Judge Bill Gibron was once an infant hand model.
Child star to child advocate
Her name is Diana Serra Cary. She is a writer, Hollywood historian, and staunch advocate for child stars and their tenuous treatment by studios, stage parents, and specious talent professionals. She's regarded as one of the foremost authorities on the subject, providing insight into eras past via books, interviews, and her biography of perhaps the biggest juvenile icon of all time—Jackie Coogan. But Ms. Cary also carries a "secret," a hidden truth that makes her perspective into the industry all the more telling. You see, along with Coogan and Baby Marie, back when she was known as "Baby Peggy," the now 95-year-old was one of the most successful silent child actors of her or any era. At one time, she earned $1.5 million dollars a year and was a major motion picture star. But as with most underage actors, Baby Peggy was cared for by parents unprepared for untold riches, continuing fame, and the fallout when both suddenly disappeared.
Still sharp as a tack and filled with vivid memories of her time in the limelight, Ms. Cary makes an excellent documentary subject and Baby Peggy: The Elephant in the Room is reminiscent of other fact films that manage to unearth heretofore forgot facets of our ever-changing pop culture concerns. Take the recent Good Ol' Freda, which found the former secretary for the iconic Beatles finally spilling some of the beans of her time as the Fab Four's Gal Friday. Not even her own family knew of her adolescent years in service of what is perhaps the greatest rock band of all time. Here, Ms. Cary's case is known, but her previous impact is not. It's up to filmmaker Vera Iwerebor to illustrate that, and for the most part, she does a fine job of providing such perspective. Baby Peggy was a fluke, picked out of a studio line-up while she was on the lot visiting her stuntman dad. Before she knew it, she was a star of silent shorts, part of America's pre-Depression occupation with little kids on screen (Shirley Temple being the most memorable and enduring example).
Over the course of her career, she made 150 such films, appeared in features like Captain January, and became an advertising icon endorsing dozens of products and positions (she was even the featured face of the 1924 Democratic Convention). When her father complained about her contract, the studio tore it up and blacklisted her from further film work. She ended up in vaudeville, and then poverty. Soon, she reinvented herself as Diana Serra Cary (she was born Peggy Jean Montgomery) and distanced herself from the business that brought her to such a crossroads. While there are major gaps in her story (like what happened to all the money and property her family had during her heyday) and her lasting impact as a star (in some ways, she seems more of a marketable fluke than a true talent), the film in general is revelatory and rife with silent film significance. Unlike other aging actors, Ms. Cary is conversant and quite cognizant of her time at the top. She has a great memory and an engaging personality which helps push us past the obvious parts of her story.
Indeed, if there is one downside to Baby Peggy: The Elephant in the Room it's that in our tabloid cultural conversation, such child star horror stories have become a dime a hundred dozen. We expect the various twists and turns that come with the narrative and while it's interesting to hear what Ms. Cary recalls from her days in the silents (she's one of the few actors or actresses still alive from the era), it's the stories of no education and unlawful hours that really strike a chord. This is someone who literally didn't have a childhood and yet there will be viewers who instantly assess their desire to trade places for just a taste of her success. For her part, Ms. Cary would argue that it's what she is doing now, versus what she did decades ago, that's her real contribution to the artform she was a part of. Baby Peggy may have been a product of her time and the country's temperament. It's Diana Serra Cary and her story of survival that will be much more important in the years to come.
As a DVD presentation, Baby Peggy: The Elephant in the Room looks pretty good. The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image is good, if not great. Since the documentary was filmed in standard definition, the digital upgrade does little to add depth or detail. The colors are sharp, but overall, the image is pretty ordinary (even the archival material is merely decent). Sonically, the Dolby Digital Stereo mix delivers solid conversations, narration, and musical moments from silent films past. Perhaps the best bit on this presentation is the offering of three short films starring Baby Peggy ("Carmen, Jr.," "Peg O' The Mounted," and "Such is Life") as well as the feature film Captain January. Our subject is very good in all three and the transfers are dated, but definitely watchable. Unfortunately, there's no contextual extras, no commentary or scholarly supplements.
While her story may seem old hat, especially to those who follow such tawdry Tinsel Town tales with unqualified glee, there is more to Baby Peggy: The Elephant in the Room than exposes and exploitation. Diana Serra Cary is a captivating individual, no matter her past, and her present warrants as much consideration as what she was up to eight decades ago.
Not guilty. A fascinating film.
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