How a Racehorse Restored Shirley Temple’s Soul

Adolphe Menjou gives Shirley Temple an interim pony.

It’s hard to believe that any character played by Shirley Temple would be in danger of losing her soul.

But, in the 1934 comedy, Little Miss Marker, Temple’s sunny character slowly grows cynical and bitter. As a squeaky six year-old with a dark side, Temple is tremendous fun to watch.

The movie opens at a racetrack, where Temple and her father have gone to place a $20 bet on a horse that is favoured to win. But, sadly, the race is rigged. Temple’s father loses the bet, and he leaves the girl at bookie Adolphe Menjou’s office as a marker. (A marker is an I.O.U.)

Menjou is a tight-fisted bookie who doesn’t spend a cent unless he absolutely has to, darn it! He wears a rumpled, ill-fitting suit and is forever hiking up his pants. He and Temple have terrific chemistry: Wee Temple tells Menjou that he is afraid (Afraid!) of her. He laughs, but in doing so, he admits it’s true.

When Temple’s father fails to return for her, and later turns up as a suicide victim, Menjou sees an opportunity. He decides to become Temple’s unofficial guardian; that way he can temporarily transfer ownership of the racehorse to her and keep the animal out of reach of suspicious authorities.

When Temple meets the horse, she immediately falls in love with him. He’s the most beautiful horse she’s ever seen! She’s the luckiest girl in the world!

Meanwhile, Menjou has relocated Temple to his stingy apartment and, to his chagrin, realizes he now has to clothe and feed and, well, care for her. These two are not ideal roommates. Temple insists he read her favourite bedtime story, The Knights of the Round Table. Menjou doesn’t know or care about this story; he reads her the racing form instead.

Now, the movie is a parallel between the Knights of the Round Table and Menjou’s bookie associates. A nightclub is the castle where these knights/bookies spend their evenings. It’s Camelot for gamblers!

There are so many enjoyable aspects of this film, which is based on a short story by famed chronicler of the New York underbelly, Damon Runyon. The dialogue, for example, is a real treat:

Temple: (crying)

Menjou: Why are you crying?

Temple: You don’t like me.

Menjou: Do you always cry when someone doesn’t like you?

Temple: Yes.

Menjou: Well, you’d better get used to it.

Things don’t stay rosy for long. Because Temple can’t see her horse often enough (due to his being on the lam), and because she’s hanging around a criminal element, her character begins to change. She starts misbehaving and using slang, and she becomes critical of anything good or noble. She’s turned into a miniature, 42-pound mug.

The resident nightclub singer (Dorothy Dell, in a wardrobe that makes her torso look distractingly wide) persuades the bookies that Temple’s soul can be restored if they have Knights-of-the-Round-Table party. They need to re-introduce Temple to the racehorse. The bookies grumble about it but they give in, because who on earth can refuse Shirley Temple?

At first, Temple is unimpressed with the party the adults have organized for her at the nightclub. She scoffs at the costumes and the big castle-shaped cake. She snickers and asks why the Knight-guards are dressed up in “ash cans”.

Then the horse arrives, dressed in Medieval finery, and immediately Temple forgives all. Here is her horse! She can hardly believe it! Menjou places her on the horse and the kid glows like a 100-watt bulb. The horse gamely takes a walk around the bar, like he’s been milling about nightclubs all his life. Temple is happy, Menjou is happy, the horse is happy. Temple’s soul, and the universe, have been restored.

If you’ve never seen a Shirley Temple movie, we recommend Little Miss Marker. It’s a faintly edgy film with a lot of heart and, yes, soul.

Damon Runyan’s Little Miss Marker: starring Shirley Temple, Adolph Menjou, Dorothy Dell. Written by William Lipman, Sam Hellman and Gladys Lehman. Directed by Alexander Hall. Universal Studios, B&W, 1934, 80 mins.

This blog is part of the Horseathon, which looks at horses in classic film. It’s hosted by My Love of Old Hollywood, and it runs from May 25-28. Giddy up!

23 comments

  1. This is one of my favorite Shirley movies – largely because of the horse theme and because Adolphe Menjou was such a perfect co-star for little Shirley. Thanks for a great post!

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  2. Really witty post! I must admit, I’m definitely not a fan of little Miss Moppet herself, but from the sounds of your review, it’s possible that the acidic presence of Adolphe Menjou could help me make it through.

