19 February 2017

Imported from the USA: Baby Peggy

Diana Serra Cary (1918), best known as Baby Peggy, was one of the three major American child stars of the Hollywood silent movie era along with Jackie Coogan and Baby Marie. However, by the age of 8, her career was finished. She is now the last living star of the silent film era.

Baby Peggy
German postcard by Ross Verlag, Berlin, no. 550/2, 1919-1924. Photo: Unifilman.

Baby Peggy
French postcard by Cinémagazine-Edition, Paris, no. 161.

Baby Peggy
French postcard in Les Vedettes de Cinema series by A.N., Paris, no. 47. Photo: Universal Film.

The Million Dollar Baby

Diana Serra Cary was born in 1918, in San Diego, California, as Peggy-Jean Montgomery, She was the second daughter of Marian (née Baxter) and Jack Montgomery. Her family soon moved to Los Angeles so that her father, Jack, an aspiring cowboy, could find stunt work in Western pictures. He supported himself as Tom Mix's double, but never achieved the rugged stardom he yearned for himself.

Baby Peggy was 'discovered' at the age of 19 months, when she visited Century Studios on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood with her mother and a film-extra friend. Peggy had an unusually expressive face, matched with a distinctive bob haircut with short bangs.

Impressed by Peggy's well-behaved demeanour and willingness to follow directions from her father, director Fred Fishback (a.k.a. Fred Hibbard) hired her to appear in a series of short films with Century's canine star, the terrier Brownie the Wonder Dog.

The first film, Playmates (Fred Hibbard, 1921), was a success, and Peggy was signed to a long-term contract with Century Studios. Between 1921 and 1923 she made over 150 short comedies for Century. She appeared in film adaptations of novels and fairy tales, such as Hansel and Gretel (Alfred J. Goulding, 1923) and Jack and the Beanstalk (Alfred J. Goulding, 1924), contemporary comedies, and a few full-length films.

Many of Baby Peggy's popular comedies were parodies of films that grown-up stars had made, and she imitated such legends as Rudolph Valentino, Pola Negri, Mary Pickford and Mae Murray. Film historian David Robinson, cited in the Hollywood Reporter: "She wasn't the first child star, (that would be the infant in Louis Lumiere's Repas de bébé/Baby's Dinner (1895)), but she was a naturally gifted comic, a very effective mimic, with a very distinctive personality and a great sense of grown-up mannerisms and affectations."

In 1922, the 4-year-old Baby Peggy received 1.2 million fan letters and by 1924 she had been dubbed 'The Million Dollar Baby' for her $1.5 million a year salary. She was an obsession for millions of Americans who bought Baby Peggy dolls, jewelry, sheet music, even brands of milk.

In 1923, Peggy began working for Universal Studios, appearing in full-length dramatic films. Among her works from this era were The Darling of New York (King Baggot, 1923), and the first screen adaptation of Captain January (Edward F. Cline, 1924). In line with her status as a star, Peggy's Universal films were produced and marketed as Universal Jewels, the studio's most prestigious and most expensive classification. During this time she also played in Helen's Babies (William A. Seiter, 1924) which featured a young Clara Bow.

Baby Peggy
German postcard by Ross Verlag, Berlin no. 967/2 Photo: Filmhaus Bruckmann.

Baby Peggy
French postcard by Cinémagazine-Edition, Paris, no. 235.

Baby Peggy
German postcard by Ross Verlag, Berlin no. 967/1, 1925-1926. Photo: Filmhaus Bruckmann.

A Poor Extra

Baby Peggy's film career abruptly ended in 1925 when her father had a falling out with producer Sol Lesser over her salary and cancelled her contract. She found herself essentially blacklisted and was able to land only one more part in silent films, a minor role in the April Fool (Nat Ross, 1926). She was forced to turn to the vaudeville circuit for survival.

Despite her childhood fame and wealth, she found herself poor and working as an extra by the 1930s. Her parents had handled all of the finances; and money was spent on expensive cars, homes, and clothing. Nothing was set aside for the welfare or education of Peggy or her sister. Through reckless spending and corrupt business partners of her father, her entire fortune was gone before she hit puberty.

A Hollywood comeback in the early 1930s as Peggy Montgomery was short-lived. She loathed screen work and retired after appearing as an extra in the Ginger Rodgers comedy Having Wonderful Time (Alfred Santell, 1938). Peggy married bar tender Gordon Ayres whom she met on the set of Ah, Wilderness! (Clarence Brown, 1935). A few years later, she adopted the name Diana Ayres in an effort to distance herself from the Baby Peggy image. The couple divorced in 1948. In 1954, she married graphic artist Robert 'Bob' Cary and they had one son, Mark (1961).

Having an interest in both writing and history since her youth, Peggy found a second career as an author and silent film historian in her later years under the name Diana Serra Cary. She wrote an autobiography of her life as a child star, What Ever Happened to Baby Peggy: The Autobiography of Hollywood's Pioneer Child Star, and a biography of her contemporary and rival, Jackie Coogan: The World's Boy King: A Biography of Hollywood's Legendary Child Star.

Only a handful of Baby Peggy shorts, including Playmates (Fred Hibbard, 1921), Miles of Smiles (Alfred J. Goulding, 1923) and Sweetie (Alfred J. Goulding, 1923) have been discovered and preserved in film archives around the world. Century Studios burned down in 1926. Only the full-length films The Family Secret (William A. Seiter, 1924),  Captain January (Edward F. Cline, 1924), Helen's Babies (William A. Seiter, 1924) with Edward Everett Horton, and April Fool (Nat Ross, 1926) have survived. In 2016, it was announced that her lost film Our Pet (Herman C. Raymaker, 1924) was found in Japan by silent film collector Ichiro Kataoka.

Diana Serra Cary herself is one of the few surviving actors of the silent film era. In 2015, she returned to the screen in the short Western Broncho Billy and the Bandit's Secret (David Kiehn, 2015), a tribute to Gilbert M. 'Broncho Billy' Anderson, the first cowboy star, who made Westerns for the Essanay Film Company. Cary played 'the Movie Star'.

Baby Peggy
German postcard by Ross Verlag, Berlin no. 560/1, 1919-1924. Photo: Ivans Studio, Los Angeles / Unfilman.

Baby Peggy
German postcard by Ross Verlag, Berlin no. 550/3, 1919-1924. Photo: Unfilman.

Sources: Chris Gardner (The Hollywood Reporter), Gary Brumburgh (IMDb), Wikipedia and IMDb.

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