Baby Peggy Montgomery/Diana Serra Cary, 101, silent film child actress
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That Derek
2020-02-25 00:11:37 UTC


Baby Peggy, Child Star of Silent Films, Dies at 101

3:50 PM PST 2/24/2020
by Mike Barnes

Before Shirley Temple, she was the young queen of Hollywood, earning $1 million a year, but her movie career did not last long.

Diana Serra Cary, the silent film sensation known as Baby Peggy whose career in Hollywood came to a crashing halt when she was the ripe old age of six, has died. She was 101.

Cary, who from 1921 through 1924 appeared in as many as 150 short films and a handful of popular features, died Monday in Gustine, Calif., according to Rena Kiehn of the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum.

Without uttering a word onscreen, the emotive child actress with the distinctive bob haircut starred as Little Red Riding Hood in 1922 in a short film of the same name and in Hansel and Gretel (1923) in another short; took part in a bullfight in Carmen Jr. (1924); escaped from a burning building in The Darling of New York (1923); and ran a lighthouse in the heart-tugging Captain January (1924).

Most of her films have been lost; many were destroyed in a raging fire that consumed the old Century Film Co. studios in 1926.

Her father was Jack Montgomery, a cowboy who brought the family to Hollywood from San Diego when he heard the film industry was in need of horse-riding stuntmen. When his wife took their two daughters to the Century lot on Sunset Boulevard, 19-month-old Peggy-Jean Montgomery was “discovered” by a director who was looking for a tot to pair with the canine star Brownie the Wonder Dog.

Montgomery got his daughter a deal to do a film for $7.50 a day — just what he was making for doubling for Western star Tom Mix — and she appeared with the terrier in the 1921 shorts Playmates, Brownie’s Little Venus and Brownie’s Baby Doll.

Her career really soared after she starting working with director Alfred J. Goulding.

“He had been a child actor. No wonder I loved him,” she recalled in a 2011 interview with the Los Angeles Times. “He had all kinds of knowledge about how to work with children. In one film [1923’s The Kid Reporter], I played a reporter, and he said you are going to have to wear a monocle in one eye and you have to learn how to wear it. It was quite a trick. He worked so patiently with me. That year we worked together we turned out the best comedies.”

In the Universal feature The Darling of New York, her character has to escape from a burning room (the prop men had doused the set with real kerosene), and the kid faced real danger when a storm hit during the filming of Captain January. (That movie was remade in 1936, with Shirley Temple as the star.)

After some screenings of her films, Baby Peggy would appear on stage and treat the audience to a few jokes. Gimbels modeled a doll after her, and she appeared at the 1924 Democratic Convention in New York alongside Franklin D. Roosevelt.

She later said that she was making $1 million a year and worth $4 million at age 10 — but her parents weren’t saving any of her earnings.

“They had a house in Beverly Hills before I was 3,” she told the Times. “Then we had a house in Laurel Canyon. Then we had a Duesenberg car that was $30,000. … But they thought Hollywood was forever.”

However, when her disciplinarian father quarreled one too many times with producers, Baby Peggy was blackballed in Hollywood. Then, she said, a relative who was involved with her production company stole all their money, leaving the family destitute.

She tried to keep her career going in vaudeville and then returned to Hollywood. But with the talkies now in fashion, the studios were not interested in a silent-film actress, and she was only an extra in her last film, Having Wonderful Time (1938).

Her father, meanwhile, went back to stunt work, and she married actor Gordon Ayres. They divorced after a decade, and she became a bookseller. Later, she gave herself the new name Diana Serra, remarried and worked as a magazine writer and journalist.

In the 1970s, Cary wrote books about early cowboy films and former Hollywood child stars. Her autobiography, Whatever Happened to Baby Peggy?, was published in 1996, and she was the subject of a 2012 documentary, Baby Peggy, the Elephant in the Room, directed by Vera Iwerebor.

The Motion Picture & Television Fund Country Home offered her a room, but she decided to stay to remain in Gustine. Hollywood is "not my cup of tea," she told THR in February 2015.

Survivors include her son, Mark, and granddaughter, Stephanie. Her husband of 48 years, artist Robert Cary, died in 2003, and her sister, Louise, died in 2005.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests contributions to be made to a GoFundMe account to help cover outstanding medical expenses.
2020-03-01 01:33:20 UTC
Little in the media about this.
It's really rare when somebody completely outlives their fame. Pretty
much anyone old enough to have seen her films and remember them is now dead.
Big Mongo
2020-03-11 13:47:21 UTC
Post by Travoltron
Little in the media about this.
It's really rare when somebody completely outlives their fame. Pretty
much anyone old enough to have seen her films and remember them is now dead.

Baby Peggy (Diana Serra Cary) (1918-2020)
She was Hollywood's first female child star, trailing only "The Kid" (1921) juvenile Jackie Coogan and charming moviegoers 10 years before Shirley Temple. The cherub-cheeked, bob-haired Baby Peggy starred in a series of two-reel fairy tales for Century Pictures, among them "Little Red Riding Hood" (1922) and "Hansel and Gretel" (1923), and famously lampooned adult silent film stars Clara Bow, Pola Negri and Rudolph Valentino. In 1923, she signed a $150,000 contract with Universal Pictures and seemed poised for superstardom in "Captain January" (1924) until arguments over her profit share caused a rift between her manager parents and the studio brass. Blacklisted at age six and unable to work, Peggy rallied in vaudeville but returned after four years to a Hollywood that had no use for her. After a decade in bit parts, Peggy Montgomery broke from the film industry to remerge as a writer, adopting the professional name Diana Serra Cary and appointing herself a Hollywood historian. Author of informative books on movie cowboys, child actors, and a biography of old friend Jackie Coogan, she told her own story in 1996 with Whatever Happened to Baby Peggy: The Autobiography of Hollywood's Premiere Child Star. Able in old age to set aside the bitterness with which she had once considered her lost childhood, Diana Serra Cary embarked on a third, very late-life career as the last surviving star of silent films and the subject of the 2012 documentary "Baby Peggy: The Elephant in the Room."

