One of the very few remaining stars of the silent screen is Baby Peggy Montgomery, known today as Diana Serra Cary. This intriguing documentary, released just after her 95th birthday, takes a look at her sad tale and her search for the truth about what was going on around her as she was making millions for her family while still barely a few years old.
Movie Grade: B
DVD Grade: A-
Baby Peggy was discovered at about the age of 18 months in 1920, and was a huge star from 1920 through 1924. Energetic, with excellent comic timing and a highly expressive moonface, she caught the hearts and imaginations of audiences around the world. She unfortunately experienced the usual kind of mistreatment and financial depredations by her family, but unlike most child stars who turn to drugs and alcohol and are unable to come to terms with their unusual lives, she not only came to terms with it but spent many years researching the lives of other Hollywood children, and wrote a book about them as well as an autobiography. This documentary (written in part by Cary) gives an interesting look at the woman behind the legend, and shows her glowing in appreciation by silent film buffs at various festivals around the world.
Unfortunately the bulk of the Baby Peggy films do not survive, and those that do are around in large part due to the star's own efforts over the last few decades. Luckily a number have been found in various European archives and collections, and a fair chunk of the very short running time is devoted to clips from these pictures. While obviously these are relevant, before too long they start to feel like padding, as do the long loving shots of Cary's granddaughter that go on excruciatingly long.
While there is much splendid content here,it feels as if we haven't scratched the surface of Baby Peggy's story when the film abruptly comes to an end. For instance, while the theft of the entire fortune by Peggy's grandfather is mentioned, it's not given enough detail to give a clear understanding of how he could possibly do such a thing, and no mention is made of whether the family made any effort to pursue him. It's all a bit unsatisfying, and director Vera Iwerebor doesn't seem to know how to get deeper thoughts out of her subject or enough details to give one enough a feeling of understanding. Iwerebor's amateurish camera work doesn't help matters either. The handheld camera is almost nausea-inducing in its shakiness and the constant zooms in and out. While I liked the content of the film, it certainly smacks of being a lost opportunity.
One interesting sidelight that is given attention here is the pathetic story of Peggy's older sister, Louise. While she was, like Peggy, kept out of school and spent her days being bored to tears on movie sets and stages, she got none of the attention that Peggy did and festered with resentment for many years. The tale is heartbreaking both from her standpoint, and from that of Peggy, who did nothing to merit such hatred. It's not easy being siblings, especially when one is famous and the other is not. Another intriguing perspective is the one from Peggy herself, who while working five shows a day in vaudeville recognized that the talkies would spell the end of vaudeville and free her from the nonstop work that was all she had ever known at age ten.
The titular elephant in the room was the family's dysfunctional attitude towards the money generated by Baby Peggy. They fell into the typical pattern of inability to deal with the money, squandering much of it, and even though Baby Peggy was one of the first heavily merchandised celebrities, next to nothing of it was left for Peggy herself. It's not stated outright, but there's an undercurrent that suggests that the family also blamed Peggy once she was no longer good box office making a million dollars per picture. Cary herself has a healthy dissociation from all of that, and clearly has come to terms with the attitudes of her family, and at ninety years distance can laugh a bit about it. While the money seems to mean little to her, more than anything she laments her lost childhood, even all these years later.
The prize of the disc is the feature Captain January and the three Baby Peggy shorts that are included by Milestone. Captain January (58m:13s) is a typically sentimental tale that offers some good performances. Baby Peggy is the titular character, an orphan girl cared for by old Jeremiah Judkins, a lighthouse keeper off the coast of Maine, who struggles to prevent the local small town busybodies from seizing her away from him. A handful of the gorgeous original titles survive, but most have been replaced with rather blah intertitles.
Three of the twelve surviving shorts are also here. Carmen, Jr. (1923) is a Danish print of an odd collection of little skits with a Spanish setting featuring Baby Peggy, culminating in a bullfight against a guy in a bull suit. Peg o' the Mounted (1924), from a Dutch print that's in pretty rough shape, feels a lot like the sort of comical rescue plot used by Griffith and Pickford nearly ten years earlier, but the youth of Baby Peggy helps keep it fresh and amusing. Such is Life (1924) is a variation on the Little Match Girl story, featuring Baby Peggy as a street urchin in a snowy city. The short highlights the cruelty and snobbery of the rich, such as when the rich mother gives Peggy a doll, only to take it away from her again. It's heavyhanded but effective.