The Kids Stay in the Picture: Little Miss Marker, by Aaron Pinkston
Though comedian W.C. Fields famously said “Never work with animals or children,” the cinema is full of wonderful stories told through the eyes of the young. Films with child protagonists span every genre, generation, and film movement. “The Kids Stay in the Picture” surveys this interesting subgenre, following the School of the Art Institute and Gene Siskel Film Center film series “The Child in Cinema.” The series will cover the many historical and social contexts around why films centered on children are so integral to the landscape of world cinema.
Shirley Temple might be the most recognizable child star in Hollywood’s history, but unlike Jackie Coogan, she doesn’t really have an identified classic film role. Whereas The Kid is regarded as one of the great silent comedies, directed by one of Hollywood’s greatest filmmakers, Temple isn’t connected to any particular film. Saying it another way, none of her films are particularly notable for any reason other than being a Shirley Temple vehicle. An exception may be Fort Apache (1948), though that is a relatively minor work from director John Ford, and Temple was 20 when it was released. Heidi (1937) is her most recognizable role, but that’s not a film or franchise that has had much cultural cache, other than the infamous “Heidi Game”  (and that wasn’t even the Temple version). This is really a peculiar and remarkable feat—I can’t think of any other major film star who isn’t tied to at least one all-time sort of film. Because of this, I wonder if she’ll continue to sustain her cultural impact for future generations of film fans.
Enter this week’s film, Little Miss Marker (1934), which most likely hasn’t survived in cinema’s social consciousness (a 1980 remake starring Walter Matthau and Julie Andrews aside) because it’s not a very good movie—but that doesn’t mean it isn’t interesting in the context of its star. The film stars great character actor Adolphe Menjou as a horse race bookie who comes into contact with Temple’s loveable Marthy Jane. The film’s opening scenes play out the bizarre circumstances that bring them together; Sorrowful Jones is part of a large scheme that will ensure the public bet heavily on a horse that isn’t going to win, and one particular bettor puts up his daughter as a marker for money he doesn’t have. When the horse inevitably loses as planned, the desperate man abandons the girl in the care of Jones. The premise is much darker than I suspected from a Shirley Temple vehicle, and overall, the film handles it rather clumsily.
Once the Jones/Marthy Jane (who is nicknamed ‘Little Miss Marker’ given her name’s proximity to the plot device) relationship is established, the film goes on to decivilize the innocent and pure Marky and be a redemption tale for the older man. At the beginning of the film, Marky is drawn as a dreamer, naming the adults around her after knights from the King Arthur legend, which her father read to her every night. But as she spends more time with the low-level criminals and nightclub types who hang around Sorrowful Joe, she is quickly corrupted. She loses her imagination and takes on a bad attitude. This plot thread is incredibly silly, of course, given her life previous to the film’s story. There is no doubt that Marky has lived a damaged life, with references to a dead mother and a father desperate from poverty and gambling. But since this world is mostly off screen, Marky can be the ethereal angel with the power to come into the lives of unhappy adults and bring a smile to the world.
This leads me to one of the more recent film tropes that I love to hate, the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl.” When creating the term in his review of Elizabethtown, writer Nathan Rabin defined the character type as “exist[ing] solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.”  While Temple’s persona was likely created by the studio system and she typically serves male adults instead of “brooding young men,” there are some similar strains happening here.
With Temple’s rising star power and the obvious dramatic hook of an orphaned child, one would expect Little Miss Marker to heavily focus on the young girl, but that isn’t close to the actual result. We do see a bit of Marky’s backstory, but she ultimately feels dropped into the film’s world as an agent to change everyone else. Her cute charms turn criminals into saints, she even quite literally becomes an object to give meaning to the film’s otherwise bland and neglected villain.
