Big Steve Hallaway (Charles Bickford), a gangster and gambler, puts his horse Dream Prince in a race that Big Steve arranges to lose, while betting on another horse. "Sorrowful" Jones (Menjou) is a low-level bookie who is an associate of Big Steve and helps him implement this scheme. A rather sad, desperate man at the racetrack approaches Sorrowful to place a bet on Dream Prince. When Sorrowful won't take the man's IOU ("marker") for a $20 bet, the man hands over his six-year-old daughter Marthy Jane (Temple) as collateral.
Dream Prince loses, as intended, leaving Sorrowful in temporary possession of little Marthy. Marthy's father then kills himself off-screen. Sorrowful is preparing to call the cops about Marthy when another complication arises: racing authorities, rightfully suspicious that Big Steve might have pulled some shenanigans with his horse, ban him from horse racing. Big Steve has a plot in which he will inject Dream Prince with a "speedball" stimulant to help win the next race, but now he needs to find a new owner to serve as a front man. Enter Sorrowful, who proposes making Marthy the titular owner of the horse. Further complications of a personal variety arise when Bangles Carson, Big Steve's girlfriend Bangles Carson (Dorothy Dell) starts to take a maternal interest in Marthy and a romantic interest in Sorrowful.
Little Miss Marker was one of Shirley Temple's first big roles and it propelled her to superstardom. She soon became the biggest box-office draw in Hollywood. It might have been a Star-Making Role for Dorothy Dell also if Fate had not intervened. Dell, only 19 when she appeared in this film, was cast opposite Gary Cooper and Temple in the film that became Now and Forever, but tragically died in a car accident only a week after this film premiered.
It has been remade three times: as Sorrowful Jones (1949), a musical version starring Bob Hope and Lucille Ball; as 40 Pounds of Trouble (1962), which features a Setting Update and stars Tony Curtis and Suzanne Pleshette; and as Little Miss Marker (1980), starring Walter Matthau and Julie Andrews.
- AB Negative: No one has blood that matches Marthy, who's in critical condition after falling from her horse. This leads the other gangsters into strong-arming Big Steve into donating, which causes Big Steve to have a redemptive moment of his own.
- Belligerent Sexual Tension: Right from the start, when Bangles and Sorrowful are sniping at each other and calling each other "gold-digger" and "cheapskate", it's pretty obvious where their relationship will be headed.
- The Chanteuse: Bangles' job, as a siren singing in a fancy club.
- Cheerful Child: Mostly Shirley is this, but interestingly, she isn't quite as sugary-sweet as she would be in her later films. In this one Marthy actually throws a couple of (very mild) temper tantrums.Bangles: Well, you used to say "thank you" and "no, thank you."
Marthy: I used to be a sissy.
- Cute, but Cacophonic: She was enthusiastic, and later films would show that she was a heck of a dancer, but Temple did not have a particularly impressive singing voice.
- Driven to Suicide: Sorrowful finds out via the newspaper that Marthy's father killed himself after losing the bet, and Marthy with it.
- Friend to All Children: The gangsters have certainly become this by the time they stage an elaborate Camelot-themed party for Marthy. Or when they kidnap a surgeon from his wedding after Marthy's in the hospital in critical condition.
- The Gambling Addict: Marthy's father leaves her as collateral for a bet, so he can put $20 down on a horse. He then kills himself.
- Gilligan Cut: Steve's mooks forcefully refuse to dress up in Renaissance-style costumes for the fancy Camelot-themed party Sorrowful is planning for Marthy. Cut immediately to them doing just that.
- In Love with the Gangster's Girl: The sparks between Sorrowful and Bangles blossom into romance. Because this is a family film, instead of brutally murdering Sorrowful, Big Steve lets them go, having himself had a redemptive moment when he donates blood for Marthy.
- Little Miss Snarker: Appropriately enough, Shirley starts to become this, developing a habit of cracking wise after spending all her time with gangsters and bookies.
- Lost Him in a Card Game: Marthy's father, who is quite obviously desperate and has a horrible gambling addiction, hands over Marthy as collateral in order to place a bet on a horse. He promptly loses the bet, loses Marthy, and kills himself.
- MacGuffin: The whole business with Big Steve plotting to inject his horse with a "speedball" which will kill it, but not before it wins the race, and the need to keep Marthy around as the horse's nominal owner. The film ends before the horse race even happens, although Sorrowful has already smashed the vial containing the speedball.
- Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep: Sorrowful teaches the rhyme to Marthy Jane before she goes to bed. It's part of the process in which hard-boiled bookie Jones bonds with the little girl in his care.
- Obfuscating Disability: The blind beggar at the racetrack, who is revealed as not blind when he reads the betting slip that Sorrowful gives him.
- Sexy Backless Outfit: Bangles wears one when she sings at the nightclub.
- Sitting Sexy on a Piano: Curvaceous chanteuse Bangles does this when singing in her nightclub act. Later Marthy imitates her. YMMV on how weird that is.
- Split Screen: Used to show the horse race on one side as the announcer calls the action on the other side.
- Those Two Guys: The two Mooks who work as low-level muscle for Big Steve, originally seen badgering Sorrowful for a marker to place a bet. They are always seen together, they are both IQ-challenged, and they even dress alike.
- Title Drop: Bangles christens Marthy "Little Miss Marker" after hearing the story of how Sorrowful received Marthy as a marker for a bet.
- Throwing the Fight: What Big Steve is up to at the start of the film, as he arranges for his horse to lose while betting on the competition.
- Uncle Tomfoolery: Some very unpleasant and offensive racial stereotyping in the presence of the slow-witted, goggle-eyed young black man working as a janitor at the racetrack.