Special Guest Baby Peggy Recalls “The Darling of New York”
November 3, 2010
Last week STARTS THURSDAY! paid tribute to Diana "Baby Peggy" Cary on the occasion of her 92nd birthday. This week, Diana generously agreed to contribute an article sharing her memories from her first feature The Darling of New York (1923). It gives me great pleasure to thank, and to introduce: the star of The Darling of New York, Diana "Baby Peggy" Cary....!
In April of 1920 I began working full time for $75 a week at Century Studio on Hollywood's Poverty Row. I was 19 months old. Six months later, when I turned two, my boss doubled my salary and named me a Century star. Before the end of 1922 I was teamed with Brownie "The Wonder Dog" in nearly a dozen 2 reel comedies and starred in another 25 of my own Baby Peggy series. My boss was a brother-in-law of Universal's head, "Uncle Carl" Laemmle. and in January of 1923 the two men agreed it was time to capitalize on my global popularity by starring me in three feature films. The first was THE DARLING OF NEW YORK, directed by King Baggot. The strong supporting cast included well-known actors Sheldon Lewis, Gladys Brockwelll and Max Davidson, (the latter from New York's Jewish theatre.) I had just turned four, but was a camera veteran by then.
In this drama I played the Italian grandchild of a wealthy New York immigrant. With a servant accompanying her she is sailing for America to join her grandfather when a band of jewel thieves on board secretly hides their fortune in stolen gems inside her rag doll. The rest of her harrowing adventures are climaxed when she is trapped in a raging fire inside a New York tenement. We worked four or five nights outside filming this elaborate fire sequence, complete with Universal's own fire engines and crews. It was wet and cold and Gladys Brockwell had to jump from a window with me in her arms into a solid canvas "net." She was terrified she would miss the "net" and kill us both.
Worse still, while filming the interior fire shots of the tenement apartment, King Baggot and my father walked me through the set and showed me how the crew had lined the windows and only door with sawdust soaked in kerosene which would be set afire for the scene. I was warmed it would only be "one take" as the set would be completely burned. I was shown the two different windows in the kitchen which would be ablaze when the camera rolled. I was to look at them but turn away and run to the door. It would not be torched by the crew, Baggot said, and I was to escape immediately through that door. I understood my directions perfectly..
But when filming began and I reached the door I found the crew had mistakenly set it ablaze. The door knob was already too hot to touch. But the camera, Baggot and my father, shooting from a distance through the window above the kitchen sink, could not see the flames. I knew I could not spoil the scene by explaining the situation to them . So while they kept shouting at me to "GO OUT THE DOOR!" I ran back to the sink and the window above it, which was not burning as fiercely as was the door. Moving fast I clambered through the burning open window and gave the camera an unexpected close up of me escaping through the flames! At first Baggot was angry that I had disobeyed his directions but later I took him back and showed him what was left of the door!. Not surprisingly I remembered this experience vividly and decades later I even found a lobby card showing the unscripted close up!
Surprising as it seems, I worked with fire even as a toddler, and in other dangerous situations often over the years. I learned that my guides did not always see the dangers I saw up close. I realized early on that it was up to me to take care of myself at times and do whatever it took to get through a scene safely without ruining the film.
This film was one of Universal's "Jewels" - - an expensive production. They were paying me $10,000 a week, It was a very successful film but so far it seems to be a "lost" film" Only the final reel of some of the fire scenes was recently found and is now being restored by Jere Guldin at UCLA.
--- DIANA CARY
Diana Serra Carey debuted as "Baby Peggy" in 1920 at the age of nineteen months, starring in 150 two-reel comedies and seven feature films before her silent movie career ended at age seven. She worked in vaudeville for another half dozen years and later in "talkies" through the 1930s. She became a freelance writer, specializing in Mexican and American history. For many years she was the trade book buyer for the University of California's San Diego campus bookstore. She is the author of:Whatever Happened to Baby Peggy: The Autobiography of Hollywood's Pioneer Child Star, The Hollywood Posse: The Story of a Gallant Band of Horsemen Who Made Movie History,
Jackie Coogan: The World's Boy King: A Biography of Hollywood's Legendary Child Star, and Hollywood's Children: An Inside Account of the Child Star Era.