As cute as a button and bursting with personality, Shirley Temple wins our hearts in Little Miss Marker, Damon Runyon's classic tale about an orphaned moppet who's sheltered and loved by a motley group of New York gangsters. Adolphe Menjou and Charles Bickford also star in this adorable antique that showcases Temple in one of her first major roles. Strong video and audio transfers and a breezy commentary track distinguish Kino's Blu-ray presentation of this irresistible slice of nostalgia. Recommended.
Shirley Temple and Damon Runyon might seem like an odd couple, but the diminutive dynamo and iconic chronicler of Broadway big shots joined forces for Little Miss Marker, the first (and best) adaptation of Runyon's beloved short story. The result was a captivating film that vaulted the six-year-old Temple to superstardom and cemented Runyon's reputation after the success of Lady for a Day the previous year. Director Alexander Hall's racy, riotous film still raises eyebrows today, but its inherent sweetness and outrageous sense of fun temper its risqué elements.
Temple received top billing for the first time and proved her six-year-old shoulders were strong enough to carry a major motion picture. As "Marky," an adorable, streetwise moppet whose gambler father puts her up as collateral for a $20 horse-racing bet(!), Temple charms as only she can, mixing sweetness with sass and displaying an uncanny ability to rivet attention whenever she's on screen. She tugs heartstrings one minute, delivers a quip like a seasoned pro the next ("I don't want no mush!"), then sells a song with her inimitable verve. It's no wonder Temple checked in at #8 on the top ten list of 1934 box office stars (largely due to this film) and would skyrocket to #1 the following year. (She remained in the top slot until Mickey Rooney dethroned her four years later in 1939.)
Marky's dad unceremoniously deposits his daughter in a gangster's den populated by a ragtag group of Big Apple blowhards led by square-jawed kingpin Big Steve (Charles Bickford). Sorrowful Jones (Adolphe Menjou), the bookie who takes her father's bet, takes a shine to Marky, and after her dad loses that bet and commits suicide, Sorrowful takes the newly orphaned tot under his wing. Steve's girlfriend Bangles (Dorothy Dell) develops feelings for her, too, and before long Marky becomes the apple of all the gangsters' eyes. Despite their affection, living in a den of iniquity is hardly a healthy environment for a little girl, and as Marky begins adopting the slang and attitudes of her corrupt cohorts, Sorrowful and Bangles team up to give her the proper upbringing she needs.
The plot of Little Miss Marker ambles amiably along, but it's merely a framework to support an army of colorful characters who banter in what would come to be known as Runyonese. (The distinct turns of phrase are unique to the author and are showcased in the musical Guys and Dolls, also adapted from Runyon's stories.) Tough, gruff, but usually soft-hearted, Runyon's punks and dames never fail to delight, and Menjou, Bickford, and Dell are prime specimens.
Menjou personifies the downtrodden Sorrowful before Marky's love buoys him up, and he and Temple work well together. (The veteran actor is savvy enough to keep Temple from stealing their scenes, despite her best efforts.) Though their finest moments occur when he reads her a bedtime story and teaches her how to say her prayers, all their interactions ring true. Bickford barks his lines with authority and Dell mixes sex appeal, maternal impulses, and a saucy demeanor with surprising ease. Just 19 at the time of production, she looks and acts far more mature and would have enjoyed a bright Hollywood future had her life not been prematurely cut short. Dell, who only made three feature films, tragically died in a horrific car accident a mere week after Little Miss Marker premiered.
Though its plot takes a sharp and sober turn toward the end in a shameless attempt to wring tears and its theme of redemption through love is a tired cliché, Little Miss Marker remains a delightful romp that perfectly captures the era in which it was filmed. The story is so irresistible, it was remade three times - once in 1949 as Sorrowful Jones with Bob Hope and Lucille Ball, again in 1962 as 40 Pounds of Trouble with Tony Curtis and Suzanne Pleshette, and finally in 1980 with Walter Matthau and Julie Andrews. Does anyone remember the little girls who played Marky in those versions? Temple outshines them all, and it's a safe bet I wouldn't be writing about the movie today if another child actress filled her shoes. Little Miss Marker surely would have missed its mark without her.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The 1934 version of Little Miss Marker arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Despite the lack of remastering, the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer looks quite good...and that's saying something, considering Little Miss Marker was released almost nine decades ago. Yes, there's print damage, but it's not as noticeable as you might think. Some marks, errant botches, and a few scratches are evident, but they rarely distract from the action at hand. The natural grain structure replicates the feel of celluloid and excellent clarity and contrast produce a pleasing, well-balanced image. Blacks are rich, the bright whites remain stable throughout, and nicely graded grays add essential contours. The close-ups of Temple's smiling and tear-stained face and signature ringlets are sharp and good shadow delineation keeps crush at bay. Of course, we'd all love a brand new master, but until that pipe dream becomes a reality, this very watchable transfer will certainly suffice.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track supplies surprisingly clean sound that belies its vintage roots. Limited fidelity somewhat hampers the audio, but that's to be expected for an almost 90-year-old track. The music score by Ralph Rainger, who would later write Bob Hope's signature song "Thanks for the Memory," fills the room with ease, as do the songs performed by Temple and Dorothy Dell. Sonic accents are crisp and all the dialogue is easy to comprehend. The track is a bit thin on the high end (typical of early 1930s films), but Temple fans should be very satisfied with this solid effort.
In addition to some trailers for other related Kino releases (one of which is the 1949 Little Miss Marker remake Sorrowful Jones, starring Bob Hope and Lucille Ball), the only extra is an audio commentary by film critic/author Lee Gambin and costume historian Elissa Rose. The duo discusses the movie's themes and contemporary social connections, talks extensively about Temple's appeal and film persona, and looks at Menjou's career and sense of style. They also praise the African-American actor Willie Best and provide background info on actress Dorothy Dell and her close relationship with Temple. Rose, of course, examines the costumes and spends as much time discussing the men's suits as the women's gowns. This is a jovial, informative, and insightful track that's well worth sampling.
A charming showcase for the tiny Temple's tiptop talent, as well as a host of wonderfully hammy character actors, the original 1934 version of Little Miss Marker remains the best telling of Damon Runyon's irresistible tale. Comedy, music, and a few tears make this breezy romp a delight, and solid video and audio make it easy on the eyes and ears. If you're a fan of Temple or devotee of Damon Runyon's unique New York, you'll definitely want to pick up this disc. Recommended.