On February 14th I had the honor to sit down with Diana Serra Cary aka Baby Peggy of silent film fame. Needless to say this didn't just make for the best Valentine's Day ever, but it also made for one of the best days ever. Diana and her son Mark were so gracious and kind to allow me to drive up and spend almost four hours with them in their home, and I am forever grateful.
|Diana Serra Cary and yours truly with a big ole cheesy grin.|
I hope you enjoy reading this interview and also learn something new from what she had to say.
I first wanted to ask about her early life before she began acting, which isn't a long time at all considering the fact that she was barely two years old when she first appeared on screen. "Growing up, we lived in two tents. My father was a ranger. He helped build the trails in the Grand Canyon. He was the one who took dynamite and mules and lumber down to rebuild the trails. It was very dangerous work and he did this for $18.00 an week."
"One of the reasons we were so obedient was that our mother and father had trained us to respond to a snap of the fingers and 'Don't do that!'" Diana then told me the story about how effective this discipline was on her and her older sister, Louise. One day, Louise was around a year old and was playing outside when her mother saw a rattlesnake near where Louise was running around. Marian barked at her daughter, "Louise Montgomery, you get in here right now!" So, what may have seemed like a harsh command was really Marian's way of getting her daughter to safety without frightening her. This 'training' would come in handy later when Baby Peggy was on set.
"I never had a childhood friend, never. I never went to school, neither did my sister. She had to pay the penalty too because she was associated with me. She didn't get the benefits, she didn't get to pay the price. I didn't get the benefits either, but I got to pay the price. I was the work horse. My sister and I were never asked that crucial question, 'What are you doing to do when you grow up?' I was gonna be Baby Peggy forever. That was it. There was no Democratic feel to our family's table. I simply occupied a house and did what I was told. I was the breadwinner. My sister eventually blacked out a lot of her life. It was so stressful because she was in competition with me. She developed a real inferiority complex."
Eventually, the family moved west to Los Angeles. The rugged wilderness homestead was proving to be a little too much for Marian Montgomery, and she wanted a safer place for her daughters to grow up. Not to mention the fact that there were often wild animals roaming around and sometimes the family would wake up with an inch of snow on their beds!
"My father and a couple of his cowboy friends would meet at a waterhole saloon and they gathered and were there for calls for jobs. And they were known to be there, and that was the first place to get film extras. He got a job and ended up as a stunt double for Tom Mix. And he would come home with all these exciting stories about what was happening at the studio and mother had never been to a studio, so she was curious as to how movies were made."
One day, a friend of Marian's, who just happened to work in movies, came by and asked if she would like to go with her to the movie studio to pick up her paycheck. Marian was curious about what a movie set would be like, and so she went with her friend to the studio, with her two young daughters in tow. During that time, most film studios were in barns, and so Marian told her daughters to sit on two stools outside of the barn door and not to move while she went and watched some of the movie making action. The girls were trained well because they didn't move or make a sound, even when a director approached Peggy because he thought her to be quite adorable. He was impressed by the little girl's obedience and told Marian so. He told her to give her number to the secretary so they could be in touch about getting the little girl a screen test.
Now, Marian was quite scared to go home and tell her husband that not only was she on a film set, had given her phone number to a stranger, AND that his youngest daughter was wanted for a screen test. "Father considered women who were actresses a form of prostitute, which was true in many cases. It was not well spoken of. He didn't want my mother near a studio!" Marian had to reassure her husband, "I swear to God I didn't do anything! Peggy was just sitting there!"
The role that Peggy was wanted for was opposite a dog named Brownie in a series of shorts. When she first met the dog, he ran through the door without any warning from the director and this of course made the little girl cry. "'She's not afraid of a dog,'" my father told them. And of course, my father being a typical stunt man, he didn't want a daughter who was afraid of anything. Father even had me feed one of the big grizzly bears on set, which is something that they refused to let even tourists do! I was reasonably scared, but I didn't show it. Father wouldn't accept that." The dog and toddler eventually became great pals, and Diana said she loved working with him and that he was very smart.
For being so young at the time she was making movies, Diana has (and is lauded for) her incredible memory about what it was like making films during the silent era. "I remember a lot of infinitesimal, small things. I was taught very early on and I paid a lot of attention to those things and one of the reasons I was so popular as a child actor was because I had such expressions. I could do the emotions and I could imitate the people even though I didn't look like them. It's because I had the equipment facially. And of course I worked with people who had years and years and years of stage work." One of those people was actor Hobart Bosworth, who she was very fond of. "I liked him immediately and so I started asking about his life and I learned all about him. I don't think half the people in Hollywood knew anything about him, but I wanted to learn the whole story! He was telling me, 'I had to learn that my gestures were too broad and they were broad so they could be seen from the back row, since you couldn't see facial expressions on the stage.'"
When I asked her whether or not she knew she was working when she was on set, she responded with a very emphatic, "Yes!" Her mother, however, spun a very different story for the newspapers and magazines. "'Peggy doesn't know she is working. She thinks she is playing. All little girls like to make up stories and pretend.' I knew I was working. For years my mother was condemned as a stage mother, even though she was ignorant about how movies were made. She made up stories all of her life so she could have a better background."
