Every 15 years or so, the relatively risk-free inspiration of reviving "Little Miss Marker" occurs to someone in Hollywood.
The fitfully amusing but dreadfully poky new version co-starring Walter Matthau and Julie Andrews has become the fourth cinematic edition of Damon Runyon's original short story. The story is an inimitable tearjerker about a Broadway bookie known as Sorrowful whose gloomy, miserly behavior is transformed (temporarily according to Runyon, permanently according to movie adaptors) when he becomes the guardian of a little girl, left as security by an unlucky bettor who doesn't return to redeem her.
This appealing premise was developed into one of Shirley Temple's first big successes in 1934, with Adolphe Menjou in the role of the bookie. It reappeared in 1949 as "Sorrowful Jones" with Bob Hope and Lucille Ball and again in 1963 "40 Pounds of Trouble" with Tony Curtis and Suzanne Pleshette.
According to this time sequence, a fourth version was a couple of years overdue. Unfortunately, the new production offers little evidence that it needed to be made or demands to be seen, prior to an early retirement to television.
Making a belated direcing debut, the veteran screenwriter Walter Bernstein ("Yanks," "Semi Tough" and "The Front" are his most recent credits) maintains a listless tempo thatmay actually be improved by commercial interruptions and a frozen, overlit Universal City look that defies imaginative surrender to the story's setting, Manhattan in the Depression.
The only stylish touch appears in the credit sequence, a visual appetizer in which cut-outs and miniature toys of '30s origin are animated against photographic backdrops of office buildings, creating a delightful dollhouse illusion of New York traffic and street scenes. Ironically, this cardboard setting turns out to possess far more pictorial vitality than the nominal "live-action" that follows. Bernstein's inability to get off the dime is particularly apparent during a climactic fistfight that might serve as a model of how not to direct action and crowd scenes.
On the other hand, Bernstein's script is sprinkled with enough Runyonesque repartee to provide fleeting verbal enjoyment, at least when Matthau is doing the talking. I particularly admired the following piece of social wisdom tendered by Matthau as Sorrowful to Tony Curtis, a former sorrowful now cast as a villainous gangster named Blackie: "The upper crust always knows when it's being stiffed by the lower crust."
The description of Sorrowul in the original story appears to cry out for the Walter Matthau of almost half a century later: "He is a tall, skinny guy with a long, sad, mean-looking kisser, and a mournful voice. He is maybe sixty years old, give or take a couple of years, and for as long as I can remember he is running a handbook over in Forty-ninth Street next door to a chop-suey joint."
Matthau is the only performer who functions believably in Runyon's comic universe. Curtis doesn't seem comfortable there, although Blackie is a very half-hearted, expedient conception of anunderworld rotter. Bob Newhart, cast as Matthau's crony, and Julie Andrews, cast as a widowed socialite with money problems who falls for Sorrowful while taking a maternal interest in the little miss (a winsome 6-year-old named Sara Stimson), don't seem to belong at all.
A few supporting players suggest the right connotations: old hand Tom Pedi (he was a Runyonesque fixture in "sorrowful Jones") as a house painter, the increasingly valuable character actor Kenneth MacMillan also prominetly cast in James Caan's "Hide in Plain Sight") as a droll, imperturbable cop and the impresive young Andrew Rubin (who made his debut as Matthau's admirable elder son in "Casey's Shadow") as the little girl's ill-fated father. However, these minor pluses cannot compensate for the crucial minuses.