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In 1934 when Paramount released Little Miss Marker, two things became immediately evident: Shirley Temple was going to be a huge star and Damon Runyon's stories with his larger-than-life characters were ideally suited for big screen adaptations. Runyon, whose colorful and slangy writing style was distinctive enough to earn its own adjective - "Runyonese" - had already earned wide acclaim with his 1932 book Guys and Dolls (the Sinatra/Brando musical film version would come later in 1955). Realizing they had a hot property on their hands, the studio optioned the story of a little girl placed as a marker by her father to cover a bet with his bookie. When the father commits suicide in losing despair shortly thereafter, the child is effectively inherited by the bookie, a hardened grouch named Sorrowful Jones.
Although Runyon wrote the story two years prior to the film's release, the tale's origins stretch back much further. In The Story of Damon Runyon, author Michael D. McClanahan explains: "Clear back in 1914, Runyon had his first inkling of the plot. Out for a stroll in New York one day, he parked his newborn daughter in her carriage in a pool hall while he went into the back room to place a bet with the bookies who officed there. When one of the pool players inquired of another about the presence of such an uncommon object in the establishment, the reply was simply, "Runyon's marker." Runyon overheard the remark and filed it in the back of his mind for future reference."
With the script secured, the studio signed on Alexander Hall to direct (He would later score an Oscar nomination for Best Director in 1941 for Here Comes Mr. Jordan). When word got out that Paramount was looking to cast the part of the little girl, Gertrude Temple engineered a meeting between Hall and her five-year old daughter Shirley.
According to her autobiography, Child Star, Shirley Temple remembers the audition as exceptionally brief: "Seated facing one another, Hall said, "Say 'Aw, nuts.'" "Aw, nuts!" I repeated. Scram!" he said. "Scram!" I echoed. "Okay," he said, rising. "Okay," I continued with undiminished enthusiasm. "No, kid! Stop!" he said. "We're finished. Let's go see Mother." It was as quick as that." Temple was under contract at Fox at the time so Paramount had to pay $1000 a week to "borrow" the child actress, a wise investment in view of what was to come.
Cast opposite Temple was Adolphe Menjou in the role of Sorrowful Jones. Menjou, with his trademark greased mustache, was known as the best-dressed man in Hollywood. The very picture of sleek sophistication, he earned that reputation in A Woman of Paris (1923), a role director Charlie Chaplin selected especially for him. Menjou later earned a Best Actor Oscar nomination for The Front Page (1931), but today he is probably better known for his rabid anti-communist agitation in Hollywood and his involvement in the 1947 hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee. During production of Little Miss Marker, however, Menjou was more intimidated by his tiny co-star than his performance indicated; a passage from Temple's autobiography, Child Star, reveals an interesting side of the actor. "'This child frightens me,' Menjou openly confessed. 'She knows all the tricks. She backs me out of the camera, blankets me, grabs my laughs. She's making a stooge out of me. She's an Ethel Barrymore at six! If she were forty years old, she wouldn't have had time to learn all she knows about acting.'" Menjou had good cause to feel this way, for Temple was poised on the verge of super stardom -and Little Miss Marker would be her springboard.
Among the standouts in the superb supporting cast of Little Miss Marker are Charles Bickford and Dorothy Dell. Bickford would go on to earn supporting Oscar nominations for his work in The Song of Bernadette (1943), The Farmer's Daughter (1947), and Johnny Belinda (1948). Fledging actress Dorothy Dell, who, at fifteen, had won both Miss America and Miss Universe titles, would unfortunately see her promising career cut short by a tragic automobile accident at nineteen, making Little Miss Marker one of her only three films.
Upon its release, Little Miss Marker was a major box office hit: "Temple Holds 'Em Three Weeks," blared the headlines, referring to an over-$100,000 gross at the Paramount in New York City during that brief time period. Shirley was indeed a bona fide star; within days, her salary catapulted from $150 a week to over $1250. She would be awarded a special honorary Oscar in the same year, "In grateful recognition of her outstanding contribution to screen entertainment during the year 1934." Temple would go on to star in a total of forty-four films as a child, from 1931 to 1940 - from singing "The Good Ship Lollipop" in Bright Eyes (1934) to dancing with Bill "Bojangles" Robinson in The Little Colonel and The Littlest Rebel (both 1935). As a final coup de grace, Little Miss Marker was deemed "culturally significant" in 1998 by the Library of Congress, and selected for preservation in the United States Film Registry. Little Miss Marker was later remade as Sorrowful Jones (1949) starring Bob Hope and Mary Jane Saunders, Forty Pounds of Trouble (1963) featuring Tony Curtis and Claire Wilcox, and under the original title in 1980 with Walter Matthau and Sara Stimson.
Producer: B.P. Schulberg
Director: Alexander Hall
Screenplay: William Lipman, Gladys Lehman, Sam Hellman, based on the story by Damon Runyon
Cinematography: Alfred Gilks
Editing: William Shea
Music: Ralph Rainger
Cast: Adolphe Menjou (Sorrowful Jones), Dorothy Dell (Bangles Carson), Shirley Temple (Miss Marker), Charles Bickford (Big Steve), Lynne Overman (Regret).
BW-79m. Closed captioning.
by Eleanor Quin