Jane Withers, a three-year veteran of the movies at this stage, begins her starring career with this tale, half Charles Dickens, half Mark Twain, of an orphan who has run away from her cruel guardians who make her dance half a dozen times a day. Marshall Neilan, who used to direct Mary Pickford in this sort of vehicle twenty years earlier, runs the shoot competently. There doesn't appear to be much in this story, but there are some very nice eccentric performances by the adults, especially John McGuire as her cohort -- this was as big as his roles ever got, alas -- and even Francis Ford gets more lines than in five of his brother's movies.
Although almost everyone has heard of Shirley Temple, Jane, who was the B child star at Fox has largely fallen into obscurity -- doubtless it was Miss Temple's runaway success that made Fox produce these less expensive films. Miss Withers performs a couple of big production numbers, one in the style of Harry Lauder, the other in a swing chorus, and is a decent enough actress at this stage to carry off the picture.
In many ways the most interesting feature of the movie is the sense that the viewer gets that the talent involved is trying to report on character and situation as they might actually occur. Far too many modern children's shows and books give you the message first and the story afterwards, whether they seem to believe in the message or not. I prefer this.
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Fox Films were pretty lucky - they had Shirley Temple under contract and every studio wanted their own and they also had her nemesis - Jane Withers. Jane Withers had dark curls and snapping black eyes and was like a breath of fresh air - especially when she was making Shirley's life miserable and asking Father Christmas for a machine gun (She did both of those things in "Bright Eyes"). She was very talented (she had had her own radio show). Initially Fox really tried to find films suited to her high spirits. She really had more in common with Mitzi Green than Shirley Temple. Green had proved, a few years before, that movie brats had more fun. "This Is the Life" really went all out to show the versatility of Jane.
Geraldine Revier (Jane Withers) is a child star, mobbed by adoring fans where ever she goes but her home life is horrible. Forced to practice long hours, never given any love or affection and always with the threat of being sent back to the orphanage. When a hobo, on the run from the police, begs some food and drink, it sparks an idea in Gerry - maybe she can go with him and experience life as a normal child. Before she begins life on the road, she has a song and dance number "Got a New Way of Living" - dressed up in white satin top hat and tails - she sings and dances and puts a lot of pep into her performance.
At first Michael (the tramp) is skeptical about her coming but with clothes from her trunk she makes an ideal little boy. On the road they meet a pair of peddlers (Sidney Toler and Francis Ford), Gerry goes on a picnic where she plays baseball, gets into a fight and has "the grandest day she ever had". (Marcia Mae Jones can be glimpsed in the crowd of children). They hit a snag when they go to a farm and try to steal some milk. Helen Davis (Sally Blane) finds them and rings the state police and after a very emotional scene, Michael is taken away. When the group find they need a lawyer (both Helen and her mother are instantly sorry that they called the police so quickly) they decide to raise money by putting on a show. Gerry does a funny little hillbilly number (she has already shown her versatility during the movie by donning kilts and performing a highland fling early on). Of course, who should be in the audience but Geraldine's horrible guardians!! How her friends (the Professor, Sticky, Mrs. Davis, Helen and Michael (yes he's back)) double cross the crooked pair makes a nice end to a good little movie.
Even though it was directed by Marshall Neilan, he was at the very end of his directorial career and alcohol had taken away all his creativity but I still liked this movie. I hadn't seen a Jane Withers movie for about 40 years and she is all I remember her as being.
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