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Baby Peggy
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Baby Peggy Profile

She was the screen's third great child star, following in the footsteps of Baby Marie and making her film debut in Her Circus Man (1921) just two months after Jackie Coogan shot to stardom co-starring with Charlie Chaplin in The Kid (1921). Like Coogan, she reached adulthood only to discover that her family had frittered away the copious earnings of her junior years. Where Coogan came back in the '60s as a character actor, however, Peggy, now calling herself Diana Serra Cary, emerged as a respected author and film historian, drawing on her memories of child stardom and Hollywood life for a series of film history books that proved the child star had finally become her own woman.

Peggy-Jean Montgomery was the child of a professional cowboy who moved his family to Hollywood, where he worked as a stuntman, extra and double for Tom Mix. When she was only 19 months old, she accompanied her mother and a film-extra friend on a visit to Century Studios, where she caught the eye of director Fred Fishbach. He was so impressed with her demeanor and good behavior he cast her in some of the studio's comedy shorts, including appearances opposite their reigning canine star, Brownie the Wonder Dog.

With the success of her first film with Brownie, Playmates (1921), the studio put her under contract. Eventually, she moved to top billing in her films with Brownie before moving on to star billing on her own. Ultimately, Peggy would make more than 150 shorts for Century, most shot on low budgets and made in only five days. Even on a budget, the studio was willing to invest more in her pictures. For Peg o' the Mounted (1924), a comic take on the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the studio did location shooting in Yosemite Valley, standing in for the Yukon.

Most of her shorts fell within one of two formulas. Her films either depicted the adventures of Peggy as a plucky, uninhibited tyke or parodied popular genres and stars, trading on the novelty of putting the child in sexual situations or showing her in glamorous costumes modeled on those of Pola Negri, Mary Pickford and Mae Murray. In Carmen Jr. (1924), for example, she spoofs the conventions of the Latin romance, dancing a tango (in a costume modeled on one of Negri's) and eventually taking part in an uproarious bullfight. In addition, she did occasional adaptations of popular fairy tales like Little Red Riding Hood (1922) and Hansel and Gretel (1923).

As delightful as her on-screen image was, however, the working conditions for child actors at the time were always harsh and often dangerous. She usually worked eight-hour days, six days a week, with no time off for education. She also had to perform her own stunts, which frequently put her life in danger. She was held underwater so long filming Sea Shore Shapes (1921) that she fainted, while she had to escape from a burning building, which really had been set on fire, in The Darling of New York (1923). Of course, conditions were harsh for everyone making movies in the days before union protections. While filming a storm sequence for Captain January (1924), director Edward F. Cline and leading man Hobart Bosworth were almost killed.

Peggy's popularity was second only to Coogan's. At her height, she received more than 1.2 million fan letters. In 1923, Universal lured her away from Century Studios with the chance to make features for $1.5 million per year, earning her the nickname "The Million-Dollar Baby." Coogan's star was waning as he grew older, and the studio hoped she would take his place at the box office. She made her feature debut there in The Darling of New York. Gone were the days of low-budgets. Her films at Universal were classified as "Universal Jewels," the studio's top A pictures. In addition, she made two features for independent producer Sol Lesser, who was lucky enough to make her most popular film, Captain January.

To promote these new, big-budget features Peggy began appearing in vaudeville, performing skits and doing musical numbers. She was even named mascot of the 1924 Democratic Convention in New York, where she got to wave a flag while standing next to future president Franklin D. Roosevelt. The studio sold her image for the marketing of dolls, jewelry and other products. When Peggy met Judy Garland years later, she discovered that her success had inspired Garland's mother to pursue stardom for her daughter.

But as high as her star rose, it fell suddenly in 1925, when her father and Lesser had a disagreement over her salary. Not only did the producer fire her, but he also had her blackballed throughout Hollywood. She made only one more silent, playing a small role in the low-budget 1926 film April Fool. Through the end of the decade, she was still able to capitalize on her fame in vaudeville, drawing $300 a day for stage appearances. By 1929, when she was 11, she was so exhausted the family decided to take some time off from touring. With the stock market crash, however, what few investments her parents had made were wiped out. There was no other money on hand, because her parents had spent most of her earnings -- over $2 million. The rest was lost to an unscrupulous business manager. Cary's situation would later help inspire the Coogan Bill, passed to protect the money earned by children in the entertainment business.

An attempt at farming in Wyoming did little to help their finances, and the family scraped together enough money to get back to Hollywood. There, an attempted comeback in talking films failed, and Peggy eventually moved into extra work along with the rest of the family. By mid-decade, she was so broke her father sold the rights to Captain January to 20th Century-Fox for $500 so the studio could make the 1936 version starring Shirley Temple. After extra work in Having Wonderful Time (1938), Peggy gave up the screen for good. The same year, she married actor Gordon Ayres, mainly in a bid for independence from her parents. They divorced ten years later. After almost suffering nervous breakdown, she started a new career as a freelance writer. She finally found happiness when she married Bob Cary in 1954. They had one son, Mark.

In later years, Peggy adopted a new name, Diana Serra Cary, and began writing about the Hollywood she had known as a child, starting with Hollywood's Children: An Inside Account of the Child Star Era (1979). She followed with an account of the early days of Western films, in which her father had participated, The Hollywood Posse: The Story of a Gallant Band of Horsemen who Made Movie History (1996). The same year, she published her memoirs, What Ever Happened to Baby Peggy: The Autobiography of Hollywood's Pioneer Child Star (1996), followed by Jackie Coogan: The World's Boy King: A Biography of Hollywood's Legendary Child Star (2007). She also began making public and media appearances to discuss her years as a child star and advocating for new laws to protect younger performers.

Most of Peggy's films have been lost, with the greatest blow being a fire that burned down Century Studios in 1926, destroying almost all of her silent shorts. In recent years, complete prints of a handful of shorts and features have been discovered in archives around the world and restored, giving audiences a chance to rediscover one of the screen's first great child stars. In addition, she was the subject of the 2012 documentary Baby Peggy: The Elephant in the Room. Serra continues a popular figure at film revivals, where she is in demand as one of the last three surviving silent stars, with Mickey Rooney and Carla Laemmle.

Turner Classic Movies is proud to salute Baby Peggy in December with the documentary Baby Peggy: The Elephant in the Room (2012) and four rarely seen films: Carmen Jr. (1923), Peg o' the Mounted, Captain January and Such Is Life ( all 1924).

by Frank Miller

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