Movie Of The Month by JB Kaufman

Little Miss Marker (1934)

May, 2018

Paramount, 1934. Director: Alexander Hall. Screenplay: William R. Lipman, Sam Hellman, and Gladys Lehman, based on the short story by Damon Runyon. Camera: Alfred Gilks. Film editor: Billy Shea. Cast: Shirley Temple, Adolphe Menjou, Dorothy Dell, Charles Bickford, Lynne Overman, Warren Hymer, Sam Hardy, John Kelly.
            It’s been a good eight decades since Shirley Temple enjoyed her vogue as one of the top box-office stars in Hollywood, but she retains a large and loyal fan base even today. By any standard, she remains one of the top child stars of all time. At the peak of her success at the Fox studio, little Shirley constituted a separate franchise in her own right—carefully groomed and packaged, her films custom-designed to showcase her unique charm and talents. Personally I find a great interest in her earlier films, the ones that established her as a star in the first place. These pictures, too, qualified as Shirley Temple vehicles, but here she was simply a cast member, performing her roles like any of the adult players. And in these films Shirley proved that she didn’t need a tailored showcase; she was fully capable of holding her own as a performer.
            A prime example is Little Miss Marker, produced by Paramount in 1934. I have a special fondness for this one because it’s based on a short story, of the same title, by one of my favorite authors: Damon Runyon. It begins with an amusing premise: a gambler, anxious to place a bet on a horse race, leaves an unconventional “marker”—his four-year-old daughter—with his bookie. Both the short story and the film turn on the incongruity of introducing a child into Runyon’s signature urban milieu of gangsters and racetrack touts, as the hardboiled bookie, through a series of events, finds himself the surrogate “father” of the little girl. In the film, of course, Shirley plays the title role, and in 1934 this was inspired casting. The story had been published only two years earlier, the plot revolves around Shirley’s character, and the role is perfectly suited to her.
            The heart of the story is the relationship between the little girl and the bookie, and the film benefits greatly from Adolphe Menjou’s performance in the latter role. During the 1920s, following his breakout appearance in Chaplin’s A Woman of Paris, Menjou had established an image of urbane sophistication on the screen. The coming of sound had brought new facets to his persona, as he added a series of fast-talking con men and rogues to his gallery of characters. As Sorrowful Jones, the bookie, in this film, he’s convincingly crusty and cynical, as quick with a withering wisecrack as he is tight with a dollar. In lesser hands this portrayal might have been embarrassingly sentimental, as Sorrowful, at first annoyed at the unwanted responsibility of caring for the youngster, slowly loses his heart to her. Here Menjou’s performance is pitch-perfect; the bitterness of his demeanor in the early scenes makes his gradual conversion genuinely touching.
            Having established the premise of Runyon’s story in the opening scenes, the script goes its own way with characters and situations that have nothing to do with the original. That, of course, is as it should be; the translation from written prose to film inevitably calls for adaptation—especially with a writer like Runyon, whose idiosyncratic language is colorful and witty, but has no functional counterpart in moving pictures. The ending of his story, as effective as it is on the printed page, would never have worked on the screen. (I’m deliberately avoiding spoilers here, regarding both the short story and the film.) Unfortunately, one is forced to admit that the adaptation is not entirely successful. The first six reels of the film are a delight; then, unaccountably, the writers detour into a contrived situation that threatens to sink the entire film. (The 1949 Bob Hope remake—a film that took wild liberties of its own with Runyon’s story—pointedly sidestepped this particular device.)
            Happily, this lapse comes late enough in the film that the viewer is (one hopes) invested in the story, and willing to overlook such a misstep. And the writers quickly recover, ending the story on a high note. In the end the good far outweighs the bad, and we’re left with an almost completely satisfying filmgoing experience. Little Miss Marker is, overall, a film of great charm, rich in colorful 1930s atmosphere, helped in no small measure by a complement of beloved character players (Warren Hymer, Sam Hardy, John Kelly, and Tammany Young, among others). And at the heart of it is a memorable dual performance by two accomplished players—one already a veteran of two decades in the movies, the other a little girl who was a relative newcomer at the time, but whose charm and talent are still irresistible after more than eighty years.

J.B. Kaufman