Diana Serra Cary probably can't help with your complicated feelings about Lindsay Lohan and Dakota Fanning. But Cary, born Peggy-Jean Montgomery in 1918, certainly can offer some perspective on the peculiar, glamorous, exploitative, glorious, horrifying phenomenon of child stardom (not to mention the related topic of wackjob showbiz parentdom). She was one of its inventors.
If you think today's movies are infantilizing, get a load of Baby Peggy. Get a load of her this weekend, actually, in person, at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum's Baby Peggy 90th Birthday Bash, a two-day extravaganza with features, shorts, a documentary, an interactive panel discussion and a book signing.
One obvious benefit of Cary's nine decades' worth of hindsight is that her movie-industry reflections have been finely honed. "It was hard work," she told London's Independent in 2006. "I did my own stunts. They thought children were made of rubber then."
In Baby Peggy's many films, the cherubic, almond-eyed tot often proved savvier about matters of adulthood than the grownups surrounding her. A talented mimic, she also specialized in eerily accurate miniature parody versions of older stars like Mary Pickford and Pola Negri. And she inspired a line of dolls in her own image.
Baby Peggy got started by accident when her mother brought the 19-month-old to watch a movie being made at Century Studios, told her to sit quietly on a stool in the corner, and was commended for having such a well-behaved child by the director -- who happened to need a tyke to star in his next project, opposite Brownie the Wonder Dog. When that movie, Playmates, scored big, Peggy scored a contract. Her cowboy-stuntman-actor father took it from there, and the rest is -- well, a forgotten cautionary tale of '20s Hollywood.
Let's see if we have this straight. In 1921, at three years of age, Baby Peggy was already her family's provider, making ten grand a week. In 1923, she got nearly 2 million fan letters (and had a staff of five women handling her mail). By 1934, her parents had squandered her fortune and she was broke, scraping by as an extra and being asked by the clerk of a photographer who took her headshots, "How does it feel to be a has-been at 16?" Two years after that, her 1924 silent film Captain January was remade, with sound and Shirley Temple as the star.
It just goes to show that not only have we always been strangely infatuated with child stars; we have also always been deeply irritated by them.
After the apparently obligatory career ruination, identity crisis, divorce and nervous breakdown that seemed like a hell of a price to pay for a brief stint of celebrity, Cary became a journalist and historian. Her well-regarded books -- see if you can detect a theme here -- include Hollywood's Children: An Inside Account of the Child Star Era, Jackie Coogan, The World's Boy King: A Biography of Hollywood's Legendary Child Star, and of course What Ever Happened to Baby Peggy: The Autobiography of Hollywood's Pioneer Child Star.
Baby Peggy's legacy is almost incalculable. It includes, for instance, the very mixed blessing of being the star who gave Judy Garland's mother the idea to get her daughter into show business.
The Baby Peggy 90th Birthday Bash takes place November 8-9, 2008, at the Niles Edison Theater, 37417 Niles Boulevard, Fremont, CA. For schedule, tickets and other information visit www.nilesfilmmuseum.org.