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The tango was the ultimate dance of seduction when performed by such screen legends as Rudolph Valentino or Rita Hayworth. But when Baby Peggy got her hands on it in this 1923 comedy short, it became a one-way ticket to hilarity. With her mischievous, energetic personality, she set the dance of love spinning into the world of slapstick.
Carmen, Jr. (1923) represents one of two types of films in which Baby Peggy specialized. She most often played plucky little girls overcoming adversity, as in Such Is Life and Captain January (both 1924). But she also appeared in satires of popular stars and genres. Falling into the latter category is this series of comic riffs on themes from Latin-set romances in general and the opera Carmen -- which had provided big-screen hits for opera star Geraldine Ferrar, vamp Theda Bara (both 1915) and European seductress Pola Negri (1918), as well as inspiring a memorable spoof, Charlie Chaplin's Burlesque on Carmen (1915), starring Edna Purviance. Peggy cavorts around the Mission San Fernando Rey in Los Angeles in a Spanish outfit, playing tricks on other children, then enters a dance hall where, dressed as a junior version of Negri, she takes part in a tango with a very talented boy dancer. Finally, after dancing herself dizzy, she dreams she's a bullfighter, confounding a bull played by two men in the type of seedy bull costume that was the standard for vaudeville at the time. Even without much of a plot, however, Peggy shines as a welcome departure from the era's romanticized views of female children. Instead of a demure little girl wreathed in curls and crinolines, she was, in her own words "made for speed." No matter how nonsensical the plot, one look at her thousand mega-watt smile, and audiences melted.
Contributing to the film's success was the work of her most sympathetic director, Alfred J. Goulding, with whom she made 14 films starting with 1921's Brownie's Baby Doll. The Australian-born director had been a child actor in his own country and knew how to work with juveniles. In addition, his work directing Harold Lloyd and "Snub" Pollard for Hal Roach taught him the fine art of timing comedy for the silent screen. Peggy would later praise his patience in getting the best out of her.
Made in 1923, Carmen, Jr. was a product of Peggy's star years. She had started out as sidekick to Century Studios' animal star Brownie the Dog but had proven so popular that she eventually moved to top billing in his comic shorts, then went off on her own (Brownie died shortly after). A year after making this film, she would move into features at Universal, where her popularity would continue unabated. Along with the location work, the film was shot at Century's Sunset Boulevard studio. The film's working titles were Sunny Smiles and The Senorita, before executives settled on the more referential Carmen, Jr.
This is one of the few Baby Peggy films to survive. Although she made almost 150 pictures, most of them short, the majority of her work has been lost, primarily because of a fire that destroyed Century Studios in 1926. For years, only an excerpt was available, but more recently a complete nitrate print was discovered at the Danish Film Institute, along with a few others of her films. This version was restored in 2008 at the Haghefilm lab in Amsterdam and has been screened around the world, winning new generations of fans for Peggy's charming, energetic performances.
Producer: Abe Stern, Julius Stern
Director: Alfred J. Goulding
Screenplay: Alf Goulding (story); Joseph Farnham (titles)
Cast: Baby Peggy, Lillian Hackett, Inez McDonnell, Little Thomas Wonder, Joe Bonner, Bynunsky Hyman (Bullfight spectator), Gus Leonard (Bullfight spectator)
by Frank Miller