Make Friends with Baby Peggy – Tonight on TCM

Peggy1924 was a busy year for Peggy-Jean Montgomery: she starred in four feature films; headlined seven comedy short subjects; served as on-stage mascot for the Democratic National Convention at Madison Square Garden; and became one of the first merchandized celebrities, with her likeness immortalized on a popular doll. And all this happened before she turned six. Not only was the adorable child actress who performed under the stage name “Baby Peggy” one of the biggest stars in the world, she was also one of the highest paid. And then, it all came to an abrupt end.

“I was blacklisted,” 94-year-old Diana Serra Cary – the artist formerly known as Baby Peggy – told me after a recent Museum of Modern Art screening of BABY PEGGY: THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM, a documentary premiering tonight (Monday, December 3) on Turner Classic Movies. “A child who has difficult parents is blacklisted. My father didn’t understand that. He ran into a brick wall.”

842614102516That wall was influential producer Sol Lesser, with whom Cary’s father had a contract dispute following the release of CAPTAIN JANUARY, a 1924 Baby Peggy starring vehicle which also airs on TCM tonight. Jack Montgomery, a failed cowboy actor and one-time Tom Mix stand-in, clashed with Lesser when the producer refused to pay his star, claiming the picture made no money. Once word got out that Montgomery had broken his daughter’s contract, one of the biggest stars in the world became virtually unemployable in Hollywood.

“In those days, the studios were in very close contact,” Cary told me, during the post-screening Q&A at MoMA in September. “If there was an outside threat they literally came together. It isn’t that way anymore. The studio system had a lot of good things about it, but that was one bad thing.”

Another bad thing was the manner in which Cary’s family handled her finances. After her step-grandfather made off with every penny she had earned – more than $2 million – and the movie business shunned her, Baby Peggy was forced to hit the road to support the family.

“I liked the films; I enjoyed that part of it,” she said. “What really crushed me was Vaudeville. It was so difficult.”

Cary spent the next five years touring the country, performing as many as eight shows a day. There was no time off to earn an education, or to recuperate when she was ill. Her parents needed every penny of the $1,500 per week she made on the circuit, so, the Baby Peggy show always had to go on.

Diana“Once you get into the child star trap, you can’t get out of it: the parents get addicted to the money; the child gets trapped; there’s an agent to pay; servants to keep;  there’s everybody to pay off,” she told the audience at MoMA. “There’s nobody to ransom you. You’re a hostage.”

With the dedication of a veteran trouper, Baby Peggy earned a second fortune in Vaudeville – more than $650,000 – which her parents used to buy a ranch in Wyoming. When the ranch was repossessed in 1932, the now-teenaged Peggy was forced to return to Hollywood, this time fighting for extra work that often paid as little as $3 per day. Cary’s nightmarish childhood finally came to an end in 1938, when she retired from performing at age 20 and married actor Gordon Ayers. It was a humiliating end to what had once been an extraordinarily promising career. For many years, she tried her best to forget Baby Peggy.

“I had been her enemy for years; I was very hard on her,” Cary said. “I just felt like she had hounded me and stayed with me all these years and she was a just a bother. I couldn’t become myself. “

poster peggy_small(3)Part of the healing process for Cary came in making BABY PEGGY: THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM, a touching and heartfelt documentary directed by Vera Iwerebor. The Dutch filmmaker, who first met Cary in 1992, explained to the audience at MoMA how her subject had achieved peace with her past over the last decade and a half.

“It was an interesting process to see you change from our first interview,” Iwerebor said to Cary onstage at MoMA. “You were still a little bit distant from Baby Peggy referring to her more as ‘she.’ When I met you again in 2008 you were more ready to tell this story from a personal standpoint.”

And that’s what she did. Using a combination of intensely personal reminiscences and restored footage from a handful of recently rediscovered films (most of her shorts were lost in a 1926 fire at Century Studios), Cary tells a harrowing tale that ultimately had a happy ending: for the last four decades she’s been a successful writer, publishing four books, including Whatever Happened to Baby Peggy: The Autobiography of Hollywood’s Pioneer Child Star (1996). She also written a book about child stars, and a popular volume on the life of actor Jackie Coogan, a contemporary of Baby Peggy’s whose court battles with his parents led to the Coogan Act, a 1939 California law designed to protect the earnings of minors from irresponsible parents.