She recalled a story that her sister told her when they were older about the moment she knew that Peggy had 'drank the Kool-Aid' and knew she was a special child. "I was about three and a half and one Monday morning we didn't go to work. There had been a rainstorm and the set was loused up. We were at home in Beverly Hills and there was a big ruckus next door. All of these kids were making noise. I asked what that noise was and Louise said there was some kids next door. I got on a box and looked out the window and saw that they were having a party. 'It's a weekday,' I said. 'Why aren't they working?' She said that she realized then that I had taken the poison. That I knew what was expected of me. If I wasn't working, no one would eat, and I knew that. The connection was impossible to separate. She knew then that I knew what I was doing. It was work. We went to work at 8 a.m. and worked six days a week like everyone else. Why would I think it's playing? I didn't know what playing was!"
During her career, Baby Peggy had the chance to work with some big names in silent film, one of whom is a favorite of mine, Clara Bow. Baby Peggy appeared in the 1924 Clara Bow film, Helen's Babies, and I knew going into the interview that I wanted to ask her about what it was like working with the It Girl of the time (of all time in my opinion). Diana told me that while she appeared with many different people on screen, the only ones she really remembered are the ones she worked with on multiple occasions and because she and Clara only shared the screen for this one film, she didn't really remember her. What she did have to say was that she remembered her being kind.
Another question I had for her in regards to Helen's Babies was a scene in which five year old Baby Peggy drops from a tree branch hanging over the road into the car that Clara is driving in. I told her that I couldn't believe a five year old was given that kind of stunt to perform because that would be unheard of today! "The little girl I was with [Jeanne Carpenter] refused to do it. She dropped out of the stunt and I had contempt for her from then on. So, father said I was gonna have to do it alone and I remember I was scared to death of that drop, and it was our own car! It was my father's Dusenberg! How that simple family in the film got that car is beyond me, but no one thought about that at the time I guess."
|Edward Everett Horton, Baby Peggy, and Clara Bow in Helen's Babies (1924)|
While Baby Peggy knew she was working on film sets, she said she later found out by observation and interviews that the male child stars seemed to have had a better time acting. "The boys, they had a ball in films because this boy, a friend of mine, Frank Coghlan, in this film [The Yankee Clipper] was hired and he had the whole run of the picture. Frank told me stories about making this film, he never forgot. For example, he saw Douglas Fairbanks make the drop from that old sailing ship on a rope and he said when he came out his hands were bloody. Both hands were bleeding profusely. He soon became a pal of Fairbanks. All of these things were pluses for a boy of eight or ten years old. They were wild!"
On the opposite end of the spectrum, she recounted tales of stories told to her by female child stars Shirley Temple and Judy Garland, who had a harder time of it. "Their mothers only prayed to God they would have someone like me! In fact, women used to come into the bank in Santa Monica where Mr. Temple worked and ask him to sire a child with him so they could have another Shirley Temple. He got so embarrassed, he couldn't even make up a good answer. Mrs. Temple got $1000 a week from the studio just for curling Shirley's little curls and teaching her her lines every night. You know, when Shirley talked, it was Mama talking little girl talk. That was the way she taught her lines and that's why Shirley talked baby talk almost until she was a grown child."
"I found out from Judy Garland that her mother played the piano in a theater that her family owned and she said her mother had played for all of my films and it was always her dream that she would get a child star and she worked to make Judy a star so that she would be a big salary earner. She learned all that from watching my films. And I thought, 'Oh my God!' It was going on for other children too and I told her that was terrible."
When she was just eight years old, her career was over. Her father reportedly told off the wrong person at the wrong time, and with that his daughter's career was gone, along with all of the earnings she made during her years on screen. To this day, Diana still has no idea what happened to her earnings, which would have been around $600,000. After that, Baby Peggy and her days as a beloved child star of film were forbidden to be mentioned. The Montgomery family still had to eat, however, so Jack went back to being a stunt double in westerns and Baby Peggy was put on the vaudeville stage. "I never took a vacation on vaudeville. I worked seven days a week. There were three shows a day, but during the holidays you worked four shows a day and sometimes on top of that there was a vaudeville benefit for the National Vaudeville Association for tubercular cases. That was the hardest part of my life. That was the toughest period." When I asked her why she was the one who had to work so hard and not her parents she said, "My father worked with me in the act and I think that helped him keep his manly pride."
Like many child actors then and now, Diana went back to the studios as a young adult to try and get work, but using her Baby Peggy name was not the way to do it. According to her, if you were an actor in silents, you didn't mention it. "People asked me in my teens how I could remember anything about making films and I said I remembered everything about making them. I never had any problem with that, but many child stars had that denial thing. They didn't want people to think they started out like that. Many times, and I did it too, I ended up denying that I had ever been in movies. People don't realize that denial was a big problem. I remember Mary Jane Irving and I were photographed together in one still that's very famous and I remember she was right next to me in this photograph and everyone knew her and they said we must know each other. They think we all knew each other, but I had never heard of her and never worked with her before. I still never got her story. I was introduced to Baby Marie Osborne by Richard Lamparski [author of the 'Whatever Became Of...' book series] and I didn't even know who she was! Her time was before mine on screen. I didn't like her at the time because she had worked with Ginger Rogers' mother and later had the blessing to be Ginger's stand-in. I thought, 'I could have been someone's stand-in!'"