Baby Peggy was born Peggy-Jean Montgomery on Oct. 26, 1918, in San Diego, CA. Peggy's father, Jack Montgomery, had been an open range cowboy in his youth until his livelihood dissipated with the modernization of the West. After stints as a construction foreman and park ranger, Montgomery moved his family to Hollywood, where he found work in 1920 as a stunt rider. He was doubling for cowboy star Tom Mix when his 19-month-old daughter was discovered by director Fred Fishback, who was then auditioning children for a role opposite Brownie the Dog, a canine contemporary of Rin Tin Tin. Sporting a bowl haircut and clown makeup, Peggy made her film debut in the Century Films short "Playmates" (1921). The act proved popular with moviegoers and Peggy Montgomery's film career blossomed overnight. She made several more two-reelers (dubbed Five Day Wonders) with Brownie before going solo in "Third Class Male" (1921), "Little Miss Mischief" (1922), "The Little Rascal" (1921) and several films directed by Alfred J. Goulding, among them "Carmen, Jr." (1923), "The Kid Reporter" (1923), "Peg o'the Movies" (1923) and "Peg o'the Mounted" (1924).

It was part of Baby Peggy's cinematic shtick to mimic established film stars of the age, such as Clara Bow, Pola Negri, Mae Murray and Rudolph Valentino, while her most popular films were based on fairy tales, among them "Little Red Riding Hood" (1922), "Hansel and Gretel" (1923) and "Jack and the Beanstalk" (1924). A child star before there were laws to protect underage film actors, Baby Peggy forfeited an education to work 18 hour days and perform dangerous stunts. In 1923, she signed a $150,000,000 contract with Universal Pictures, for whom she made her feature film debut as an orphan who reforms a mobster gang in "The Darling of New York" (1923). At the height of her career, Baby Peggy had banked over $2 million, was receiving over a million pieces of fan mail a year, and had been invited as a mascot to the 1924 Democratic National Convention. Living high on their daughter's earnings, Jack and Marian Montgomery bought homes in Beverly Hills and Laurel Canyon, bred horses, and invested $30,000 on a Duisenberg coupe. Though he worked occasionally as a stuntman for Cecil B. DeMille, Jack Montgomery made full-time work out of managing his daughter's career.

When producer Sol Lesser claimed that "Captain January" (1924), which had starred Baby Peggy as a seaside foundling taken in by a kindly lighthouse keeper, had failed to turn a profit, a distrusting Jack Montgomery broke his daughter's contract with Universal. As a result, Baby Peggy was blacklisted in Hollywood, washed up at age six and unable to find work. Her family's sole breadwinner, she rebounded with a four-year tour of the vaudeville circuit, in which she sang and danced for five shows per day, earning $1,800 a week. While the entire family traveled with Baby Peggy, Marian Montgomery's stepfather absconded with their savings, emptying their bank accounts and taking the heirloom silver and Havilland china. Baby Peggy's estimable vaudeville earnings would soon disappear as well, squandered by her parents on high living and poor investments. The family repaired to a ranch in Wyoming to retrench but the property was lost after the 1929 stock market crash. Destitute, the Montgomerys returned to a Hollywood humbled by the Depression and ruled by a new child star named Shirley Temple.

Though Jack Montgomery was able to find work as a horseman in low-budget westerns, Peggy reentered the industry as a bit player. Father and daughter appeared in small roles in Cecil B. DeMille's "The Crusades" (1935) and Peggy won speaking parts in "Eight Girls in a Boat" (1934), "The Return of Chandu" (1934) and "Ah Wilderness!" (1935). In 1936, Shirley Temple starred in Twentieth Century Fox's musical remake of "Captain January," but the best Peggy Montgomery could do was extra work that paid less than $10 dollars a day. For the next decade, Peggy appeared in unbilled walk-ons, her last credit being in the RKO Radio Pictures comedy "Having Wonderful Time" (1938), starring Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. - whose father she had rivaled for the affection of moviegoers 15 years earlier. Never having had an education in her youth nor the opportunity to experience life beyond the studio set, Peggy Montgomery became an autodidact, excelling at writing and eventually selling her articles to magazines and newspapers.

With the divorce of her parents, Peggy distanced herself from her family, adopting a nom de plume for her second career as a writer. Having converted to Catholicism and earned a living running the book shop of the Santa Barbara Mission, Peggy Montgomery rechristened herself Diana Serra - Diana borrowed from the actress Diana Wynyard and Serra from Junipero Serra, a Franciscan friar who explored the California coastline in the mid-18th century. With one failed marriage behind her, Diana Serra found happiness with artist Bob Cary, whom she married in 1954. The couple relocated to Mexico, where Serra became a first time mother at age 43. After her return to the States in 1967, she recreated herself as a Hollywood historian, publishing such volumes as The Hollywood Posse: The Story of a Gallant Band of Horseman Who Made Movie History, Hollywood's Children: An Inside Account of the Child Star Era, and Whatever Happened to Baby Peggy: The Autobiography of Hollywood's Premiere Child Star. After the death of her husband in 2005, Serra began making public appearances to celebrate her career as both a child actor and the last surviving star of the silent era of film. At age 94, she also participated in the 2012 documentary "Baby Peggy: The Elephant in the Room." Baby Peggy died on February 24, 2020 in Gustine, CA at the age of 101.