Low-lifes and little girls: Paper Moon and Little Miss Marker

Two Depression-era comedies made seven years apart (Paper Moon 1973, Little Miss Marker 1980), with the same setup — a man living on the outskirts of the law has an orphaned little girl thrust into his life. Here is an object lesson about how to do a thing and how not to do a thing.

Peter Bogdanovich was a young man when he made Paper Moon, it was his third film (after the luminous Last Picture Show and the delightful What’s Up, Doc?). Walter Bernstein was not a young man when he made Little Miss Marker, and although he was a hugely accomplished, well-respected screenwriter at the time, this was his first (and only) theatrical feature.

Essentially, everything Paper Moon does right, Little Miss Marker does wrong.  Paper Moon is acutely observed, stark and heartfelt while Little Miss Marker is shallow, limp and sentimental.

Little Miss Marker should have everything going for it — a classic, cast-iron story (by Damon Runyon) that had already been filmed twice before (in 1934 with Adolphe Menjou and Shirley Temple and in 1949 [as Sorrowful Jones] with Bob Hope and Lucille Ball), a heavyweight, almost Wilderesque cast (Walter Matthau, Tony Curtis, Julie Andrews), a budget big enough to create the streets of New York on the Universal lot.  In contrast, Paper Moon is based on a relatively obscure novel, has a decidedly lightweight lead (Ryan O’Neal), and a series of bleak Kansas locations.

Plot: Paper Moon is a road picture.  The little girl’s mother has died, and her probable father, a drifting grifter, is given the task of getting the little girl to a “respectable” home in the next state.  He tries to get rid of her but she won’t be put off.  They embark on a life of petty crime together on their journey across the Midwest.  Little Miss Marker is an “urban” comedy, where a gambler leaves his little girl with his bookie, then goes off and kills himself, leaving the hard-bitten, cynical bookie to care for her.  He gets involved in a B-story that has nothing to do with the little girl and a romance that has nothing to do with the B-story.  All the plot lines come to an end but do not all come together.

Photography and sets: Paper Moon is shot in gritty, high-contrast black and white, which makes this 70s comedy look like a John Ford picture and also lends a great deal of gravitas to his genial, blonde-haired, blue-eyed Californian leads.  Its location exteriors are all authentically weathered and withered, its interiors are spare and bleak.  It’s a movie about a nation with no money and it shows in every aspect of the production design.  Little Miss Marker, on the other hand, is shot in pretty, high-key general lighting, intended to make the movie a happy escape into a simpler time, but which now makes it look like 60s television or a filmed play, shot on backlot sets that look desperately back-lot; every street ends in a T, pavement is flat and even, grime is painted on in pretty, even coats.

Music: Paper Moon has no score; it uses occasional period songs to set its time and underscore the emotional terrain.  Little Miss Marker has a cutesy-pie fake-“thirties” score by Henry Mancini, intended to evoke nostalgia but serving only to move the story into a kind of fairy-story Depression where colorful characters talked like wise guys and nothing bad really ever happened.

Casting: Paper Moon, as noted above, would seem to be the movie at a loss here.  Who is going to play a better low-life, Walter Matthau or Ryan O’Neal?  And yet, Matthau’s performance in Little Miss Marker is mannered, labored and fussy while O’Neal’s, although insubstantial,  is breezy and blithe, it breathes and connects on a more human level.  The cast of Paper Moon is filled with picture-perfect unknowns, while Little Miss Marker has a miscast Bob Newhart, an overplayed Brian Dennehy, a stiff Kenneth McMillan and a mugging Tony Curtis.

The Little Girl: Paper Moon, of course, cast 10-year-old Tatum O’Neal as the little girl and she won an Oscar for her work, which, although not as genuine as, say, anything from Dakota Fanning, is still winning and affecting.  Little Miss Marker, on the other hand, seems to have picked a six-year-old from the “Adorable Moppet” bin and left it at that.

The Dame: there’s always a Dame, of course, and here’s perhaps where the real difference in the movies appears.  In Little Miss Marker, the adorable moppet brings together Walter Matthau, the heartless curmudgeon, and Julie Andrews, a fallen society lady, to replace the family she has lost.  The romance between Matthau and Andrews makes no sense and feels completely forced, and the movie ends with both of them giving up their wicked ways for the good of the child.   In Paper Moon, on the other hand, Ryan O’Neal falls in lust with a giggling, insincere whore (Madeleine Kahn), and the little girl spends the second act of the movie trying to break up their romance because she’s cutting into their grifting time.

