Watching Shirley Temple’s Breakthrough Film and Finding a Fallen Star
She totally disarms you — she lifts you off your feet.
—H.G. Wells, circa. 1934
Wells’s choice of words is curious, since Shirley Temple was usually the one being lifted off her feet. In her breakthrough movie, Little Miss Marker (1934), she’s lifted, held, hefted, pondered, and passed from one gambler to another as bets are made on her exact weight. When the only female present, a night club singer named Bangles Carson — played with exceptional warmth and verve by Dorothy Dell — tells the Damon Runyon sharpies to stop passing the kid around like a rubber ball, Shirley, in mid-toss, shouts “I like it!” and so she clearly does. The essence of her appeal is right there: she’s having a great time.
In Child Star: An Autobiography (McGraw-Hill 1988), Shirley Temple Black, who died at 85 on January 10, has fond memories of the fun she had with Dorothy Dell as they shared scene-stopping laughter, holding hands, “enjoying the sense of impromptu gaiety.” The 19-year-old Ziegfield Follies beauty playing the worldly Bangles treated Shirley as an equal and won her “special affection” through a positive attitude that made her feel “inches taller” than she was. In writing, however, about Adolph Menjou, who plays Sorrowful Jones in Little Miss Marker, she reports that “off-camera he treated me with the reticence adults commonly reserve for children, sometimes staring at me fixedly without comment.” When Menjou attempts to engage her in that “outgrown infant pastime” hide-and-seek, she humors him, playing the game “with only half a heart. Beyond that one instance, he spent little time directly with me, always preferring to watch me from a distance.”
Comments made by Menjou at the time of the filming and quoted in Child Star suggest why he was keeping a vigilant eye on Shirley: “This child frightens me. 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.”
There’s a remarkable moment early in Little Miss Marker when Menjou picks Shirley up with both hands, holds her close, face to face, and stares into her eyes. It’s his way of reckoning her value as collateral for her wretched, soon-to-be-dead-by-his-own-hand father’s $20 bet. She stares right back, no flinching, no flirting, no being cute: she’s nailing him. Seen in profile, Menjou is all business, and so is she. It’s a powerful shot. Though Sorrowful may not be visibly melting, you can tell the process has begun. It’s as H.G. Wells said, she’s lifted him up, even if he doesn’t quite know it yet.
More to the point, she’s daring him to take her on. Just before he hoists her up for a closer look, she says, “You’re afraid of me” and then “You’re afraid of something.” She observes this gently, holding him in her eyes, making it clear that she’s not the only one whose value is being weighed. As Menjou sets her down, he’s already showing signs of the slow melt. To noises of disbelief from his cohorts that the no-nonsense Sorrowful would accept a kid as a marker for a bet, he says, “A little doll like that’s worth 20 bucks any way you look at it.” Knowing as we do that the doll would prove to be a money-making phenomenon beyond all imaginable mortal reckoning makes this one of the greatest little-did-they-know lines in film history.
Far from “making a stooge” of Menjou, Shirley does what many stars, including even Barbara Stanwyck, could never do: she makes him sympathetic. The ray of Shirley’s light shining on Sorrowful enables his romance with Dell, who plays Bangles with a mildly Mae-West-like swagger that helps disguise the fact that she’s 19 and Menjou is 44. Otherwise it would be a stretch when the two marry at the end and become Marky’s adopted parents. What makes Dell so endearing in her scenes with Shirley is the way she seems at once wise dame, young mother, best friend, and loving sister.
Holding It Together
With all due credit to Runyon’s story and Alexander Hall’s direction, the person holding the film together is the child of the title. It’s not as if the grown-ups simply took it upon themselves to fashion a fantasy world as a way of distracting Marky from the loss of her father; she enlists them one by one as players in the creation she’s weaving according to the stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table that her mother (“who went away and never came back”) used to read her. The names she gives the characters in her play-in-progress are all derived from or based on those bedtime tales, the first coming when she affectionately dubs Willie Best her “Black Knight” as if such things as racist comic relief simply didn’t exist; the sarcastic gambler Regret (Lynne Overman) becomes Sir Lancelot, Bangles is Lady Guinevere, and Steve, the wouldbe heavy who eventually gives “good strong blood” to save Marky’s life (Charles Bickford) is “the strong knight.”
A Special Freshness
Sample the numerous Shirley Temple films available in full on YouTube, as I did, and you may begin to feel that a little of her undoubted genius goes a long way. She’s an amazing tap dancer. Just watch her busking for trainfare to the White House with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in 1935’s Littlest Rebel. I’m focusing on Little Miss Marker because in addition to its easygoing Runyon ambience and the charming chemistry between the child and the other players, especially Dell and Menjou, Shirley’s gift seems purer, more true to life. There’s a special freshness to scenes like the one where she sits on the piano singing “Laugh You Son of a Gun” with Bangles. Instead of a tapdancing virtuoso, you see a happy little girl smiling out at Depression audiences, having a wonderful time singing lines like “I may be broke/But I take life as a joke” and “It doesn’t cost a thing/To buy the sun” and going heh-heh-heh, hee-hee-hee, and ho-ho-ho-ho on the chorus like any kid anywhere
The bedtime scenes are even better. When Marky begs for a story about King Arthur, Sorrowful settles down next to her and composes an Arthurian tale out of the racing form. Later, when Bangles comes back from a night on the town with a “good time Charlie” and wakes up the child, it’s her turn to take over the bedtime duties, and like a mother spelling a father, Dell curls up next to Marky, improvises a lullaby, and ends by singing both of them to sleep. Again, here’s a scene you know warmed and charmed Depression audiences, especially parents.
Another sequence guaranteed to shoot a St. Valentine’s arrow straight to the heart comes when Sorrowful is reading Marky a bedtime story, this one from the real King Arthur book Bangles has bought her. But by now she prefers the race track King Arthur because she thinks she’s “a bad girl” after picking up some racetrack slang from her new friends, which leads to talk of asking favors of “somebody named God.” The scene where Menjou teaches her how to pray should be an unwatchable embarrassment, except that it’s played with none of the standard bogus Hollywood piety; it’s also the moment when the rapport between Menjou and the child is most poignant. The appeal of the prayer lesson is equal to the Damon Runyon punchline that caps it: “Please God, buy Sir Sorry a new suit of clothes.”
Life and Death
It’s hard to watch Little Miss Marker without becoming fond of Dorothy Dell, referred to in Child Star as the “warm-hearted gun moll” and Shirley’s “frolicsome cohort.” It’s inevitable at some point that you wonder why such an engaging performer never became a star. A Miss Universe at 15, she sang in the 1931 Ziegfield Follies (filling in for Ruth Etting), performed on Rudy Vallee’s top-rated radio show, all before she arrived in Hollywood at 18 with her best friend, Dorothy Lamour. Why haven’t we heard of her? What happened to her career? A week after Little Miss Marker’s June 1 release, Shirley’s “special friend” was killed in a one-car crash described 50-plus years later in Child Star as “a gruesome nighttime automobile accident.” Because the two had become so close during the filming of Marker — an emotional attachment you can see taking place like a real-life subplot — the news was kept from Shirley. But while she was doing a scene from her next film, Now and Forever, that required her to be crying, Shirley overheard reference to the accident and “burst into tears.” While everyone on the set “milled around helplessly,” the director, Henry Hathaway, was quick to take advantage. As Shirley Temple Black recounts in Child Star, “he quickly called for a camera to focus on me where I lay slumped, sobbing away. First a close up, then a medium shot.” Shirley’s mother “observed the splendid performance, and remained watching while the camera continued to roll. Only I knew it was more fun to shed false tears than real ones.”
Due from W.W. Norton in May is John F. Kasson’s The Little Girl Who Fought the Great Depression: Shirley Temple and 1930s America, in which Kasson thoroughly and convincingly documents the impact of Shirley’s appeal to a mass audience in dire need of sweetness and light. There will be an eight-film Shirley Temple tribute on Turner Classic Movies on March 9 from 4:30 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. Little Miss Marker and Now and Forever are available on a single DVD at the Princeton Public Library. To find out more about Dorothy Dell, visit mmortalephemera.com/16531/dorothy-dell.