Diana Serra Cary: The million dollar baby

She was earning $1m a movie, but was burnt out by the age of 10. Now 87, 'Baby Peggy' is the last surviving starlet of the golden age of silent film. And she's finally talking
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The Independent Online

"It happened quite by accident when my mother took me to Universal Studios to watch a film being made. A film director saw me as he walked past. He needed a very small person to star with Brownie the Wonder Dog," recalls Diana Serra Cary, better known as the 1920s child star Baby Peggy.

Next week, the last true silent-film starlette still alive will talk about her life in Hollywood, when she earned $1m a picture, at the silent film comedy festival, Slapstick, in Bristol. There will also be a screening of her first silent film, Playmates (1921), and the later Captain January (1924).

Now 87 and living in San Francisco, Baby Peggy has a fair claim to be the youngest star in movie history. Born in 1918, she was less than two years old when she was talent spotted at Universal and given a leading role opposite the studio's favourite dog in Playmates.

Thus began a career so full of twists and reversals that it sounds like something out of Hollywood Babylon, Kenneth Anger's exposé of the dark side of the studio system. The tiny actress was worked relentlessly hard. Between 1920 and 1923, she made 150 two-reel comedies. "We made one every five days," she remembers.

Baby Peggy fast became the cynosure among child stars, her popularity rivalling that of even Jackie Coogan, who had shot to fame after appearing alongside Charlie Chaplin in his first feature film, The Kid.

Studio bosses may have rewarded her handsomely, but her account of her working conditions suggests she was seldom pampered. "We went from one situation to the next: a lake, a manhole, and a canoe, adding an action element, often with a camera placed on my back. It was hard work. I did my own stunts. They thought children were made of rubber then."

It's easy to understand her appeal. Look at her in stills from the era and she is a smiling, dimpled figure with chubby cheeks, jet-black hair, and a beatific expression. Margaret "Peggy Jean" Montgomery, as she had been born, was (as fan magazines told readers) "no more than 36 inches in height...she weighs no more than 68 pounds".

Despite her diminutive stature and tender years, she was a surprisingly accomplished screen actress. The film-maker and historian Kevin Brownlow, who has known her for many years, pays tribute to her incredible versatility. "She was an extraordinary performer. She was able to do imitations, which is something a really small child isn't usually capable of," Brownlow enthuses.

"In one of her films, she plays an old grandfather with a beard. It's difficult to describe her appeal to someone who has never seen her, but the first thing that hits you is her eyes. You can see that often the camera is grinding and that she is doing things very naturally which they [the film-makers] are picking up and making part of the scenery, but she is also perfectly capable of taking direction which - given her age - is quite amazing."

In one short, Peg O'The Movies (1923), Baby Peggy is shown in the guise of Hollywood vamp, Pola Negri, complete with slinky dress, cigarette and eye-liner. In another film she starred opposite (and many felt eclipsed) the original "It Girl", Clara Bow.

Baby Peggy could do skits of every grown-up Hollywood star from Rudolph Valentino to Mary Pickford. She is considered the forerunner of Shirley Temple . Unlike Temple, once described by Graham Greene as "a completely totsy", Baby Peggy did not play the coquette. "She was too funny," Brownlow says. "Temple was a brilliant actress but she didn't have the slapstick qualities of Peggy."

Her father was always on set with her, helping to direct the toddler. Cary had no idea of what normal play was about - she was always working. By the age of three, she claims she was working on a very instinctive level. "I had a psychic sense of when something was right," she says.

At her peak, in 1923, the child star was receiving some 1,700,000 fan letters a year. There was a flood of Baby Peggy memorabilia, including dolls and lantern slides).

One can't help but note a grim inevitability about the way that Baby Peggy's career subsequently unravelled. She was a has-been before she was 10. By the mid-1920s, her appeal was fast fading. "There was an argument between my father and the producer, and my two front teeth fell out," she recalls. "We left Beverly Hills, where my parents led the star lifestyle, [they frittered away much of her fortune] and bought a ranch in Wyoming. I had retired at 10."

Though Baby Peggy appeared in vaudeville and subsequently attempted a screen comeback, the parade had gone by. By the mid-1930s, she retired from the screen for good. Her father, she says, "couldn't handle" her as an adult. "Being Baby Peggy was suffocating," she now admits.

Hollywood had seldom treated its child stars well. "What happened to them was often tragic," Brownlow suggests. Poverty, alcoholism and addiction are constant motifs.

Baby Peggy was able to reinvent herself. As Diana Serra Cary, she has become a respected journalist and film historian, often mining her own past in her work. She is not the last living silent movie star (fellow child actor Frank "Junior" Coghlan is still alive, as is the silent actress Barbara Kent) but she is the only one still seen regularly in public.

Additional reporting by Charlotte Cripps

Slapstick 2006, Watershed Media Centre and Colston Hall, Bristol (0117-927 5100; www.slapstick.org.uk) 20 to 22 January