Over a decade before the emergence of Shirley Temple, America fell in love with a diminutive dynamo named Baby Peggy. At the dawning of what would become the turbulent 1920s, audiences were looking for an antidote to the horrors of the recently concluded World War I, and precocious Baby Peggy captured the hearts and box office dollars of the theatre-going public worldwide.
Born Peggy-Jean Montgomery on October 26, 1918, she was discovered by Fred Fishbach at Century Studio at the tender age of 19 months, and was quickly cast in a series of shorts with canine co-star Brownie the Wonder Dog. By the time Brownie died in early 1922, Baby Peggy had become a fast-rising commodity in Hollywood and graduated to her own series of starring vehicles that would ultimately create a phenomenon.
Because of her ability to respond instantaneously to any direction given her, she acquired the nickname “one-take Peggy,” endearing her to Century Studio head Julius Stern (Universal Studios founder Carl Laemmle’s brother-in-law), who demanded that his film crews should “not waste a single foot of celluloid.” Realizing her potential, Century produced dozens of successful Baby Peggy comedies before her father (Jack Montgomery, a Hollywood stuntman who often doubled for Tom Mix) guided her career to Universal to make a series of features, earning the actress over a million dollars per year. Her remarkable acting skills and iconic bob haircut captured the nation’s fancy, creating a marketing sensation for Baby Peggy dolls and other related novelties.
A bitter financial dispute between her father and producer Sol Lesser brought an abrupt end to her movie career in 1924, and the actress was relegated to appearances on the vaudeville circuit. With her fortune embezzled by a relative, and finding only minor movie roles available to her, Peggy retired from the film industry entirely in 1936. Today she is known as Diana Serra Cary, noteworthy authoress of several successful books on the subject of child actors, including her autobiography What Ever Happened to Baby Peggy?
Unfortunately, her cinematic legacy did not fare as well. While a number of her films do survive as complete prints, many others exist only in fragmentary form. A number of these incomplete titles are included in our tribute program and provide an intriguing peek at what these otherwise lost films would have looked like.
Steven K. Hill