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Captain January was one of four silent feature films made by child star Baby Peggy in 1924, after dozens of shorts had established her as one of the movies' most appealing and naturally gifted youngsters. During her youthful heyday, her only rival as an underage superstar was Jackie Coogan. Today, many feel that her powers as a child actress in films were later rivaled only by those of Shirley Temple and Margaret O'Brien.
Born Peggy-Jean Montgomery in 1918 and today known as Diana Serra Cary, little Peggy was "discovered" during a visit to a film studio when she was 19 months old and made her debut in the short Her Circus Man (1921). She would go on to appear in dozens of shorts and a total of nine feature films of the silent era. Captain January, one of her biggest successes, was made when Peggy was five.
The first screen adaptation of the 1891 children's book of the same title by Laura E. Richard, it tells the story of a lighthouse keeper named Jeremiah Judkins (Hobart Bosworth) who has rescued a baby girl he calls Captain January from a shipwreck and adopted her as his daughter. Jeremiah claims that "There's only three things needed to bring up a child -- the Lord's help, common sense and a cow," and he has all of them.
But as the girl grows and Jeremiah's health begins to fail, local townsfolk try to have her committed to an orphanage. A chance meeting with a wealthy young woman, Isabelle Morton (Irene Rich), reveals that January is the daughter of Isabelle's dead sister. Jeremiah reluctantly agrees with the plans of January's aunt to adopt her and reunite her with her real family, but January is miserable in her new circumstances and finds a way to keep her beloved "Daddy" in her life.
Reviews of the day were positive, especially for Peggy. A critic for Motion Picture Classic wrote that, "Under appreciative direction, [she behaves] like any normal active six-year old kid... She is natural -- not a bit precocious -- and acts with a sincerity that should be adopted by many of her adult contemporaries."
The box-office success of Captain January cinched Baby Peggy's position as a major movie star. In a 1999 interview, Cary gave part of the credit to the source novel, "a child's classic which had a tremendous following already. It was a very popular book and a story of real human interest." She had good memories of the film and described costar Bosworth as "a very nice man, a wonderful man. I enjoyed working with him immensely."
Captain January has been restored and preserved in several film archives including the Library of Congress. Remade in 1936 as a vehicle for Shirley Temple, it is one of only six "Baby Peggy" feature films to have survived, along with a few of the shorts. Most were considered lost when Century Studio burned in 1926.
Peggy's success in films would come to an abrupt end that same year, before her eighth birthday. After that she worked in vaudeville and struggled unsuccessfully to make a comeback in films. As an adult she survived periods of near-poverty before emerging as a successful writer in the 1950s. She has told her story in a candid autobiography, Whatever Happened to Baby Peggy (1996). Filmmaker Vera Iwerebor created a documentary about her called Baby Peggy, the Elephant in the Room (2011).
Now in her 90s and one of the last survivors of the Silent Era, Cary has become a noted film historian and advocate for laws protecting child performers. She attended the 2012 TCM Classic Film Festival, where she presented some of her rediscovered shorts.
Producer: Sol Lesser
Director: Edward F. Cline
Screenplay: John Grey, Eve Unsell (screenplay); Laura E. Richard (story)
Cinematography: Glen MacWilliams
Cast: Hobart Bosworth (Jeremiah Judkins), Baby Peggy (Capt. January), Irene Rich (Isabelle Morton), Lincoln Stedman (Bob Pete), Harry T. Morey (George Maxwell), Barbara Tennant (Lucy Tripp), John Merkyl (Herbert Morton)