Poor Marthy “Marky” Jane (Shirley Temple)—she’s five years old and has no idea what she’s just gotten into. For what seemed a sure bet on a horse race, her father (Edward Earle) leaves her as collateral—a “marker”—with a group of gangsters. He loses his bet and doesn’t come back, leaving cute little Marky, who has a thing for King Arthur, in the hands of Sorrowful Jones (Adolphe Menjou), a bookie, who plans to drop her off at the nearest police station. When Marky serves as an unwitting vehicle to a scam involving the horse of ringleader Big Steve (Adolphe Menjou), Sorrowful has no choice but to keep her around. He enlists the assistance of fellow hoods Regret (Lynne Overman), Sore Toe (Warren Hymer), Benny (Sam Hardy), Canvas Back (John Kelly), and Big Steve’s girlfirend, sassy jazz singer Bangles Carson (Dorothy Dell), in caring for the girl.
Big shock: Marky grows on all of them, softening their hard, criminal hearts with her sweetness and light. Sorrowful reads Marky bedtime stories, pays for a new wardrobe for her that Bangles picks out, and even teaches her how to pray. Bangles sings a duet with Marky—a great number called “Laugh, You Son of a Gun”— and tucks her in at night. Sadly, their rough edges and shady ways soon rub off on Marky, turning her into a “bad girl.” How can they save her innocence?
Little Miss Marker was Temple’s first starring role in a major motion picture, and it was a hit. Despite its dips into heavy handed morality, it’s a cute story that kept me engaged. It’s gritty, bawdy, and maintains a kind of cynical comedy that ultimately pulls at the heartstrings. Translation: it gets sappy at the end. Little Miss Marker reflects its time: it feels like a Prohibition/Depression Era film, which it is (Prohibition ended the year before). Marky is an orphan in the big city, and she works her cuteness to get her from rags to comfort if not necessarily riches. The accents are affected in that overdone, early “talkies” way. Crime and sex are part of the story, and I had the fortune to see it as part of a lecture series during which it was pointed out that the film is rife with undertones of pedophilia. Um, hello: Temple runs around in tiny shorts that nearly expose her cooter, she climbs all over the men and talks to them in a weird manipulative way, and in one scene she coyly removes her underwear beneath a bathrobe in front of Sorrowful before slipping into his bed, leaving him to sleep alone on a chair—with a bad case of blue balls, no doubt. Creepy!
In 1998, the United States Library of Congress deemed Little Miss Marker “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).
(Gene Siskel Film Center) C+