"There are so many sad stories, it was overwhelming. Sometimes when I go to sleep at night, I think about them, and the most depressing ones are the ones that shouldn't have gotten mixed up in it. They paid a terrible price for it. To me, they were all cautionary tales. Perhaps I assumed it because I lived it. Not all of my stories are negative, but the one you get caught in is a negative story." She then went on to tell me more stories of child stars she had known and interviewed. "I had a terrific crush on Frankie Darro. Frankie ended up living in the same apartment he grew up in, a hopeless alcoholic. Just tragic. His was the most tragic life of all. So many of the children came to me to write down their stories because they couldn't remember their stories. They squelched them. They made up new ones or trimmed up the old ones. Most of them were children invented as child stars. Their parents dragged them to the studios."
One of the greatest things about interviewing someone born in 1918 is that you get to hear about what it was like going from silent pictures to talkies and from talkies to television. "Hollywood fought television. They wouldn't allow a t.v. set to be seen in any MGM movie. It couldn't be shown in the background. There WAS no television. That is how violently opposed they were. My parents would never have allowed me to go on t.v. because they were so devoted to the industry, and since the industry was opposed, it would have been suicidal. But, like Jackie Coogan said, if it hadn't been for television, he would have starved to death. When he was older that was the only place he could go!" She went on to tell me more about Jackie and his career as a child star. "MGM had blacklisted him, he was blackballed because his father was so obnoxious. Jack Coogan Sr. wanted to be Jackie's pal, not his father. MGM hated his father and they took it out on Jackie. He was blackballed for 18 years and the only place he could work for was Monogram or Mascot on Poverty Row. Chaplin kept Jackie under contract for a year after The Kid so he couldn't capitalize on his fame. So for one full year he couldn't do anything but go to school or stay home and he was the talk of the town! He was responsible for the success of that movie!"
Another pal of hers was Roddy McDowall, who I was so excited to hear about because I was a big fan of his. Roddy was not just a wonderful actor, but he also cared about the preservation of films. In fact, it was he who bought the headstone that now marks the resting place of the actress who is considered by many to be the first real movie star, Florence Lawrence. "Roddy was the only person I knew who knew everyone's secrets. There's a library in Boston where he put a file full of secrets. No one can access that file for fifty years, so all the secrets are safe. He wouldn't spill the beans on anyone. He was scrupulous. He was the only one of the child stars who never lost their head. He was just a cool person."
Something else I was interested in talking to Diana about was what it was like growing up during the 1920's. She had so many stories and tidbits to share about the invention of the telephone, learning to drive, and dating during that time. "My sister couldn't even date until she was twenty because father wouldn't allow it. Fathers believed they had a job to not let their daughters go out with a boy in a car who could take them to a dark theater and give them the once over. The theater was the place where you would be made. And teaching your daughters how to drive was like making her a prostitute. She didn't have to walk the streets, she could drive the streets! My father never taught my sister or me how to drive, and my mother could never drive. He refused to let her. I remember the sister-in-law of Alice Roosevelt [Theodore Roosevelt's eldest daughter] asked Alice, 'What is your behavior like in a buggy on a date? How do you keep the horses from getting spooked?' and Alice replied, 'Anything is okay as long as it doesn't scare the horses.'
"The telephone was another under evaluated situation. You never knew who was talking to your daughter. She may be making dates!"
"A woman cutting her hair was just unheard of. She never let her hair down because that signaled she was getting ready for bed or ready for a seduction. The average woman could never meet a man at the door if her hair was down. Nice girls met boys at the door with their hair done up and pompadoured. And my parents fought furiously over these milestones!"
As our time together was winding down, I wanted to ask her her thoughts on coming to terms with being Peggy Montgomery, Baby Peggy and Diana Serra Cary at the same time. "I've gone through a period with that child where she was the only person I could afford to get mad at. I knew from the age of four that I was a separate person in a way. I never bought the person on the screen. I knew that she was projected by me, but I didn't occupy her. It never occurred to me that she was working for me and she remembered all these little things and I realized I had made a terrible mistake because it was she who was providing me with all the stories, the things nobody keeps record of."
I can't state enough how lucky I feel to have been able to sit down and talk to Diana about her experiences and how amazing it was that she opened up to me about so many topics. Hearing someone you admire so much call you a 'friend' and a 'sister' is incredible, and I look forward to visiting with her again.
And, in the spirit of the current presidential elections I want to share Diana's take on the current candidates...because it is amazing. "I hope Hilary wins because I don't want any of the other idiots in the Republican party to win. It's not even the Republican party anymore. It's a hodge podge of evangelicals and tea parties."
Cheers to that!