Yesterday, we lost the last direct link to the silent film era. Diana Serra Cary, the child star ‘Baby Peggy’, has passed away, aged 101.
As ‘Baby Peggy Montgomery’, she was one of the most charming child stars of the silent era, and one of the most adept at comedy. Appearing in almost 150 shorts and several features, she was one of the most popular child stars of the 1920s.
I first became aware of her at a screening of her Century comedy, THE KID REPORTER, at Bristol’s Slapstick Festival about 15 years ago. The print of this short film was rather beaten up, and only had foreign titles (David Robinson ad-libbed translations of them as the film was shown) but Peggy’s terrific performance shone through. Accompanied by a Brownie the Wonder Dog (with whom she made many films), the intrepid infant adopts a series of disguises to help solve a crime, exhibiting terrific comic timing in the process – and she was only three years old! The short got one of the best responses of the whole festival. So much so, that the following year she was invited to attend in person.
Sadly, THE KID REPORTER isn’t around online, but here are a couple of clips from two other shorts to give you a flavour of her skill. Those facial expressions are priceless, and what comic timing!
The following year, she introduced a showing of one of her feature films, CAPTAIN JANUARY (1924). It’s no wonder that she was snapped up for features; her ability to switch between comedy routines and genuine pathos was phenomenal. This warm comedy drama also went down a storm, and Ms Carey’s introduction was sharp and insightful. Afterwards, I was very fortunate to have a brief chat with her – she was patient and kind to this awkward 17 year old, and signed a wonderful old still photo to me. Losing that photo in a house flood a few years later was a very real disappointment.
Baby Peggy’s time at the top included a string of feature films, including THE DARLING OF NEW YORK and HELEN’S BABIES (alongside Clara Bow). At her peak, she was reportedly earning up to $1.5 million annually, but was soon to learn the harsh flipside of child stardom. When her father had a disagreement with producer Sol Lesser, her contract was abruptly cancelled. She managed only one more small part in APRIL FOOL (1926) before work dried up. This, coupled with the Wall Street Crash, forced her to endure gruelling vaudeville tours and extra work to support her family.
Unlike many other child stars, she had the fortitude to survive these indignities and hardships. Although the 30s and 40s were very difficult times for her, she ultimately triumphed. In later life, she successfully reinvented herself as an author and silent film historian. She even published her first novel at age 99!. Her books ‘Whatever Happened to Baby Peggy?’ and ‘Hollywood’s Children’ are fascinating reads, which share the stark realities of child stardom without ever being maudlin. It’s a wonder that she was able to come through it all and become so well-balanced.
In her last years, she was feted at film screenings and festivals, and lived a happy, well earned retirement. 101 years very well-lived.
Diana Serra Cary/ Baby Peggy-Jean Montgomery, October 29, 1918 – February 24, 2020.