Shirley Temple’s small part in Stand Up and Cheer! won her a overnight fame. Variety christened her the “unofficial star” of the otherwise unremarkable film. That sent producers scrambling to find larger roles for her. Although she was under exclusive contract with Fox, director Alexander Hall persuaded her to audition for the best kid roles in years in a script adapted from a Damon Runyon story. Legend has it that Hall approached the Temple family at the Brown Derby restaurant and the very next day Fox executive Winfield Sheehan called Gertrude Temple to his office to warn her never to do anything behind his back again. But he did agree to loan out the young star, charging Paramount $1,000 a week while continuing to pay Shirley $150 per week and $25 to Getrude to do her daughter’s famous curls.
Adolphe Menjou, the nominal star of the film, disliked working with children. It probably didn’t help that when he forgot a line his 5-year-old costar reportedly asked the director “is it too late to replace Mr. Menjou on this picture?” As shooting progressed, it became clear that the little girl was not only going to steal all the scenes she shared with Menjou, but she was going to steal the whole movie. Eventually she won over Menjou, as she would with his character, a hard-nosed gambler, and later costar Lionel Barrymore and director John Ford. She did in fact steal the film, which became a big hit. Paramount offer Fox $50,000 to buy out her contract. Sheehan, recognizing a good thing we he say it, said “nothing doing.”
Although this is the film that made the young actress a star, it a pretty atypical Shirley Temple film. Although Temple would soon become the face of wholesome entertainment, a few minutes into the film I realized I was watching a racy pre-code film. Sure enough, Little Miss Marker was released June 1, 1934, exactly one month before the strict enforcement of the production code went into effect. The script would have been subject to revisions if it had been released later. It is based on a story by Damon Runyon, who populated his literary world with gangsters, bookmakers and gamblers, many of them based on people he rubbed elbows with in real life. As the title character, Temple is left as a “marker” or collateral for a bet on a fixed horse race by her father. She is orphaned when he dies before returning, not by wandering out in front of a truck, but by committing suicide. The girl is taken in by Menjou and her babysitters are an assortment of thugs and nightclub sirens. They’re a bad influence on the pure little girl, who give up fairy tale daydreams in favor of gangster slang. There are also a number of zippy one-liners in the script that probably wouldn’t have survived the censor’s pencil under the code. In the final scene, she is laying on hospital operating table on the brink of death. The hardened gangster Big Steve (Charles Bickford) has been coerced into giving a blood transfusion. “Your blood is giving her life,” the doctor explains in some pretty flimsy film pseudo-medicine. “Does that give you a kick? Giving life?” “Giving life?” Bickford ponders, implying that he is more used to taking life. It is a line that surely wouldn’t have been allowed by the code, which dictated that all crimes, seen or implied, have to be punished. Instead, Big Steve is redeemed by the end of the film, having saved the life of the innocent girl.
So despite having Temple in the title role, this is by no means a family film. And yet Little Miss Marker establishes the template that would be used again and again in her subsequent films. An orphan girl is boundlessly optimistic, in spite of dire circumstances she finds herself in. Her sheer adorableness soften the heart of a cranky old man (or occasionally haughty old spinster), who wants to give the little girl a home. Characters competing for the right to adopt her pop up again and again in her movies. In Bright Eyes her character is even named “Shirley” so that when Charles Sellon says from his wheelchair “I am starting legal proceedings to adopt Shirley,” he is verbalizing the secret desire of every man and woman in the audience in 1934, whether they had children of their own or not. Indeed, it was not always such a secret desire. Many moviegoers in the ’30s believed Shirley was an actual orphan. Women wrote to the actress’s father, a banker, pleading with him to father “another Shirley” with them. Harpo Marx met child actress before her widespread fame when she visited the set of Duck Soup, most likely when she was lent by Education Pictures to Paramount for the Randolph Scott Western To the Last Man. Harpo did more than pose for pictures with the little girl. He reportedly offered her family $50,000 to adopt her. It sounds a bit creepy today, but Harpo was just one of the first of many to be charmed by the little girl, both on screen and off.
A sad footnote to the film is the early death of its other female lead, Dorothy Dell, who was killed in a car accident just one week after its premiere. She was only 19 years old. Dell is a fine actress in her role as the gangster’s moll who bonds with the little girl. She reportedly got along well with the girl on the set, and encouraged Menjou to get on her good side. In the film she is given the heartbreaking task of preventing the little girl from finding out that her father has died. Shirley’s real parents would do their best to delay the news of Dell’s death reaching their daughter.