The Silent Collection
By Tammy Stone
Baby Peggy Montgomery
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
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.
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
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
Baby 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.
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
Profiles and Premiums Newsletter.
Tammy invites you to write her at email@example.com
with any questions or comments on her column.