“Jackie Coogan had a much more unfortunate time of it than I did. He earned $4 million and they spent it all. He didn’t have a dime,” Cary said. “When Louis B. Mayer found out that Jackie Coogan sued his own parents, because they had taken him, Mayer said, ‘You little bastard. You’ll never work here again.’ And for 19 years, Jackie couldn’t get a job for any major studio.”

BabyPeggySmileForTheCameracopyCary talks openly about the challenges of being a child star, and the personal healing process she endured as an adult – one that many former child stars never master. She credits her second husband Bob Cary with helping her overcome many of her demons.

“He helped me to learn to like Baby Peggy. He understood that I had this long-running battle with her, she said. “Many child stars do not make friends with that child. There’s conflict. They’re very unhappy and sometimes it triggers that behavior that people don’t understand. They’re trying to destroy the child, not themselves. It leads them into this trap where they can’t get out.”

Happily, Cary appears to be free of the demons that may have plagued her in her younger years. At age 94, she is active and healthy, and a frequent guest at screenings, museums, conventions and film festivals. There’s even a movement to get her a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame – more than 70 years after she made her last movie.

“I had no idea how many films I had made. I didn’t expect to see even one or two of my films, but the last count was about 12 (that survive),” she said. “Seeing the films has helped a lot. I realize how hard she worked. I had been very unappreciative of her.”

Monday, December 3 – Baby Peggy: 1 documentary, 4 movies

Director: Vera Iwerebor
Duration: 60 minutes
Release Date: September 5, 2012
Production Company: Milestone Films

Director: Edward F. Cline
Duration: 58 minutes – 6 reels
Release Date: July 6, 1924
Production Company: Sol Lesser Productions (Distributed by Principal Pictures Corp)
Music for restoration composed and performed by Donald Sosin
Note: Remade by 20th Century Fox in 1936 as a Shirley Temple musical directed by David Butler. Baby Peggy’s father sold the rights to the story to Fox for $500.

10:15 PM CARMEN JR. (1923)
Directed by: Alfred J. Goulding
Duration: 11 minutes – 2 reels 600 meters
Release Date: August 29, 1923
Production Company: Century Film (Distributed by Universal)
Music for restoration composed and performed by Guenter A. Buchwald

10:30 PM SUCH IS LIFE (1924)
Directed by: Alfred J. Goulding
Duration: 17 minutes – 2 reels 600 meters
Release Date: January 30, 1924
Production Company: Century Film (Distributed by Universal)

11:00 PM PEG O’ THE MOUNTED (1924)
Directed by: Alfred J. Goulding
Duration: 11 minutes – 2 reels 600 meters
Release Date: February 27, 1924
Production Company: Century Film (Distributed by Universal)

• 9/5/12 Q&A with Diana Serra-Cary at MoMA, moderated by Ron Magliozzi
• An Interview with Baby Peggy, the Once and Future Darling of New York

About willmckinley

I'm a New York City-based writer, video producer, print journalist, radio/podcast host, and social media influencer. I've been a guest on Turner Classic Movies (interviewed by Robert Osborne), NPR, Sirius Satellite Radio, and the official TCM podcast. My byline has appeared in and more than 100 times in the pages of NYC alt weeklies like The Villager and Gay City News. I'm also a social media copywriter for Sony's getTV and a contributor to four film-and-TV-related books: "Monster Serial," "Bride of Monster Serial," "Taste the Blood of Monster Serial," and "Remembering Jonathan Frid."
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9 Responses to Make Friends with Baby Peggy – Tonight on TCM

  1. Fascinating woman. I just caught the last 20 minutes of this documentary, so I was glad to see your post that filled in some of the parts I missed. What a remarkable woman to come to terms with all this…and she looks fabulous! I hope I look half as good at her age.

    • willmckinley says:

      Thanks. Glad you got a chance to watch. It’s not on DVD yet, but I hope it will be soon. Milestone Films appears to be restoring many of the available baby Peggy shorts (they also did CAPTAIN JANUARY). I hope that there will be a box set.

  2. DVR’ed this and looking forward to it. Really enjoyed the quotes you weaved into this from the screening. Mayer was a real sweetheart, huh?

    • willmckinley says:

      Thanks Cliff. Did you watch it? I’ve seen it three times now: first at the TCM Film Fest in April; then at MoMA in September; and finally on TCM this week. Each time I find the story more powerful.

  3. Joan Wood says:

    What a wonderful woman! I was so impressed by her courage and positive, buoyant spirit after all she endured! Do you know of any way to get a card or letter to Ms Serra Cary to express appreciation? Thank you!

  4. Tara says:

    I want to purchase some of her films. I wish that someone would put together a collection.

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