“Baby Peggy” turns 95 years old on October 26. In 1921, at the
age of 19 months, tiny Peggy Montgomery was pitched by her parents into one of
the more remarkable careers in silent film, one in which she became the only
kid rival to Jackie Coogan (of Chaplin’s “The Kid”). She became one of the
first branded, merchandised movie stars and a figure who personified the
disposable child-actor phenomenon — and a kind of spontaneous combustion of
celebrity that’s isn’t limited to any one era.
Known for the much
better part of a century as Diana Serra Cary, an author, historian, authority
on child stars and her own strange filmography, she is the centerpiece of “Baby
Peggy: The Elephant in the Room,” which gets a DVD release from the esteemed
revivalists Milestone Film & Video on Nov. 5 and proves that people can
survive stardom, albeit with a few dings. “I was a blight on their romance,”
Cary says of her parents, both aspiring performers and longtime Hollywood
extras whose “elephant in the room” became the career of their daughter, which
was sabotaged by her father, a would-be cowboy star who seemed to squander
opportunity at every opportunity.
Dutch director Vera
Iwerebor creates a portrait of Cary as a grandmother, anti-nostalgist and
archeologist of her own weird history. “I had no idea how widely known she
was,” Cary says, speaking of her younger self, as she usually does, in the
third person. She’d been a household name between 1921-1924, when she made $1.5
million a year, back when a dollar was a dollar. There’s a terrific still photo
of Peggy as the “mascot” of the 1924 Democratic Convention in New York, with
Franklin Roosevelt in the background. She made dozens of pictures, both shorts
and features, many of which have been lost, although some have turned up in
European film archives and have been salvaged for the Milestone package.
After she was
blackballed in Hollywood, Peggy then did years in vaudeville, five shows a day,
and was relieved when talkies came along — it meant vaudeville was on the ropes and she could stop working.
Looking at age 94
very much like her infant self, Cary is thoughtful and intelligently distanced
from herself as a movie phenom. “I was the breadwinner in the family,” she
says. “The idea was not to act like a child.” Among the books she wrote as an
adult was a biography of her rival, Coogan, whose suit against his parents led
to the so-called “Coogan law” which protected the earnings of minor performers — not well, it turns out — from avaricious parents. It’s an area in which Cary
has considerable expertise.