Sunday, November 9, 2008

Jason celebrates Baby Peggy's 90th Birthday

This weekend the Niles Silent Film Museum hosted a birthday party for the original child star (and pre-cursor to stars such as Shirley Temple), Baby Peggy--now known as Diana Sera Carey (and the writer of many Hollywood histories, including her own autobiography).

Here's the 90-year young Diana Carey, still spry, still beautiful, still very funny, and still with dimples when she smiles:

Yesterday there were three programs of her movies. First up in the morning program was a documentary "Baby Peggy in the Vaults", made for her 90th birthday party (and, BTW, they were still shooting the documentary at her party, as well as new silent film footage. So yours truly is a silent film extra!) Fascinating look at film preservation in a vault in the Netherlands. A strange thing about silent film preservation, often Europe was the end of the line for silent distribution, and the films stayed there because either the studios didn't want them back or the exhibitors in Europe didn't care to ship them back. Luckily, Europeans were typically much better at storing and archiving the films, so a good many of the films I saw yesterday were intertitled in Danish, or Czech, or French and German. And translating 1920's American slang into Czech and back into modern American English is pretty tough, so we had some interesting translations. Anyway, it was fascinating to watch footage from the original stored nitrate prints. And every time the nitrate broke, my heart froze up for a second.

Then we saw a couple Baby Peggy shorts, "Circus Clowns" and "A Muddy Bride". "Circus Clowns" was missing the beginning, where Peggy was apparently kidnapped and forced to work in the Circus with her trained dog Brownie (a common co-star of hers). "A Muddy Bride" was missing even more, but what was there was still pretty funny.

Then a break for lunch, and then the afternoon program, starting with the short "Miles of Smiles". It starts with twin babies, one sneaks off and is almost run over by a train. The train conductor adopts her, and in a few years she becomes Baby Peggy and is taught to drive a train (a lot of the Baby Peggy humor is based on her doing adult things). However, she gets mistaken for her twin, and wacky hijinx ensue (with some pretty cool trick photography to allow Peggy to play both twin parts).

Oh yeah, did I mention that Diana Carey herself introduced each movie and told funny stories about it? Well, she did.

Then the afternoon feature was "Helen's Babies", which is famous for being one of Clara Bow's earliest works. And Carey had funny stories about how Clara was making so many other movies and didn't really know what she was doing so she'd come in with different colored hair every day. Anyway, Peggy plays the youngest of two girls. Their uncle Harry (played by Edward Everett Horton) is a famous child psychologist who has written a book on child-rearing that their parents live by. Funny how he can know so much, being a bachelor who has never spent any time with children. So when he comes for a rest at their place, the parents decide it's safe for them to take a little vacation and leave the girls in his care. Oops! Clara Bow is the neighbor, and love interest for Uncle Harry. Very, very funny.

And then another break, go get dinner, run some errands, and then back for the evening show. Oh, but first I bought her autobiography Whatever Happened to Baby Peggy? and got her to sign it. Cool!

First short of the evening was "Peg 'O the Mounted". Shot in Yosemite (standing in for Canada), she's in camp when a Mountie comes in badly wounded. Seems he's overcome by the fumes as he was chasing some moonshiners. Well, Peggy's daddy made her a little Mountie uniform, so she puts it on, runs off, and catches the moonshiners herself. By the way, I should mention how many gags in all her movies involve her (obviously a dummy model) being thrown around. Nowadays, these scenes get a gasp and then a chuckle. I assume violence against babies used to be much, much funnier.

Next up was a truly bizarre short (possibly missing half the footage, or maybe just a bizarre movie). "Carmen, Jr." is sort of a children's version of the opera Carmen. In that it has the characters--the toreador, the beautiful lady, etc. And it has the beautiful costumes. But it doesn't have the story. The story is that Baby Peggy is a tough, butch girl who beats up the boys. Then she decides to be a beautiful lady and enter into romance. She dances a tango, then passes out and dreams she's a bullfighter. That captures pretty much all the characters, and none of the story. And it was hilarious (especially the bullfight scene)!

And the final short was "The Kid Reporter". Peggy is the secretary to a mean editor at a newspaper. A woman comes in with a story of a stolen pearl necklace. The editor offers a reward to the first reporter who solves the case--he will be made chief editor. Peggy's just a little girl, but if she dresses up as a man (complete with mustache and monocle--which is hard to keep on while being thrown upside-down) she can crack the case. Not just a funny movie, but a sly take on women's lib (that what's keeping her down isn't that she's 4 years old, it's that she's a girl).

Then we took a brief intermission to sing Happy Birthday to her and eat some birthday cake. That's right, a day full of movies--and cake! What could be better?

And finally, the feature was the heartwarming story of "Captain January" (remade a decade later by Shirley Temple). Peggy plays the title character, the ward of the old lighthouse keeper Daddy Judkins. She washed up from a storm 5 years ago, and has been the light of his life (and an able and strong helper) ever since. Busybodies in town think that's no way for a girl to grow up, and want to take her away to an orphanage. They fight them, with the help of the town preacher, who is a decent, honorable, and honest man. But when a yacht runs aground and a passenger recognizes Peggy as her niece, she's taken away to live in a Boston mansion. Both her and Judkins are heartbroken, so she sneaks away to come back to him. A beautiful, charming tearjerker.

And then more cake. And that was the end.

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