Release Date(s)1934 (March 7, 2023)
Studio(s)Paramount Pictures (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: B
Little Miss Marker is the film that sent Shirley Temple’s career into third gear. Based on a story by Damon Runyon, it’s filled with hardened characters who encounter a little girl whose innocence and charm work their magic. A kind of cynical comedy, it’s the rare Temple movie in which she isn’t the focus.
A widowed, compulsive gambler (Edward Earle), convinced he has a sure thing in an upcoming horse race, gives his little girl, Marthy Jane (Temple), to bookie Sorrowful Jones (Adolphe Menjou) as security for a bet. But the horse loses and the father commits suicide. Stuck with the kid, Sorrowful is about to turn her over to the authorities when he learns that the stables of smalltime gangster Big Steve Holloway (Charles Bickford) have been banned from racing just as a fixed race has been arranged. Rather than abandon plans for the race, Sorrowful gets the horse—Dream Prince—registered in Marthy’s name.
Nightclub singer Bangles Carson (Dorothy Dell) is Big Steve’s mistress. She becomes charmed by Marthy just as Sorrowful undergoes assorted misadventures trying to take care of the moppet he calls “Marky.” Sorrowful and Bangles are drawn together with some unsubtle help from Marky.
Marky serves as a plot device in the primary tale of Sorrowful, Bangles and their growing attachment to one another. With gamblers, smalltime thugs, and colorful Runyon-style New York types populating the film, Marky is the catalyst that brings changes not only to the characters but to their lifestyle. This may sound syrupy sentimentality but the screenplay never veers into sappiness.
Little Miss Marker is probably the only film in which Shirley Temple doesn’t dance. She does sing a ditty, and the amazing talent that elevated her to stardom is apparent in her natural ease with dialogue and ability to hold her own with far more experienced actors. Temple convinces us that, despite having been abandoned by her father and shuttled around like a doll, Marky nonetheless remains optimistic and brings joy to those around her with her smile and sweetness.
Menjou, who usually played suave, distinguished roles, is cast against type as the shabby bookie tight with a buck. There’s good chemistry between him and Temple, and we can see the cold heart of Sorrowful melting when he’s with Marky. He finds her exasperating but also irresistibly charming. Balancing his typically sour attitude with his growing affection for the little girl keeps the film from becoming saccharine.
Dorothy Dell, 25 years younger than Menjou, plays Bangles as a tough broad who has never completely broken with the lovable kid she once was until circumstances drove her to the underworld. Try as she does to fight it, she finds herself, like Sorrowful, under the spell of Marky. Sadly, Dell would die in a fatal automobile accident a week after shooting this film.
Little Miss Marker parades an assortment of Runyon characters in a world of bookies and others who live in the shadow of the law. That milieu is created by director Alexander Hall, who milks the “fish out of water” theme when Marky enters the mix. Confident, innocent, and clever, she affects others in surprising ways, reaching them on an emotional level.
Little Miss Marker was remade three times—as Sorrowful Jones (1939) starring Bob Hope, 40 Pounds of Trouble (1962) with Tony Curtis, and Little Miss Marker (1980) co-starring Walter Matthau and Julie Andrews.
Little Miss Marker was shot by director of photography Alfred Gilks with spherical lenses on black-and-white 35 mm film and presented in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The film looks pretty good, though there are minor imperfections. During the opening credits sequence, the image is unsteady and drifts slightly from left to right. The grain structure captures the look of celluloid, and contrast and clarity are first rate. Blacks are deep and rich, with a velvety quality. The print has a silvery appearance, giving the film a classic veneer. Details, such as patterns on Bangles’ dresses, tears on Marky’s face, Shirley Temple’s curls, Sorrowful’s frown wrinkles, and images and numbers on playing cards are well delineated.
The soundtrack is English 2.0 Mono DTS-HD Master Audio. English SDH subtitles are an available option. Dialogue is clear and distinct throughout. Dorothy Dell sings I’m a Black Sheep Who’s Blue and, with Shirley Temple, Laugh, You Son of a Gun. The score, by Ralph Rainger, nicely complements the action without overpowering it.
Bonus materials on the Blu-ray release from Kino Lorber include the following:
- Audio Commentary by Lee Gambin and Elissa Rose
- Now and Forever Trailer (1:40)
- Sorrowful Jones Trailer (2:19)
- Goin’ to Town Trailer (1:42)
- Paths of Glory Trailer (3:03)
Film critic/author Lee Gambin and costume historian Elissa Rose mention the several film versions of Little Miss Marker. The character of Marky has been pushed around by adults and become hardened by the Depression. The film has a “stagey element,” giving it a stagnant look. Nearly all the scenes were shot on interior studio sets, with only one split-screen scene showing a segment of an actual horse race. Dorothy Dell is referred to as “a bit of tragic figure,” with details of unfortunate occurrences in her short life documented. She was scheduled to star in “Nothing Sacred” but because of her early death, the role went to Carole Lombard. Shirley Temple’s character represents innocence among gamblers and smalltime gangsters. The bond Marky forms with Sorrowful might reflect the kind of relationship she had with her father. Rather than giving an extensive overview of Temple’s career, the commentators discuss her talent and her uniqueness in Hollywood history. She never became “messed up” like other child stars because she loved what she was doing and had strong support from her mother. When she made films with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, he spoke to her as an adult, which she appreciated. Originally, a deal was struck for MGM to borrow Shirley Temple for The Wizard of Oz in exchange for lending Clark Gable and Carole Lombard to Fox for a film, but Lombard was killed in a plane crash, ending the plan. Temple not only knew her own dialogue perfectly, she knew every other actor’s dialogue as well. The horse represents stability because it brings people together. Marky’s magic works on Sorrowful and Bangles and there’s an organic progression of them becoming healthier as they start to form a family unit.
Though Little Miss Marker was a hit when it was originally released, it’s not regarded today as one of Shirley Temple’s best-loved films. Stage-bound, with opportunities missed to film some scenes at racetracks, the film does exploit Temple’s considerable cinematic charm. In the many other film versions of Little Miss Marker, no child actor in the same role made as memorable an impression. Paramount borrowed Temple for this picture, but it’s her home studio—Fox—that would tailor-make films with her as star, catapulting the young actress to international fame.
- Dennis Seuling