Script: Damon Runyon, one of the most instantly identifiable writers in American literature, has never been captured well on film.  Like Mamet, he has a clear, definite dialogue style, one demanding committed actors capable of breathing life into his heavily stylized rhythms.  Matthau tries to do so but can’t, Curtis and Newhart don’t even try, and Andrews’ dialogue has been written to completely ignore the issue.  The affectionate view of gamblers and gangsters that Runyon wrote is made cartoonish, silly and harmless here; the result is a plastic, fake Runyon that doesn’t evoke Guys and Dolls, much less the New York of the 1930s.  Meanwhile, Paper Moon, while slightly episodic and far from “realistic,” nevertheless teems with authenticity and well-observed details of daily life.

At the end of Paper Moon, the man makes good on his promise and delivers the little girl to her “respectable” home.  The little girl takes one look around and high-tails it out of there; she realizes that a house is not a home and respectability is not fulfillment.  And in a phiosophical sense, she sees that life is not a destination you arrive at, it is a journey you take.  At the end of Little Miss Marker, the gambler and the fallen sophisticate get married for no reason at all and, although both are middle-aged and broke, decide to “go straight” for the sake of the little girl (whom no one asks, and who seems to be perfectly content to play cards, pick pockets and bet on horses for money).  Paper Moon disdains conclusion and becomes evocative and moving, Little Miss Marker ties everything up in a neat bow and evaporates before the credits have run.
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15 Responses to “Low-lifes and little girls: Paper Moon and Little Miss Marker”
  1. tmcm says:

    paper moon is one of my favorite films of all time. When I bought a dvd player it was the second movie I bought.

    • Todd says:

      Mr. Wheeler! Welcome. I’m a big fan.

      • tmcm says:

        Your blog is great. I got suckered in with the Green Lantern is job post which must have been linked to from someone else’s blog.

        I liked your Night at the Apocolypto take too. Those two movies have an odd link in my head. I watched the first half of Night and left to see the last 3/4 of Apoco. The Mayans had just been introduced as characters so when I switched theatres it was a natural transition. I imagined Ben Stiller was one of the sacrifices.

        I’m a sucker for the type of subtext analysis you did on Night. I agree with your take on Apoc too – that it was an ‘out of the pan into the fire’ reaction of our protagonist. Those Spanish were not saviors.

        Anyhow. Glad to find your blog.Good stuff.

  2. dougo says:

    Synchronicity, I just left a comment on your Oscar post about Jackie Earle Haley being in The Bad News Bears, and now you talk about Tatum O’Neal and Walter Matthau. What’s the next topic, Vic Morrow’s untimely death on the set of Twilight Zone: the Movie? I also just found out that screenwriter Bill Lancaster was the son of Burt Lancaster, on whom Buttermaker was based. Huh.

  3. Paper Moon was Bogdanovich’s fourth film. The first one, that you didn’t list, is the wonderful Targets, starring Boris Karloff.

    • Todd says:

      Bless your soul, you are correct; I didn’t even look it up. In the supplementary material on the Paper Moon DVD, Bogdanovich himself didn’t mention it and it escaped my awareness.

  4. ghostgecko says:

    Have you ever seen “Lawn Dogs”? It’s on a sort of similar theme, although the little girl isn’t orphaned, she just has a family that doesn’t seem very interested in her except as an object to increase their social status (and mask their private naughtiness). The little girl is adorable but no moppet – she likes howling on the rooftop at night, revels in her enormous heart surgery scar, kills chickens for fun and gets back at her dad being an a-hole by peeing on his SUV. She takes an interest in the young man who’s hired to mow the lawn, who’s kicked around as much as she’s coddled, and sort of inserts herself into his grungy life. I think you’d get a charge out of it, if you haven’t seen it. The only false note is the ending, which seemed like they remembered at the last moment it was an indie film and they had to do something head-scratching and dishonest, plot-wise. Excellent acting on the part of the girl and the always-great Sam Rockwell as the young man.

    • Todd says:

      “The Girl,” of course, went on to be “the girl” who’s poisoned to death by her mother in The Sixth Sense and, a few years later, turned into what we now know as Mischa Barton, late of the The O.C.

      • ghostgecko says:

        Duh@me, that’s what I get for not checking imdb.com before posting. In my defense, I’ve never seen the OC. Is she good on that?
        And from this I take it you did see Lawn Dogs?

        • Todd says:

          She’s splendid on The OC, although I must admit the show isn’t exactly my cup of tea.

          Haven’t seen Lawn Dogs yet, but the preview available at the IMDb looks interesting.

  5. moroccomole says:

    Did you ever happen to see Bloodhounds of Broadway? It’s a little-seen Runyon adaptation from the 90s, and I think it’s better than its reputation. (Reportedly it got awful reviews in New York because the press screening accidentally omitted one of the reels, and after flopping in New York, the movie was basically dumped by Columbia Pictures.)

    • Todd says:

      I haven’t seen Bloodhounds, but I have seen Howard Brookner’s other two films, the documentaries Burroughs and Robert Wilson and the Civil Wars, both of which I enjoyed immensely. It’s a shame that he died so young, it would have been good to see where his muse would have taken him next.