Saturday, April 26, 2014

Peg o’ the Mounted (Universal, 1924)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copryight © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I began the evening, before running our “feature,” with an intriguing 12-minute short from Universal in 1924 starring “Baby Peggy,” a child star from the silent era whose career not only anticipated Shirley Temple’s but who seemed to be the beta version of Temple. At least as far as she can be judged from this little movie, she shared Temple’s enviable spunkiness and wise-beyond-her-years assertiveness without playing the saccharine sentimentality that has made Temple’s name a swear word for a lot of old-movie buffs who can’t understand why she was literally the biggest star in the country between 1935 and 1938 (and another recently deceased juvenile star, Mickey Rooney, succeeded her at the top of that list in 1939!). Baby Peggy was born Peggy Jean Montgomery in San Diego (!) on October 26, 1918 and according to is still alive (!!), though she wasn’t the first pre-pubescent girl to become a major star (Virginia Lee Corbin, who starred in a weird series of movies in the late teens with all-child casts parodying the blockbusters of the era, preceded her) and when people think of actresses playing children’s roles in the silent era, they usually think first of Mary Pickford, who (much to her disgust) kept getting cast as kids even into her early 30’s. Like Shirley Temple, she realized once she hit adulthood that the way to a healthy and happy grownup life was to get the hell out of showbiz forever, and unlike Temple she cut herself so far off her early fame that she even changed her name, becoming a children’s book author and signing her works “Diana Serra Cary.” At least one of Baby Peggy’s films, Captain January (1924, her first feature), was remade with Temple (in 1936, same title).

Peg o’ the Mounted is a charming little 12-minute short (the surviving print came from the Netherlands and was retitled Hands Up!) in which Baby Peggy is living in a mountain cabin in Canada (“played” by Yosemite National Park, by the way). She seems to be living there alone — at least there’s no sign of adult habitation; when the film begins she’s doing her own laundry with a washboard and tub, and the only mention of her parents is a brief reference in a title (this version left in the Dutch titles and ran English titles under them) to a father who left her a child-sized Mountie outfit which she could wear as a mascot for his troop. An unrelated Mountie (Bert Sterling) comes to her cabin, wounded in the pursuit of a gang of “moonshiners” (the Dutch titles simply call them “liquor smugglers” and says the original U.S. prints called them bootleggers — though real bootleggers from Canada generally didn’t make their own stuff; they simply bought legally obtainable booze on the open market and smuggled it across the U.S.-Canada border), and Baby Peggy feeds him a tablespoon of Sloan’s Liniment and rubs down his face with castor oil. When he’s still incapacitated despite her dubious ministrations, she pledges to go after the gang of bootleggers and capture them herself — which, of course, she does. She goes after them with a pistol and actually holds three of them at gunpoint before the gang leader (Jack Earle) sneaks up behind her with a rifle and disarms her, but she manages to sneak away (there’s a nice scene in which she grabs on to Earle’s legs to follow him and he wonders why his legs seem to be getting heavier) and ultimately tie up the liquor smugglers with a rope and drag them to the police station — only to be embarrassed because along the way she lost her mini-Mountie uniform and showed up there in her undies. Baby Peggy suffered the usual fate of the child stars of her generation — her parents (and, in her case, her step-grandfather) ran through all her money and left her broke and reduced to extra work (in an interview in the Fall 2010 Films of the Golden Age she recalled being on the “panic list,” the ex-stars who out of compassion got first call for extra assignments), though eventually she changed careers and wrote a biography of Jackie Coogan (the first true child superstar, who lost his fortune to his gambling-addict father) and some other books about pre-teen Hollywood.