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The Silent Collection

By Tammy Stone

Featuring:
Baby Peggy Montgomery

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1922 American Caramel Baby Peggy Montgomery1923 MPDA Print Baby Peggy MontgomeryYou’ve noticed by now that there are legions of silent film stars to discover, from the divas, vamps and girls next door to the cowboys and matinee idols. It’s been endless fun exploring their careers and gleaning tidbits of their personal lives. But I noticed a glaring absence recently: where are the child stars? Perhaps this thought came to me because a film was recently released in Canada, made by the insightful and visionary writer-director Don McKellar: Childstar, chronicling the surreal life of a very famous young boy on the cusp of adolescence working in the very adult Hollywood film industry (check out this film!).

Of course, before the Shirley Temples, Tatum O’Neals, Haley Joel Osments and Dakota Fannings of the silver screen (Osment’s life and demeanor actually inspired Childstar), there were the tykes of the silent era. Since they were so young with the coming of sound, careers in the sound age were possible, among them, for example, that of Jackie Coogan, who became famous – immortalized, really – playing the title character in Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid. However, since I’ve gravitated to the leading ladies of the silent screen thus far, I thought I’d start with the adorable Baby Peggy. An apt beginning, as she had practically cornered the market for child actors in the 1920s, and despite her different gender, actually provided Jackie Coogan the biggest run for his money.

Baby Peggy was born Margaret Montgomery on October 26, 1918 in Merced, California – just at the time that the industry had successfully migrated from New York to Hollywood (there remained, though, a thriving business on the East Coast as well). As legend has it, she was just over a year and a half old when her mother took her on a visit to Century Studios on the now-famed Sunset Boulevard. They had reason to be there – dad Jack Montgomery, a roving cowboy for years, eventually became a reputable stuntman who often filled in for Tom Mix in his vast repertory of cowboy films. Perhaps there was a dire need for infant actors at the time, or perhaps the powers that be saw a lot of potential in her; either way, she was officially “discovered,” and a career was born.

It’s reported that Baby Peggy made around  nine features and 150 short, one-reel films between 1920 and 1923, the same era that had so many of her older colleagues achieve their pinnacle of fame in the years before the talkies arrived. Some highlights include On With the Show, Playmates and Brownie’s Baby Doll (1921); Circus Clowns, Little Red Riding Hood, Peggy, Behave! (a film named after her, that’s fame! All 1922); Peg o’ the Movies (another one!), Sweetie, Nobody’s Darling, Little Miss Hollywood, The Darling of New York, and Hansel and Gretel (1923). Not unlike today, it seems, there was an appetite for fairytales to be translated to the big screen, and where there are fairytales, there are children needed; Baby Peggy perfectly fit the part.

At this time, Baby Peggy had an exclusive contract with Century Studios, but she was, like many others, loaned out from time to time – if the money was right – for example, she made The Darling of New York with Universal Pictures; this was her first feature length film. Baby Peggy was a hot property, far superceding her father in fame and earning power. It’s of little surprise, really, that she has been often compared to Shirley Temple, but it’s not just because they were both little girls when they became rich and famous. Peggy actually made a couple of films that were remade later on by Miss Temple, the first being Captain January, which she completed in 1924. Another famous children’s story turned into a 1920's Baby Peggy Montgomery PostcardBaby Peggys Message to Santa Claus inside the December 8 1923 issue of Picture ShowBaby Peggy film that year was Jack and the Beanstalk, and she rounded the year out nicely with a big hit called Helen’s Babies (co-starring Clara Bow – in second billing).

But Peggy wasn’t just a much-needed if very cute little face; she could act as well. She actually became well-known and loved for several of her comedies – parodies in which she would imitate some of the most famous stars of the day in their most famous roles. Some her targets included the lovely Italian star Pola Negri, the Canadian Mary Pickford, Mae Murray ... and even Rudolph Valentino!

Sadly, though, this whirlwind of fame was not to last. All the silent stars, with very few exceptions, created the movie stardom industry, only to reach the highest highs and delve into near-obscurity within about fifteen years at best. Baby Peggy’s career was even more condensed; in a way she encapsulates the silent star trajectory at lightning speed.

She made one film in 1926, April Fool, and then the personal problems hit – and she was only eight years old. Like her peer/rival Jackie Coogan, her parents squandered all her money away, and imbued her career – and life – with too many challenges. In desperation, she turned – or was forced to turn, depending on how you look at it – to vaudeville to make some money. Again, like many of her silent era peers, she was able to make a very modest comeback in the talkies era, appearing in such films as Off His Base (1932), Eight Girls in a Boat (1934), Girls’ Dormitory (1936) and Souls at Sea (1937), all under the name Peggy Montgomery. Her last screen appearance was as an uncredited extra in Having a Wonderful Time.

Personally, though, Peggy couldn’t deal with the pressures she had undergone as a child, and suffered several nervous breakdowns in young adulthood – today, it goes without saying, we have many, many former child stars who can attest to having gone through a very similar experience. Peggy didn’t have reality TV to turn to as a second-career option (many of our former child stars have found shows like The Surreal Life to embarrass themselves with). She did, though, find a new career, and one that wasn’t far from what she knew best: she became a writer and publisher on Hollywood, using the name Dianna Serra Cary. Among other publications, she wrote “Hollywood Posse” in 1975, and “Hollywood’s Children: An Insider’s Account of the Child Star Era”, in which she delved into life as an extremely famous young person and mixed personal anecdotes with broad social commentary and historical elements into one comprehensive book.

We wish many of our silent film stars were still around to tell us more about what it was like to be involved in the movies in its first glory years. And we are so lucky to have Peggy Montgomery, who’s not only around, but has written several books chronicling this very important period in our cultural history. She also wrote an autobiography, “What Ever Happened To Baby Peggy?”, and a biography of Jackie Coogan called “Jackie Coogan: The World’s Boy King: A Biography of Hollywood’s Legendary Child Star,” among other books. She also married, divorced, and remarried Tom Carey in 1954, with whom she had a son, Mark.

In today’s age, when stars in music and film seem to be getting not only thinner but also a lot younger, it’s the perfect time to look back and examine those personalities who first shot to fame as little ones – and just maybe, learn from their mistakes and tribulations. As much as things have changed since the turn of the last century, it’s also amazing to see how much has remained the same. We owe a lot to Baby Peggy for reminding us, via the written word, that history needs to be recorded.
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Tammy Stone is a freelance writer and journalist based in Toronto. Watch for her regular column on the greats of the Silent Screen in each issue of The Movie Profiles and Premiums Newsletter.  Tammy invites you to write her at tammystone444@yahoo.ca with any questions or comments on her column.