Baby Peggy: The Elephant in the Room
Sunday October, 25 2015 at 12:00 AM
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Only three performers from the days of silent film remain with us today: Mickey Rooney, Carla Laemmle and Baby Peggy, one of the first great child stars. This 2012 documentary offers an intimate portrait of the former Peggy-Jean Montgomery and explains how the once wealthy star survived becoming a has-been at the age of 11 and transformed herself into acclaimed film historian Diana Serra Cary. Her personal testimony, combined with rare clips from her films, most of them destroyed when her first studio, Century, burned in 1926, offer an unprecedented look at the life of a woman who lost her childhood to the movies and almost didn't recover.
Hollywood discovered Peggy when she was 19 months old and made her a star by the age of two. In four years, she churned out more than 150 popular shorts, but by 11 she was broke. A quarrel between her father and producer Sol Lesser led to her being blacklisted. When a profitable vaudeville tour ended because of declining health, the child realized that her family and an unscrupulous business manager had squandered her entire fortune, estimated at $2 million. But after several rough decades, she reinvented herself as a writer and advocate for child performers, working with former child star Paul Petersen's A Minor Consideration.
Shortly before her 90th birthday, Cary invited documentary filmmaker Vera Iwerebor into her home for a series of frank interviews and exclusive personal footage of Cary sharing her life's story with her granddaughter, Stephanie, who is enjoying the kind of free childhood Peggy never had. Cary shares her personal photo album, an album even her own family didn't know existed, and reveals her observations of life as a child star and the journey that helped her reconcile with her past and become the woman she is today. She also provides narration behind clips from her few surviving films, many recently restored from prints found in international archives.
The Dutch-born Iwerebor first came across Baby Peggy's image at a collector's fair, where she discovered a postcard featuring the child star's image. The 8-year-old future filmmaker was so intrigued she spent years trying to learn more about her, finally discovering Cary's address 15 years later. When she wrote her in 1991, it started a friendship that has endured for over two decades. They first worked together in 2003, helping set up production for Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Stars, a documentary about five former child stars. When the project was completed, Iwerebor felt there was more to be told about the life of the child actor, and that the only person to tell it was Cary. Over their years of correspondence, phone conversations and meetings, Iwerebor had become struck with Cary's keen observations about her own past. As she told one interviewer, "What impressed me most...was her early capability to observe her own people and the world she lived in from a distance. This little girl knew already that she wanted to become a writer in 1923." (Vera Iwerebor, quoted in Tom Nolan, "Learning to Love Baby Peggy Again," The Wall Street Journal, August 28, 2012).
The former star was still wary of her past, but Iwerebor persisted, accompanying her to film festivals where Cary rediscovered her own work through restored prints. The vintage films' success on the festival circuit helped Cary realize how important her work had been and how entertaining it still was. By the time Iwerebor had secured a grant from The Netherlands Filmfund, Cary was ready to talk and invited her to her home and a 90th birthday party at the Niles Essanay Filmmuseum. Not only did she share her previously hidden scrapbooks with Iwerebor, but also she let the filmmaker borrow them so she could spend a day shooting film of the photos and press clippings. Iwerebor also obtained rare footage from the Eye Film Institute in Amsterdam, the Danish Filminstitute and ICIC Filmoteca de Catalunya.
Once filming was completed, Cary advised Iwerebor on the editing, even without seeing the footage, and co-wrote the narration with her. She also put the director in touch with noted film archivist and documentarian Kevin Brownlow, who helped them secure British actor Samuel West (1995's Carrington) to read the narration. As distributor, they found a perfect fit with Milestone Film & Video, an acclaimed company with a two decade plus record of reissuing such classics as Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep (1979), Marcel Ophuls's The Sorrow and the Pity (1969) and Alfred Hitchcock's Bon Voyage (1944).
Producer-Director: Vera Iwerebor
Screenplay: Diana Serra Cary and Vera Iwerebor
Cinematography: Vera Iwerebor
Score: Gunter A. Buchwald
Cast: Diana Serra Cary (Herself), Paul Petersen (Himself), Sam West (Narrator)
by Frank Miller
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