The thinking at Warner Bros. seemed to go like this: Shirley Temple went over big in Little Miss Marker, which is sort of a gangster film; Warner Bros. does gangster films better than anyone else; so all we need is to find our own Shirley Temple, make our own Little Miss Marker and laugh all the way to the bank. The find was Sybil Jason, a 7 year old (billed as 5) out of South Africa. The result is a transitional picture from the first full year of Code Enforcement, with some of the old violence but also a distinct softening if not neutering of Warners assets as the studio scrambles to imitate successful trends elsewhere.
Our heroes are two sidewalk peddlers: Robert Armstrong sells cheap watches whenever the coast is clear from cops, while Edward Everett Horton is his shill, putting on as many disguises as time allows to talk up the product. They're having trouble making the rent at their quite-comfortable looking room, but they can depend on conning desk clerk Edgar Kennedy by appealing to his sporting blood and getting him to make sucker bets. That lets them keep their room but they still have to resort to stealing milk bottles from their neighbor (Glenda Farrell) for breakfast. A random encounter with a prosperous-looking old acquaintance (Addison Richards) makes them confident that they can touch him up for a "business loan" and dinner at a swank hotel. The man has his daughter Gloria with him (Jason), whom he's recently brought home from schooling abroad -- hence her British accent. Naturally to butter up the mark Armstrong talks about how much he loves kids and wishes he had one of his own to spoil. The mark believes every word of it. He wants to believe because, as he admits at the last minute, before he's gunned down on the sidewalk by J. Carroll Naish, he's actually penniless and wants Armstrong and Horton to take care of Gloria. Our heroes witness the shooting -- Gloria stayed inside the restaurant -- but Naish intimidates them into keeping quiet. Not wanting to get mixed up in things any further, they head back home, leaving the body and its daughter behind.
Little did they realize that another tenant of their building is a waiter at the hotel who promptly delivers them the bill and Gloria. Naturally, they want to dump her in an orphanage as soon as possible, but she's grown attached to Armstrong and, inevitably, he can't bring himself to abandon her. Farrell takes a motherly interest in the girl that promises dividends for Armstrong, but more importantly Gloria proves her own money-making potential by spontaneously joining some black street entertainers for a song and dance. Our heroes rent space in a penny arcade owned by Jack LaRue for Gloria to perform in while they sell their watches, but LaRue is under pressure from the same gangsters (also including Ward Bond) who killed Gloria's dad and now kick Gloria's dog to death for interfering in a high-stakes pinball game. When LaRue welshes on a dice game intended as a practical joke that backfires on him, Armstrong threatens to kill him. When the rival gangsters do kill LaRue, Armstrong practically frames himself. Add the inevitable kidnapping of Gloria and you can probably write the end of this picture yourself -- but remember that this is the Code Enforcement era, so a happy ending is mandatory.
First of all, Little Big Shot turns Glenda Farrell, perhaps Warners' apex-predator gold-digger, into a goody-good constantly nagging Armstrong to find a real job and settle down. Both Armstrong and Horton turn into soda-jerks under her prodding, and in the happy ending they all run a roadside diner together. Farrell as a goody-good is all wrong; it's like keeping hellfire under a bushel. But the real problem with the picture is Sybil Jason. I hate to sound like a xenophobe, but her accent is immediately off-putting. However unfairly, it makes her seem artificial. Worse, her singing and dancing is feeble compared to Shirley Temple, whose talent and charisma at a like age were simply freakish. Jason tries to prove herself multi-talented by doing impersonations, including an obvious Garbo and what I guess was a Mae West, though I'm not 100% sure. Worst of all is her acting, though part of the problem is how often the story forces her to burst into tears that inspire horror rather than compassion. One dreads imagining what director Michael Curtiz, who does all in his considerable power to energize the picture, did to draw those tears from the poor girl. There's no hint of spontaneity in Jason, just as there's really no hint of originality in the picture. It was one thing to declare Jason Temple's rival, another to invite damning comparisons by imitating a Temple vehicle. Whatever her true potential, Jason paid the price for this miscalculation. Warners only starred her in one more feature, two years later, and otherwise put her in supporting roles before letting her go to finish her career as a supporting player to Shirley Temple herself. Maybe this was a waste of talent, but after seeing Little Big Shot I doubt it was that much of a waste.