatal accident.  Jane still has that shirt.  She says it makes her smile with all the fond memories of her friend, each time she sees it hanging in her closet.

“We had a unique and interesting friendship, and I’m grateful for that.”

Jane Withers

(HERE’S SOME PHOTOS OF JANE ON THE SET OF GIANT.  CLICK TO VIEW LARGER.)

JANE WITHERS’ CHOCOLATE ROLL

This dessert is classic 1950s!  Lightly, fluffy, chocolatey…and absolutely wonderful.  The cream layer can be flavored with anything you like…I’ve used Grand Marnier, Kahlua, rum, bourbon…all with great results.  You could also just do straight vanilla.  I generally add about 1-1.5 T of sugar to sweeten…it doesn’t need much.

It looks fancy and complicated, but as you’ll see in the video below, it’s fairly straight forward.  The only major requirement is allowing enough time to firm up in the refrigerator before serving.  If I had wrapped the whole affair a bit tighter, I could have kept my finished chocolate roll a bit more round…

Here’s the FULL RECIPE…

 

I hope you make this and enjoy it as much as I do!  If so, send me a photo and let me know what you thought of it.  This recipe and 200 others from James Dean’s friends, family, and famous co-stars appears in the new Recipes for Rebels: In the kitchen with James Dean cookbook.  You can find it at these fine retail establishments.


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