“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.