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Peggy-Jean Montgomery, the child star who would come to be adored by a nation as ‘Baby Peggy’, was the biggest silent film star on the planet. In Vera Irewerbor’s revealing new documentary Baby Peggy: The Elephant in the Room, the star, now a spritely 95 years old, recounts the height of her fame, the system that allowed her carers to squander her fortune, surviving mental illness and destitution and becoming a fierce advocate for film industry child labour laws.

On a day trip to Century Studios with her mother and a family friend in early 1920, a producer noticed the adorable Peggy-Jean sitting on a stool. Needing a foil to co-star opposite one of the studios most popular stars, a rambunctious dog named Brownie, Montgomery was tested, signed and launched onto the American public.

A natural in front of the camera, Montgomery’s wonderfully expressive face and natural effusiveness helped to make her debut short, Her Circus Man, a national hit. It would be the first of an incredible 18 projects she completed in her first year as a star, her only rival for the affection of the movie-going public being Jackie Coogan, co-star of the Charlie Chaplin classic, The Kid.

Her parents had delusions of their own fame at one point; her father was a true-life cowboy, who had hoped to parlay his work as a stand-in for such western stars as Tom Mix into a leading-man career. Despite a turbulent relationship with her parents, she honoured his legacy when she wrote her first book, Hollywood Posse: The Story of a Gallant Band of Horsemen Who Made Movie History, in 1975.

Century Studios worked their biggest star for all her box office potential. She would make nearly 150 comedic shorts over a three year period, including such popular titles as Playmates, Brownie’s Baby Doll, Little Red Riding Hood, Sweetie and Peggy, Behave! The stardom was unparalleled, although it came at a cost; laws were not in place to protect child stars, and Peggy (at her father’s behest) was working long hours for up to six days a week. She often performed dangerous stunt work, including underwater shoots, running through a burning set and, quite incredibly, being harnessed to the underneath of a speeding train.

Though contracted to Century (for a reported US$1.5million, at the height of her celebrity), she would be released periodically to star in feature-length projects for the majors. Her first was Universal’s The Darling of New York (1923), a prestige tentpole that was released under the ‘Universal Jewels’ banner; strong vehicles for her talent followed, amongst them The Law Forbids, Captain January and The Family Secret.

She was the toast of Los Angeles, her boisterous charisma and playful cheek making her a party favourite. Family friends included Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Harold Lloyd and Rudolph Valentino. In 1924, the year that she was chosen to be the celebrity mascot at the Democratic Convention in New York City (pictured, left; with President Franklin Roosevelt), she would steal top-billing from superstar Clara Bow in Helen’s Babies.

But it would prove to be her final starring role for a major studio; her father entered into a row with producer Sol Lesser over pay and contract conditions only to see her contract torn up and his daughter blacklisted from unionised shoots. She resurfaced in 1926 for the Poverty Row cheapie, April Fool, before disappearing from screens altogether for six years. Fate then dealt a particularly cruel blow when a fire tore through the Century Studio lot and many of Baby Peggy’s films were destroyed.

As was the case with fellow child-star Coogan, Montgomery’s parents had taken advantage of their child’s fortune and left her with next to no savings. She turned to vaudeville, committing her life to an endless series of coast-to-coast appearances to make ends meet (a brief comeback in such forgotten talkies as Eight Girls in a Boat went nowhere). It was a particularly dire time for the youngster and set in motion mental health issues which led to a troubled adult life; following a failed marriage, she was hospitalised after a nervous breakdown in the 1950s.

As documented in Iwerebor’s warm and funny documentary, the vibrant Montgomery (pictured, above) has since emerged a true Hollywood legend. Taking the name Diana Serra Cary, she relaunched herself as an author and industry historian, receiving plaudits for her books, Hollywood’s Children: An Inside Account of the Child Star Era, and Whatever Happened to Baby Peggy: The Autobiography of Hollywood’s Pioneer Child Star. A much sought-after speaker on the festival circuit, where the few surviving prints of her silent era work are regularly shown, she resides close to her son Mark and his family in northern California.

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