09/04/2012 11:41 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

A Hollywood Fairy Tale Gone Wrong: MoMA Screens Documentary on Last Silent Film Star

The story of Baby Peggy is a Hollywood fairy tale gone wrong.

It's a story of worldwide fame, a fortune stolen, a trust broken, and a childhood lost. It's an epic story of a pint-sized movie star who conquered the world only to lose it all. It's the story of Diana Serra Cary, survivor extraordinaire. In the 1920s, she was known as Baby Peggy. Today, she's widely considered the last surviving silent film star.

If you don't know her name, you're not alone. Baby Peggy's film career ended some 85 years ago. Today, the 93-year-old and still sprightly former actress is largely known only to devotees of film history and early Hollywood.

How famous was she? At the age of five Baby Peggy was signed to a million dollar contract by Universal. That was big money back in the 1920s, and still is today.

In fact, the adorable little actress was so famous and so beloved she was chosen to be the mascot of the 1924 Democratic Convention. In her 1996 autobiography, What Ever Happened to Baby Peggy?, there's an extraordinary picture of the five-year-old child star standing on the convention stage to the right of Franklin D. Roosevelt. In a recent interview, Cary, a lifelong Democrat, stated how much she liked the future president, adding that she still has the letter Roosevelt wrote her after the occasion.

It's a fair comparison to say Baby Peggy was the Shirley Temple of the silent era. Both actresses starred in Captain January, the film adaption of the well-known children's book. Baby Peggy's version was a smash hit in 1924. Temple's version, a popular remake, appeared in 1936.

The comparisons don't end there. Like Temple, Baby Peggy's fame reached dizzying heights. She appeared on the covers of countless magazines all over the world, while journalists interviewed her for newspaper stories about her life. The public, including other children as well as parents, were fascinated.

Baby Peggy was also among Hollywood's earliest merchandised celebrities. There were paper dolls, postcards, comic strips, books, toys and other products and tie-ins. A "Baby Peggy Doll" was modeled after the child actress, and like the "Shirley Temple Doll," they are sought-after collector's items. Carey still recalls making an appearance at Gimbels Department Store in New York to help promote the doll, which was sold all around the United States.

In her day, Baby Peggy was as famous as many of her still remembered contemporaries, like "It girl" Clara Bow (with whom she co-starred in Helen's Babies in 1924), as well as Rudolph Valentino and Douglas Fairbanks (both of whom she parodied in comedies). Another remarkable picture of the child actress is of her being held in the arms of her one-time Southern California neighbor, Edgar Rice Burroughs, of Tarzan fame.

Baby Peggy: The Elephant in the Room is the title of documentary by Dutch director Vera Iwerebor that makes its East Coast premiere on Wednesday, September 5 at The Museum of Modern Art in New York. The title speaks to the unfortunate and nearly tragic end to Baby Peggy's career in Hollywood, and the silence and denial which surround it.

This fascinating and ultimately heartbreaking work tells the story of a childhood spent working like an adult. Baby Peggy made her first film at the age of 18 months, and at a dizzying pace, she went on to star in some 50 two-reel comedies and six feature-length movies all before she was seven years old. They include Jack and the Beanstalk (1924), Hansel and Gretel (1923), Little Miss Hollywood (1923), The Kid Reporter (1923), The Darling of New York (1923), and Little Red Riding Hood (1922). Many don't survive.

Despite the fame, the cost was high. Cary had no real childhood to speak of. She worked long days, and was not formally educated. She also felt enormous pressure from being her family's sole breadwinner. "I was scared, but I didn't want to show it," Cary declares in one of the documentary's interviews. Despite fear and the feeling of being overwhelmed, the child actress forced herself to go on. "I knew what that little girl could do, and I sometimes had to make her do it."

Cary never received the emotional credit she deserved, especially from her parents. At one point, her father told everyone that, "Baby Peggy's genius was the result of her obedience to his authority."

In Baby Peggy: The Elephant in the Room, Cary says that by age three she felt as though she was getting on in her years. As she grew up, the emotional disconnect between herself and "Baby Peggy" had become so great she no longer identified with her younger self. She also doesn't remember many of her films, made when she was only a toddler, unless, tellingly, "they had a crisis in them."

Eventually, Cary took a new name and reinvented herself. She had a successful career as a bookseller and then as a free-lance writer and well regarded author of several books. Among them is Hollywood's Children: An Inside Account of the Child Star Era, from 1979. Another, from 2003, Jackie Coogan: The World's Boy King: A Biography of Hollywood's Legendary Child Star, tells the story of her chief "rival" whose fame and fortunes befell a similar fate.

These days, the adult Cary has come to terms with child actress Baby Peggy. "I have been engaged now for almost 25 years in a unexpected research job finding out what they did with this little girl," Cary states in Baby Peggy: The Elephant in the Room. Fans and film historians from all over the world continue to send her articles and pictures of Baby Peggy. Referring to her childhood self in the third person, she adds "I had no idea how widely known she was."

Baby Peggy: The Elephant in the Room runs September 5 through September 9 at The Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53 Street). Show times vary. The first screening, on September 5 at 6:30 pm, will be followed by a Q&A with Cary and Iwerebor. Whether or not you have any interest in movie history, Baby Peggy: The Elephant in the Room is an inspiring film not be missed.

Baby Peggy in Pictures

Thomas Gladysz is an arts journalist and early film buff, and the Director of the Louise Brooks Society, an internet-based archive and international fan club devoted to the silent film star. Gladysz has contributed to books, organized exhibits, appeared on television and radio, and introduced silent films all over the world.