Baby Peggy: The Elephant In The Room Review

If, like me, you pride yourself on having a good knowledge of film history then you probably share the experience of realising every so often just how much you still don’t know. Watching Baby Peggy: The Elephant in the Room gave me that kind of jolt. I had never heard of Baby Peggy, one of the biggest and most prolific child stars working in silent cinema during the 1920s. She appeared in close to 150 films between 1921 and 1924, most of them shorts, and was paid, at the height of her success, over one million dollars a year. Her career ended abruptly and she was forgotten by audiences and denied work by the studios. But while this should have been a tragic ending, the woman once known as Baby Peggy was tough and determined, eventually becoming Diana Serra Cary, a distinguished film historian and advocate for better working conditions for child actors.

Peggy –Jean Montgomery was born in California in 1918 and made her first film, Playmates for Century Studios at the age of 18 months. Her co-star was Brownie the Wonder Dog but when he died shortly afterwards, she was featured as the star in numerous comedy shorts. Her speciality was parodying contemporary stars such as Rudolph Valentino and Pola Negri – something which looks rather distasteful from a modern point of view but was very popular at the time. She also worked for Universal Pictures, notably in the first version of Captain January which is included on this DVD, and was ruthlessly marketed as the face of a range of merchandise including Baby Peggy dolls, which are, by the by, rather nightmarish things. But her career was ended when her father argued with the powerful producer Sol Lesser and she left Hollywood to work in Vaudeville for four years. The eponymous "elephant in the room" was the fact that Baby Peggy had prevented the family from enjoying any kind of a normal life.

In her books and interviews, Cary has discussed at some length the working conditions she was forced to endure as a child star. Although her mother used to say that her daughter considered it simply as a child “playing make-believe”, the hours were hard and the work was dangerous. She was expected to perform her own stunts and follow orders without dissent. Her father seems to have been something of a martinet who controlled his daughter’s every move and ruthlessly punished any disobedience. In her later years, Cary has worked to improve the conditions of work for child actors in films through the organisation A Minor Consideration, with particular reference to the exploitation of child performers by their parents. Her films were once thought lost following a fire at Century Studios in 1926 but a small number have been found and preserved.

This film, directed by Vera Iwerebor and narrated by Sam West, is a model of good documentary filmmaking – short, pointed, insightful and backed up by plenty of archive footage and photographs. I could perhaps do without the sentimental piano score – the story is emotional enough in itself – but otherwise it’s just about ideal. At the centre of the whole thing, of course, is Diana Serra Cary who is 94 years old but looks a lot younger and still has a very good recall of her childhood. Her story of destitution during the Depression and her sad return to Hollywood as an extra is a tragic one in many ways, but she clearly toughed it out through sheer force of personality during a long time when many people were either uninterested in her or considered her a joke because of her past. What’s perhaps most impressive is the woman’s lack of resentment or self-pity and she talks with plenty of humour about her childhood and with great tenderness about her second husband, Bob Cary, to whom she was married for nearly fifty years. She also makes it clear that the real tragedy is her sister’s life, one which was unfulfilled and unhappy. Diana Serra Cary is a remarkable woman and it’s a privilege to get to know her and find out more about one of the undeservedly obscure periods of Hollywood history.

The Disc

Milestone’s DVD of Baby Peggy: The Elephant in the Room is an excellent release. The documentary is presented in anamorphically enhanced 1.85:1 with the film inserts presented at their correct 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The picture quality is very nice indeed. The interviews are shot on HD video and look fine while the film sequences, though exhibiting age and damage, are beautiful and often presented with a yellow tint. The Dolby 2.0 soundtrack is also pristine and the all-important talk is always distinct.

The extras consist of a slideshow, backed by the song That’s My Baby and four Baby Peggy films . Carmen Jr. comes from an archive tinted Danish print with English subtitles. It’s basically a skit on Rudolph Valentino and contains some very nifty physical comedy. Peg O’The Mounted is from a German print and looks very ropey indeed but you have to remember that we’re lucky to be able to see it at all and the close-ups are notably better than the medium shots. Such Is Life is the longest of the three shorts and comes from an untinted American print. It’s in fairly good condition and has plenty of typical slapstick comedy to keep you engaged, along with some outrageous sentimentality.

The highlight of the extras is the 58 minute Captain January directed by Edward F Cline in 1924 and based on a popular 19th century novel which was later filmed again as a vehicle for Shirley Temple. This occasionally melodramatic but mostly comic story of a lighthouse keeper who discovers a child in a shipwreck and raises her as his own daughter is told efficiently and with plenty of humour. Hobart Bosworth gives a lovely, warm performance as the keeper, Jeremiah Judkins, and it’s easy to see how Baby Peggy became such a big star because she’s a natural in front of the camera. The transfer is very good, considering the age and status of the film, and there’s a nice piano score by Donald Sosin.

I loved this documentary and Milestone have presented it beautifully on a disc which also gives you the opportunity to see for yourself why Baby Peggy was such a phenomenon. Highly recommended.

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