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Baby Peggy: The Elephant in the Room (DVD Review)

2 Dec, 2013 By: Mike Clark

$24.95 DVD
Not rated.

It’s taken the Baby Peggy revival a little while to get off the ground (like, say, 87 years, give or take), and some of the autograph-seeker contingent we see here in conjunction with a screening of one of her silent pictures veers uncomfortably toward Rupert Pupkin-ville and the overall geekdom associated with the narrative outskirts of Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy. But this is a valuable release — the kind of specialized fare those great folks at Milestone do so well — because a) bonus feature Captain January and three Peggy short subjects have their charms; and b) Vera Iwerebor’s main-event documentary chronicles the story of a child star who, unlike so many, didn’t let the downward spiral of her career destroy her life. Talk about a survivor — and, what’s more, Diana Serra Cary (Peggy’s adopted name) is still around, despite having been born a couple weeks before the World War I armistice.

In the mid-1920s, Peggy was on top about as meteorically briefly as 1980s TV shock host Morton Downey, Jr. (subject of a documentary himself earlier this year). But in her heyday, the only child rival she had was Jackie Coogan  — a star on whom she much later wrote a book and one who shared pain in common: Both had parents or guardians in charge of the money they made, only to discover it was gone when the kids reached young adulthood. Coogan’s salvage in posterity terms was a) being married to the pre-stardom Betty Grable; b) having been part of the Mamie Van Doren-Jerry Lee Lewis ensemble in Albert Zugsmith’s High School Confidential; and c) finally being cast as Uncle Fester in TV’s “The Addams Family.” Peggy/Cary’s was to have a happy second marriage and to become a successful writer/historian who has advocated publicly for the rights of discarded child stars. Also on the plus side of the ledger is the degree of lucidity can claim even after having reached her nineties.

The elephant part of the title refers to Peggy’s stardom, vanished stardom and its effect on the rest of her family — a subject that was apparently and incredibly never discussed at the dinner table or anywhere else. This caused all kinds of repressed tension with an older sister: nothing akin to the Baby Jane Hudson sociopathology that’s the centerpiece of one hugely remembered Robert Aldrich movie — but bad enough. As for Cary herself, things quickly went downhill after her manager/father had a falling-out with producer Sol Lesser, whereupon she and the rest of her family had to grind it out on the vaudeville circuit when the form was fading; recover from the Depression amid a hand-to-mouth existence on dad’s Wyoming ranch (this must have been great after being successful in Hollywood) ranch; and finally back to L.A., where she briefly eked it out as an extra or in unbilled roles with smidgens of dialogue. Judging from the evidence here, via archival clips, she was certainly presentable enough (and her voice pleasing enough) to at least have made it in roles where she played the heroine’s best bud or maybe a boy friend’s kid sister.

The bonuses include three shorts and the 1924 feature Captain January, which was later redone as one of the more favored Shirley Temple vehicles from my childhood, courtesy of their TV showings beginning late in the 1950s. (Peggy’s January original also features a younger version of Irene Rich, who not quite a quarter-century later played Gail Russell’s mother in Angel and the Badman and John Agar’s in John Ford’s Fort Apache.) Even amid the squeezed time span of the bonus films, one senses that Peggy quickly fell prey to every child star’s worst nightmare: physical growth. It is and was a cruel world out there for young performers, given all the substance abuse histories and even suicides (e.g. Rusty Hamer, Tim Hovey) that make up Hollywood-underbelly lore that continues right through today, thanks to the ongoing stories of Lindsay Lohan and the like. Despite schooling that must have been lacking and probably not much encouragement, Cary is one who survived. And her story is more than an equal to the films that make up the bonus section — though living in a lighthouse, as Ms. January does, would be mighty cool, at least for a while and especially in an earlier era.

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