#416) Little Miss Marker (1934)

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#416) Little Miss Marker (1934)

OR “Luck Be a Little Lady”

Directed by Alexander Hall

Written by William R. Lipman and Sam Hellman and Gladys Lehman. Based on the short story by Damon Runyon.

Class of 1998

No trailer. In fact, the only footage I could embed was one of those YouTube tribute videos. 

The Plot: Bookie Sorrowful Jones (Adolphe Menjou) reluctantly agrees to take collateral (a “marker”) for a horse race when one of the betters (Edward Earle) places a $20 marker on his daughter Marthy (Shirley Temple). When the man loses the bet, he runs out and commits suicide, and Sorrowful and his gang take in Marthy, nicknaming her “Marky”. The gangsters become an extended family to Marky, with Sorrowful as her put-upon new father and nightclub singer Bangles Carson (Dorothy Dell) as a more agreeable surrogate mother. There are a few songs and loads of sweetness in one of Hollywood’s first attempts at a “Shirley Temple picture”.

Why It Matters: The NFR gives a quick rundown of Shirley Temple, calling her “[o]ne of the most popular stars of the 1930s” and “the biggest child star the world had ever seen”. There’s also an essay by film professor/Shirley Temple expert John F. Kasson.

But Does It Really?: It’s clear the NFR inducted “Little Miss Marker” as representation of Shirley Temple’s career, but when I think Shirley Temple, this is not the movie that comes to mind. Mention Shirley Temple to any film buff and they’ll picture her dancing up the stairway with Bill Robinson, or singing the likes of “Animal Crackers” and “Good Ship Lollipop”. Those moments are from three different movies, and none of them are “Little Miss Marker”. On its own, “Marker” is a quick, enjoyable, harmless movie, but compared to the other films that could represent Miss Temple on the list, it is found wanting.

Everybody Gets One: Shirley Temple started making movies when she was three years old! After being spotted by a casting director in her dance class, Temple signed a contract with Educational Pictures and starred in “Baby Burlesks”, a series of shorts that spoofed modern movies. Her success in those shorts led to a featured role in the Fox film “Baby, Take a Bow”, and later a Fox contract with a seven-year option. Temple quickly became a nationwide sensation, and her films the epitome of Depression-era escapism. “Little Miss Marker” was her only non-Fox film of the era, on loan to Paramount.

Wow, That’s Dated: Besides the obvious ‘30s slang, “Little Miss Marker” resorts to some of the negative African-American and Asian-American stereotypes of the day. The most visible example is Willie Best, who spent the bulk of his career playing a stereotypically lazy, slow black man, to the point where in some films he is credited as “Sleep ‘n’ Eat”. Yikes.

Seriously, Oscars?: No Oscar love for “Little Miss Marker”, but the Academy recognized Shirley Temple with the first ever Juvenile Oscar. Temple starred in six films in 1934, and this body of work earned her an honorary statuette. At six years old, Shirley Temple is still the youngest person to ever receive an Oscar.

Other notes

  • Right from the start, this thing is pure Damon Runyon: lowlifes with names like Sorrowful Jones and Benny the Gouge putting all their money on a horse race. I keep expecting Stubby Kaye to walk by.
  • It’s always hard to accurately judge a child’s acting ability, but what Shirley Temple lacks in polish, she more than makes up for in star quality. From her first moment on screen you know that she will melt the heart of every gangster in this movie.
  • Adjusted for inflation, the $20 marker on Marky would be about $380 today.
  • Adolphe Menjou is one of those actors who was not on my radar until this blog, and it’s a shame he’s not as well remembered today. From his lead comic turn in “The Front Page” to his later dramatic work in “Paths of Glory”, Menjou has quite the range, and provides a good foil for Shirley Temple here.
  • This film is also the only NFR representation of singer/actress Dorothy Dell. Sadly, “Little Miss Marker” was one of Ms. Dell’s final films; she was killed in a car accident at age 19 one week after this film’s premiere. Shirley Temple formed a close bond with Dell during filming, and her death devastated the young actor.
  • Finally, Shirley gets to sing! “Laugh You Son of a Gun” is a brief duet between Markie and Bangles, and it definitely leaves you wanting more.
  • Watching this ‘30s movie about an adorable orphan makes me suspect that “Annie” (the musical and subsequent films) has replaced “Little Miss Marker” in our cultural heritage. They are just similar enough properties, but “Annie” has all those songs!
  • Best exchange in the movie: “Wanna kiss me?” “Well, I ain’t runnin’ for mayor.”
  • Not only does the movie take a sudden dramatic turn at the end, but then Charles Bickford’s Big Steve returns and…he’s the hero? What a weird movie.

Legacy

  • After the success of “Little Miss Marker”, Paramount tried to buy out Shirley Temple’s contract with Fox, but she returned to her home studio and started making her best-known films. Temple’s star diminished in the 1940s, and she retired from acting at age 22. Ms. Temple had a successful second career as a diplomat, eventually becoming the US Ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia.
  • “Little Miss Marker” has been remade for film three times: 1949’s “Sorrowful Jones” with Bob Hope and Lucille Ball, 1962’s modern update “40 Pounds of Trouble” with Tony Curtis, and 1980’s “Little Miss Marker” with Walter Matthau, Julie Andrews, and a poster that definitely rips off “The Sting”.
  • Ginger ale, a splash of grenadine, and a maraschino cherry is all you need to make the non-alcoholic drink named after Ms. Temple. Ironically, in her adult years Shirley admitted to hating the drink.

Further Viewing: I’m currently obsessed with the short-lived ‘80s TV show “Mad Movies”, in which Los Angeles improv group LA Connection overdubs public domain films. One episode turns Shirley Temple’s 1939 vehicle “The Little Princess” into an “Exorcist” parody. It’s a bit dumb and slightly dated, but it tickles me just right.

Listen to This: In 1950, Damon Runyon’s short stories “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown” and “Blood Pressure” were combined to become the book for the Broadway musical “Guys and Dolls” by Frank Loesser. The original cast album made the National Recording Registry in 2004.

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