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!

Happily blogging about old movies and using the royal "We".

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