Like Marky, Sorrowful Jones has lived a damaged life (and how could he not with a name like ‘Sorrowful’?) His work is legally ripping off the poor and desperate and he doesn’t have the social life to fill this moral gape. Though he gets caught up in schemes, he isn’t technically a criminal himself (which, in a way, is the only thing that allows him to be redeemed), but he’s constantly surrounded by low-level gangsters and more literal cheats. The presence of Marky allows him to find worth in himself, which is manifested by getting new digs and new threads which then leads him to being a respectable romantic pairing for nightclub singer Bangles. Usually the manic pixie dream girl is teased as the romantic interest of the male character, but the paternal love that Sorrowful Jones finds for the child leads to a similar end.
Bangles is an interesting character herself, a gold digger type who experiences a similar emotional arc. Perhaps it’s only because she’s a woman, but Little Miss Marker does more to literalize her parental instincts. Before Sorrowful can fully commit to being a father, she recognizes the child’s needs. More importantly, she recognizes that Marky has lost her sense of wonder and comes up with the big third-act plan of getting it back. Besides a strange scene where Bangles brings Marky to an adoption agent to find the girl a good home, she seems determined to change her life, settle down, and be a mother. By the end of the film, with Sorrowful’s life changes and Bangles’s newfound maternal instincts, we have yet another unconventional family unit off to live happily ever after.
Little Miss Marker is clearly a star vehicle for Shirley Temple, despite her being fourth billed in the cast and not really even the lead of the film. Whenever the young actress is on screen the camera seems to marvel at her, taking in her cuteness and existing to show off her talent. This is most apparent in a non-narrative musical number staged halfway through the film—in the sequence, Temple, often looking straight into the camera, sings a duet with her adult female co-star about looking at the funny side of life. It’s a cute song, performed with a lot of spunk, and an interesting contradiction in that it is obviously the most apparent scene of pure performance, but also may be when the actress feels the most child-like.
When you do any amount of research on Shirley Temple, you are sure to come across a controversial review of Wee Willie Winkie by novelist and film critic Graham Greene for the publication Night and Day—this chapter of Temple’s cultural story resurfaced in the many retrospectives following her death in 2014. Greene compared Temple to cinematic sexual icon of the time Marlene Dietrich, noting that “middle aged men and clergymen respond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her well-shaped and desirable little body.” No doubt, Greene is serving as a provocateur here, but the subject is a bit icky.
Watching Little Miss Marker with this idea in mind, there are a number of shots that emphasize the young girl’s body and put her in direct contact with adults. In one specific scene, on Marky’s first overnight with Sorrowful Jones, she asks her surrogate father to assist her in undressing, as the buttons of her underclothes go up the back. She coyly sticks out her behind toward the camera like a glamour shot, certainly giving ammunition to Greene’s criticism. The line between sexual object and innocent purity is thinner than expected, and I can see an explanation of her image either way. This is a very complicated topic and without seeing any other of Temple’s films, I can’t make any larger scale observations. But like the ways Little Miss Marker is trying to show off the talent of the young actress, the camera’s attention to her has this side effect.
Shirley Temple was extraordinarily prolific as a child star, especially in 1934. Among her 60 screen credits, a great majority of them happened before she turned 16. Near the end of her acting career, her films became less popular and she was far from the megastar of 1934-1938, when she was known as the biggest draw in Hollywood. I’m not sure if her talents no longer translated or the audience just had less interest when she grew up, but she inevitably retired from the business to raise a family and ultimately serve as a U.S. ambassador in Europe and Africa. Overall, even as I’m a little shocked by her lasting legacy given the lack of landmark films left behind, there is no way to doubt that she is an important figure in the history of Hollywood, especially so in the history of child actors. Little Miss Marker is a good starting point for those unfamiliar with the actress’s career—it shows off her talents and persona completely, even as it isn’t a very memorable film otherwise.
 Wikipedia, “Heidi Game”
 Nathan Rabin, “The Bataan Death March of Whimsy Case File #1: Elizabethtown,” The AV Club, January 25, 2007
 YouTube, “Laugh You Son of a Gun”
 The Charnel-House, “Graham Greene’s infamous review of Wee Willie Winkie (1937), starring Shirley Temple”