Shirley Temple Shoots to Stardom and Steals the Screen from Adolphe Menjou
DIRECTED BY ALEXANDER HALL/1934
STREET DATE: MARCH 7, 2023/KINO LORBER STUDIO CLASSICS
When Shirley Temple was cast to star opposite Adolphe Menjou in Little Miss Marker she was already a film veteran with 24 credits under her belt. She was also not yet six years old, and lost the role of Marthy “Marky” Jane in her first audition. It was only her mother’s persistence that earned little Shirley as a second shot at her first leading role – the role that would make her Hollywood’s number one box office draw for the next several years. And yes, Menjou complained (in earnest?) that Shirley stole their scenes together.
I’m an unabashed Shirley Temple fan because, whatever you make of the material she was given, Shirley was never less than a polished professional and a remarkably gifted actress, singer, and dancer for one so young. Little Miss Marker stands apart from many of her later movies by virtue of its source material. Based on a short story by Damon Runyon, Little Miss Marker drops everyone’s favorite curly haired moppet into a world of nightclubs, bookies, gamblers, and molls. It should be a menacing place for a child, but the magic of all Shirley Temple characters is to reform, redeem, nay, even sanctify the most hardened character. Before long she’ll have a small time crook teaching her to pray.
Sorrowful Jones (Menjou) is a shabby bookie taking bets on horse race when a desperate man offers his own child as a “marker” so that he can bet $20 on Dream Prince to win. What he doesn’t know is that the race has been fixed by the horse’s owner, Big Steve Halloway (Charles Bickford) and Jones is in on the scheme. He initially refuses to receive a child as an I.O.U. – because one shouldn’t, and who would? But when Marky accuses him of being “afraid of something” an understanding seems to pass between them and Menjou agrees to let Marky stay until her father returns with the money.
After losing the money he bet on Dream Prince, Marky’s dad “offs himself”, to put it in the parlance of this movie. This leaves Marky orphaned and in the care Sorrowful, a curmudgeonly lifelong bachelor. It doesn’t take long before Marky softens Sorrowful’s heart and that of Big Steve’s girlfriend, nightclub singer Bangles Carson (Dorothy Dell). With Big Steve away on business, Sorrowful and Bangles begin to fall for each other and entertain dreams of having a normal family life with little Marky. But they’ve got Big Steve to worry about, and even more pressingly, the impact that hanging around mobsters is having on Marky. She’s losing her sweetness and becoming a wisecracking cynic like the adults who surround her – all bearing wonderfully Runyonesque names like Sore Toe, Reget, and Benny the Gouge.
For a while it seems that bad company is going to corrupt Marky’s good character, but that’s not how Shirley Temple movies work, not even this one. In the end little Marky even manages to make a hero out of the Big Steve, the closest thing this movie has to a villain. I’ll admit I didn’t see that coming!
Adolphe Menjou was a sharp comic actor known for his urbane manner and immaculate attire. He’s playing against type for much of this movie, as a tightfisted, down at the heel, petty hustler. He does finally get his new suit, late in the film, though. It’s a dandy, and he wears it well. Dorothy Dell is truly charming as Big Steve’s girl, Bangles. She was only 19 when she made Little Miss Marker, but sadly, Dell died in a car accident less than a month after the film was finished. The supporting cast is strong in character actors like Warren Hymer and Frank McGlynn, Sr., but I must note Lynn Overman as Sorrowful’s right hand man, Regret. His performance, with his distinctive nasal whine and sardonic dialogue, is the funniest thing in the movie.
Little Miss Marker hasn’t aged well in every way – which certainly includes its handling of suicide. The movie also traffics in some ugly racism, particularly in the shuffling, simpleminded character foisted upon comic actor Willie Best. Like Steppin Fetchit, Best had a career built almost entirely of ugly minstrel caricatures – far less a reflection of his talents than of the time in which he was working in Hollywood. It’s also hard not to cringe at a child being handed over for monetary value (” A little doll like that’s worth $20 no matter how you look at it,” Sorrowful assures Regret.), and some of early scenes of Marky in Sorrowful’s apartment are uncomfortable to say the least. But there is such an aura of innocence around Marky that, while hardened gamblers may pass her around like a bag of potatoes while wagering on her weight, none of them would dream of doing her actual harm.
Kino Lorber’s new Blu-Ray includes an audio commentary of Little Miss Marker by film critic Lee Gambin and costume historian Elissa Rose. They both have interesting insights and add depth to the viewing of the movie. The Blu-Ray also includes trailers for several classic films, including a 1949 remake called Sorrowful Jones starring Bob Hope, Lucille Ball, and child actress named Mary Jane Saunders who definitely did not get the kind of traction from the role that Shirley Temple did.
Images used in this review are derived from various sources and are not meant to represent the visual quality of Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray.