Little Miss Marker (1980)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Kid used for collateral.

Sorrowful Jones (Walter Matthau) is a no-nonsense bookie running a gambling operation during the 30’s. When one of his clients named Carter (Andrew Rubin) cannot pay back his $10 debt he puts up his 6-year-old daughter (Sara Stimson), who is simply known as ‘the Kid’, as collateral. Sorrowful tells his assistant named Regret (Bob Newhart) to look after her, but Regret does not like kids, so he drops the young girl off at Sorrowful’s doorstep one night and then promptly leaves forcing Sorrowful to begrudgingly become her surrogate father figure. Eventually the two grow fond of each other and become inseparable, as does Amanda (Julie Andrews) who’s the girlfriend to a crime boss named Blackie (Tony Curtis). Blackie does not like that Sorrowful is showing an interest in Amanda, or her in him and  proceeds to try and throw a monkey-wrench into their potential affair while also coercing Sorrowful to partner with him in a fixed horse race.

This film was the fourth remake of the story that originally came out in 1934 and starred Adolphe Menjou as Sorrowful and Shirley Temple as the Kid. In 1949 it got remade with Bob Hope playing Sorrowful and Mary Jane Saunders as the child. Then is 1962 a variation of the story was was done called 40 Pounds of Trouble that was shot on-location in Disneyland and starred Tony Curtis in the Sorrowful role, though the character name was changed to Steve, and Claire Wilcox portraying the child, whose name in the film was Penny. While I have not seen any of those versions I still came away feeling this one had to be the weakest. A lot of the problem is that the script relies too heavily on the cuteness factor of the child, who is certainly adorable, but has no discernable personality. It’s also hard to imagine that a child who has just been abandoned by her father, and had also gone through the trauma of the death of her mother, would be so well-behaved and in reality would probably be showing some serious adjustment issues.

I’m not sure why Matthau, who also produced, thought this project would be a good idea, but appearing in it did not bolster his career. Didn’t he ever hear of the old adage never share the screen with animals or cute kids as they’ll just steal away all the attention? It’s not like Stimson, whose only movie role this was and who now works as a pediatrician in Arizona,  didn’t have to do anything special for that to happen as her big blue eyes are enough to capture the heartstrings of just about any viewer. I also had a hard time understanding his character particularly the fact that he was this brash, tough talking bookie yet doesn’t carry a gun nor have any fighting skills as proven by the fistfight he attempts to have with Curtis where even though Curtis was shorter Matthau he’s is still frightened of him and constantly backing away whenever Curtis got in his face. You’d think a streetwise person would have some ability to defend himself if needed and not just slink away the second someone else, particularly one who was smaller, suddenly got aggressive.

Bob Newhart gets completely wasted in a role that’s so small and insignificant I’m surprised why he even took it. I also didn’t think this was the right movie for Julie Andrews either. Sure, she has an engaging quality, but for a woman dating a crime boss she seemed way too pure and innocent almost like she was completely oblivious to his underhanded nature. In reality the people one hangs out with will inevitably rub off on that person and a more realistic portrayal would’ve had her being a bit corrupt, which would’ve actually been more interesting as it would’ve created a two-dimensional character who was cold and conniving most of the time, but then when the kid comes along a softer side gets exposed.

In contrast both Curtis and Brian Dennehy, who plays his henchmen, are a delight and needed more screen time. It’s interesting too seeing Lee Grant appear near the end playing a judge and almost unrecognizable in a gray wig, but the story as a whole flounders chiefly because, outside of the scenes showing a fixed horserace, there’s no action at all, which makes it absurd to call this a ‘family movie’. If I, as an adult, was bored I can only imagine a kid being even more so. In fact I’d say this movie really wasn’t made for kids at all, but instead little old ladies who enjoy cutesy kids the way they like cutesy puppy dogs and want children only shown as being adorable even though kids, like with everyone else, can have their bad side, which conveniently gets left out here.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: March 21, 1980

Runtime: 1 Hour 43 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Walter Bernstein

Studio: Universal

Available: DVD, Blu-ray

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