Envision The Sting (1973) without the zing, and you get an idea of what to expect from Little Miss Marker, a crime-themed comedy set in the Depression. Based on a vintage Damon Runyon story and written and directed by Hollywood vet Walter Bernstein, the movie wants desperately to recapture the effervescence of classic screwball comedies. It doesn’t. But thanks to star power and slick production values, the movie is watchable, provided your tolerance for schmaltz is high. Little Miss Marker is one of myriad movies featuring the perpetually crusty Walter Matthau as a cynical loner softened by the experience of becoming the surrogate parent to a sweet child. Adding to the movie’s sugar level is the presence of leading lady Julie Andrews. While her screen coupling with Matthau stretches credibility, her innate dignity elevates the whole production. Matthau plays “Sorrowful” Jones, a pitiless bookie forever at odds with local gangster Blackie (Tony Curtis), whom Jones has known since childhood. One day, a client who doesn’t have the cash to pay off a bet leaves his six-year-old daughter, “The Kid” (Sara Stimson), as collateral. When the girl’s father fails to return on schedule, Jones takes the Kid home as a means of protecting his investment.
Limp comedy stems from the farcical situation of Jones trying to play homemaker. Later, once Jones learns that the Kid’s father has died, he resists turning her over to authorities, ostensibly because doing so would require Jones to explain his criminal enterprise. In reality, of course, he’s fallen for the kid and wants to protect her from the big, bad world. Complicating matters is Blackie’s scheme to open a new gambling joint, with money borrowed from Jones, and to fix a horse race involving a thoroughbred owned by society dame Amanda (Andrews). Figuring out where all this stuff is headed doesn’t require much imagination. When Runyon wrote the original story in 1932, the narrative might have seemed fresh and fun. Nearly 50 years later, the cocktail lost its fizz. Had Bernstein presented Little Miss Marker with a frenetic pace and different casting (namely, someone with more sass than Andrews), he might have put the thing over. Instead, he made something passable bordering on tedious. Stll, one can do worse than watching so many talented actors—the cast also includes Brian Dennehy, Lee Grant, Kenneth McMillan, and Bob Newhart—strut their stuff.
Little Miss Marker: FUNKY