Damon Runyon’s story “Little Miss Marker” has proved far and away the most useful thing he ever wrote so far as the movies are concerned. It was first filmed in 1934, then remade as a Bob Hope vehicle, Sorrowful Jones (1939), reworked as a Tony Curtis movie, 40 Pounds of Trouble (1962), and finally brought back to itself with Walter Matthau and Julie Andrews in Little Miss Marker (1980). But the 1934 Little Miss Marker is in a class all its own—and it’s the only one that made a star out of its title character, because she was played by Shirley Temple. It would be a mistake, however, to think of the film as a Shirley Temple vehicle, since it owes as much or more to Adolphe Menjou, the tragic Dorothy Dell and Damon Runyon’s chracters.
Perhaps because the film was made by Paramount rather than Fox (the studio most associated with Shirley Temple) and it doesn’t have a story where Temple is always at the center of everything—she’s as much a catalyst and plot device as anything else—Little Miss Marker isn’t among the films most immediately associated with her. It also likely has something to do with the fact that the movie is a lot grittier and adult than her Fox vehicles. Even though the film can hardly be called immoral when all is said and done, it has a hard edge to it and a relaxed pre-code feel as concerns sex. There’s no question that Bangles Carson (Dell) is Big Steve Halloway’s (Charles Bickford) mistress, nor that she drifts into a sexual relationship with Sorrowful Jones.
The story revolves around an incorrigible gambler (Edward Earle) who gives his little girl, Marthy Jane (Temple), to bookie Sorrowful Jones as security for a bit. When the horse loses, he commits suicide, leaving the kid with Sorrowful. Just as Sorrowful is about to hand her over to the authorities, it turns out that Big Steve’s stables are banned from racing—just as a big fixed race has been set up. Rather than give up on the race, it’s decided to register the horse Dream Prince in Marthy Jane’s name. The crux of the film then involves how Marthy Jane—rechristened Marky—transforms the hard-bitten racetrack types, gangsters and gamblers. That’s a lot less sappy than it sounds, thanks to the acting and the clever Runyon-esque dialogue.
What truly sets Little Miss Marker apart from all other Shirley Temple movies are the performances of Adolphe Menjou and Dorothy Dell—with a nod to Charles Bickfor and Lynne Overman. Menjou—known for his sophisticated demeanor and being one of the best-dressed men in Hollywood—is here cast against type as Sorrowful Jones, an extremely shabby, ill-kempt and very tight-fisted bookie, who prides himself on being street smart and completely without sentiment of any kind.
Playing against the 44-year-old Menjou is the 19-year-old Dorothy Dell in her only major film. An incredibly self-possessed young woman—she seems much older than her 19 years—and blessed with a distinctive, deep singing voice (she has three songs in the film), Dell not only holds her own against the scene-stealing Menjou, but the two have incredible chemistry. Their barbed exchanges are cleverly scripted, but always feel real. Dell looked to be at the start of a promising career, but she was killed in a car wreck one week after Little Miss Marker was released.
Yes, the film’s tone of cynical comedy takes a turn toward manipulative melodrama—very effectively, too—toward the end, but it never quite loses its edge, interjecting humor and the sense of street-smart characters all the way. The ending itself—the actual last scene—is something of a marvel in its fascinating, yet so perfect and strangely delightful abruptness (something unique to Paramount films of the era). It also boasts what is perhaps my favorite last line of all time. What is it? Well, you know, you’ll have to see the film to find out. Don’t let a sense of being “above” a Shirley Temple movie prevent you.