Nov 12, 2013

DVD Review--Baby Peggy: The Elephant in the Room

Imagine spending your toddler years making over one million dollars a movie only to be a penniless, illiterate has-been by the time you are eleven. Where would you go from there? Baby Peggy: The Elephant in the Room introduces you to a remarkable woman who was smart enough to survive this situation and to win great admiration for her work in the process.

Whenever I see a photograph of child performer advocate, film historian and writer Diana Serra Cary, I have to stop and stare. Whatever it was that made her a sensation with the 1920s film-going public as the child actor Baby Peggy is still there. In her nineties she has an appealing, almost regal presence, with her head held high and often crowned with a cloud of carefully arranged curls.

It is her eyes that grab you though: they are gentle, intelligent and observant, and they have a brightness that draws you to her. Her appeal as a child actor began with those expressive eyes. They were the source of hilarious reaction shots, heartbreaking agony and an irresistible charisma. It's star quality that you can't manufacture or explain. It's just something to be admired.

Cary in 2012
When Cary's father brought the family to Hollywood to put his expertise with horses to use as a stuntman and stand-in for Tom Mix, it was his young daughter who attracted the most attention. The obedient, expressive 18-month-old was deemed perfect to star alongside Brownie the Wonder Dog in a series of comedy shorts, and she did to great acclaim, until he died several months later. By then it was clear that the charming toddler could hold the screen on her own.

In Vera Iwerebor's documentary, Baby Peggy: The Elephant in the Room, recently released by Milestone Cinematheque on DVD, you get to know the child star and the confused, if relatively content adult left in the aftermath of her brief heyday. Cary worked closely with Iwerebor to produce the film, even helping to write the narration. It is her story as best as she is able to tell it. This is because, for years, the former Baby Peggy didn't know what had happened to her as a child star, and she continues to search for answers today.

In a series of interviews in her home, interspersed with film clips and narration, Cary shares her memories and discoveries about her life. She is an unpretentious hostess, sharing her stories in a straightforward, pleasant manner. It is poignant that learning her own remarkable, troubled history took so much detective work, but she seems strangely at peace with her past. She was worked hard, put in dangerous situations while filming and then her fortune was stolen from her, but the former child star does not seem bitter. Instead she appears bemused by her screen legacy and the life she has led.

Iwerebor follows Cary as she attends silent film festivals that feature screenings of her films. It turns out Baby Peggy still matters to a lot of people, as can be seen in the long line of fans who wait for autographs and photos with the elegant star. She is accompanied by her granddaughter, who has the remarkable experience of seeing her grandmother as a toddler on the big screen.

Cary's relationship with her granddaughter is featured in the film, an interesting choice, because it brilliantly demonstrates how thoroughly she missed out on her own childhood. She speaks to her grandchild as if she is an adult, comfortable in their relationship, but not entirely understanding what it is to be a ordinary child.

TCM fans may recognize The Elephant in the Room from a broadcast on the channel earlier this year. As with that airing, the film is accompanied with the three charming Baby Peggy shorts: Carmen Jr. (1923), Peg O’ the Mounted (1924) and Such is Life (1924) and the feature-length melodrama Captain January (1924). I loved Peggy in all of the films, but was especially delighted by her comic chops in the shorts. I'm trying to think of an adult star who could achieve as many perfect reaction shots in a ten minute flick as she did. There's also a slideshow of Peggy images set to That's My Baby, a hit song that was written in her honor.

While many of these elements could have stood on their own, to have it all in one set is hugely rewarding. It's a fantastic introduction to this uniquely appealing performer.

Many thanks to The Milestone Cinematheque for providing a copy of the DVD for review.

Photos from Wikimedia Commons

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