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  3. Fabulous post! I haven’t seen this one since I watched it with my grandparents a hundred years ago. I barely remembered it until now, so thanks for another great one for my watch list. I love the way you look at movies….

    Happy weekend dear! Enjoy!

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      1. LOL! Um, me too. :)

        I love your opinions! As you know….your writing ALWAYS makes my day, the bonus is that just happens to be about old movies. YAY!

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  4. R.A,
    I’m a big fan of Shirley even though she gets a bad wrap over at my blog on occasion. Even if you aren’t a big fan of her films Little Miss Marker will reel you in.

    As you’ve mentioned here, the screenplay from the short story was wonderfully done. Menjou is perfect in his role as her protector, savior if you will. She had great lines which you’ve given some great examples of here.

    You had me laughing with “40 pound mug”, mentioning Dorothy Dell’s unflattering costume choice then “Camelot for Gamblers!”

    What a fun take on an entertaining film, curly top or not.

    I’m so glad you participated in the Horseathon R.A. and what a great choice. I’m going to leave her believing at least one person will go out and search for a Shirley Temple because of your wonderful writing, tribute.
    Page

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  5. Hi R.A., may I begin by saying how nice it is to see you are part of the horseathon. If I remember correctly, this is your first blogathon since becoming a member of CMBA, welcome. I am familiar with the title of the film, but I have not seen “Little Miss Marker” with Shirley Temple. I went through a period when I was watching one of her films every Sunday, but the station never seemed to air this title. I can see from your review that this is one of the young actress’s darker films (a suicide in a Shirley Temple film?), and though you didn’t mention this; I’m assuming there are no song and dance numbers. Damon Ruynon tales tend to deal with the darker realities of life during the early part of the 20th century, but he always did so with humor and pathos. I think Shirley would have been perfect for the role.

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    1. Thanks for visiting, whistlingypsy. There is a wee bit of Shirley music in this movie but only a little because there’s too much going on! Have you read much of Damon Runyon’s work? I am familiar with some radio plays, but have not read of any his newspaper articles or short stories.

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  6. Ruth, having grown up with a charming bookie dad who was like a Damon Runyon character come to life, I couldn’t help enjoying Runyon’s stories — but believe it or not, I’ve never had an opportunity to watch Adolph Menjou and Shirley Temple’s version of LITTLE MISS MARKET! Your witty and warm prose is always a delight to read, and I got a kick out of your descriptions, especially: “She’s turned into a miniature, 42-pound mug!” Loved your post, and now you’ve given me yet another great movie I must catch up with soon! :-)

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  7. Terrific review. I was never smitten with Shirley Temple but I was definitely an Adolphe Menjou fan. There was just something about him that made me smile. Can’t remember watching this movie but I suppose I must have at some point. The title is so familiar and not just because it’s Damon Runyon.

    Thanks for the reminder. :)

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  8. I’m not sure I can argue that “a racehorse restored Shirley Temple’s soul” because I’m convinced she sold that to Beezlebub for fame and fortune. But…and I know Page will be gobsmacked by this…Little Miss Marker is one of the few Temple films I like…or at least doesn’t make me retch uncontrollably. She’s just the right amount of cute in this film, and she’s worlds better than that little headache in the 1980 remake (a horrible film, one even Walter Matthau couldn’t save). Of course, when you’ve got great supporting players like Lynne Overman and Warren Hymer half the work is done for you. Great review!

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  9. Thanks for a great post on this wonderful film. I’m not a big Temple fan, but I really like her in this film; I particularly enjoy watching Menjou, known for his elegant and expensive wardrobe in real life, looking like he slept in his clothes. And, as you note, he and Temple have a great chemistry onscreen. I’ve also seen the Bob Hope remake, Sorrowful Jones, but, other than the presence of Lucille Ball in its cast, it wasn’t half as good as this film.

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  10. I have heard of this movie, but never seen it. I am also surprised that a Shirley Temple movie contains such dark themes. I am curious to see it now, to see how she acts in this role. I enjoyed your comparison of the Knights of the Round Table to the gamblers, Ruth. Your posts are always so much fun, and make me smile. Thanks for another movie recommendation for my growing list! Have you ever done a top 10 list of your favorite movies? I would love to know what they are.

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