Film Review: Baby Peggy: The Elephant in the Room

Sweet and engaging documentary about perhaps the last surviving silent-era actor.

Baby Peggy (aka Diana Serra Carey) was, quite simply, one of the biggest child stars of the silent-movie era. An adorably pudgy little imp with a Buster Brown haircut, she had the kind of irresistible, feisty charm of her more universally remembered successor, Shirley Temple. At the height of her career, she was earning $1.5 million a year, her pixie face was insured for $250,000, and she was the first child star to be mass-marketed, with blazingly successful lines of clothing, dolls and the like.

Amazingly, it was all over by the time she was ten years old, and after some sporadic work in vaudeville and as a movie extra, Peggy fell into obscurity. Vera Iwerebor’s documentary Baby Peggy: The Elephant in the Room aims to find this forgotten star, who started working at the age of three, and dissect what the hell happened to her. It’s an engaging film which owes all of its charm to its subject. Today, in her 90s, Carey is a dignified, perfectly turned-out matron dedicated to investigating her obscure early life. The “elephant” in her film’s title refers to the persona of Baby Peggy herself, which, after she’d grown up, was never discussed by her or her family.

The reasons for this are myriad—Iwerebor handles them with admirable tact and a lack of easy sentiment—and stem largely from the fact that Carey’s immense fortune, garnered by her nonstop work under often shockingly unmonitored childhood conditions in the freewheeling silent era, was largely squandered by shifty management, as well as by her own father.

Carey did manage to find personal happiness and a family, despite her dysfunctional upbringing, which often reads like some slightly gentler version of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, including a sister who was largely neglected in the shadow of Baby Peggy’s stardom. We see her today, her stardom fully restored to her, as she makes fan-filled personal appearances at movie nostalgia events, many of them dedicated to locating and preserving her films. Shockingly, only a dozen of the 56 shorts she made survive, many of them discovered in European vaults. Through it all, Carey, who found her true creative love in writing a couple of solid books of movie history, maintains a wry, down-to-earth attitude about her blighted career. The extant complexity of all this reveals itself when she confesses to catching herself sometimes feeling anger towards her little grandson for simply being a child and happily playing when, in her eyes, he should be working like she had to, practically from the cradle.