Monday, July 25, 2011

 

Obscurity of the Day: Baby Peggy






Baby Peggy, as best as can be determined, was distributed free as a promotional comic strip for the child star of the same name. For a time I believed it to be a feature produced by the New York Evening Graphic, but further research shows that it ran in quite a few smaller papers, and in the sort of haphazard manner common with free promo material. One example of the strip has been found with a copyright on it, to some mysterious entity called S.N.A.F.S. I thought myself pretty darn Sherlockian for coming up with the solution that the copyright was a cloaked reference to Essanay Studios, an early movie company (SNAFS = Essanay Feature Syndicate) but Cole Johnson tells me that they had gone belly up a few years earlier and were not connected with Baby Peggy films. Oh well, I tried.

The earliest example of the strip I can find ran in February 1924 in the Bakersfield Californian, and the latest example ran in December 1925 in the San Mateo Times, obviously long past when the strip was supplied. Almost a dozen papers have been found that ran it, and not one of them ran it with any regularity, or for more than a half-dozen or so episodes -- many seem to run only one or two strips.The strip was drawn by editorial cartoonist Charles Macauley, whose bio and only other comic strip series have been covered on the blog.

The 1924 Editor & Publisher directory does have a listing for the strip -- it is advertised as a daily, distributed by Thompson Feature Service. Maybe it was a daily, but no paper yet found has run more than the free samples sent out by the syndicate.

I asked Cole Johnson, who is an expert on both comic strips and silent movies, and supplied these samples, to kick in with some info about the real Baby Peggy -- he has this to say:

Hansel and Gretel (Century/ UNIVERSAL 12-26-23) Buddy Williams, Baby Peggy Montgomery
Baby Peggy Montgomery was, for a brief period, a famous child movie star.  She was born on Oct. 26, 1918 to cowboy stunt man Jack Montgomery and his wife, Marion. Receiving word that producer Julius Stern was looking for a child co-star for his series of "Brownie the Wonder Dog" comedies, she was brought down to the studio. The two-year-old proved to take direction well and got the job. Julius and brother Abe Stern ran the Century Comedy studios, which was actually a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Universal Picture Co., and the Sterns, like most of the management at "Big U", were relatives of founder Carl Laemmle. Conditions at Century were crude, and the working conditions harsh. They thought nothing of working the toddler eight hours a day, and in such situations as a burning set, riding on a moving car's spare tire, and in the proximity of wild animals. A particularly vivid memory of hers is of seeing a poorly-trained elephant stomp a man to death.

Few of the Century comedies have survived, but the several I've seen are cheap, routine affairs mainly. One (non-Peggy) Brownie adventure has an actual baby alligator snapping and biting a crying baby boy! Then an actual fight between Brownie and the gator!

Baby Peggy was subject to an early media promotion blitz, with dolls, songs, planted publicity articles, newsreel segments, and this comic strip produced. She was presented as "mascot" for the 1924 Democratic convention, posing with Franklin Roosevelt.   
                                        
Sol Lesser, owner of the lucrative Tarzan movie franchise, as well as one-time producer of Jackie Coogan movies, picked up Baby's contract in 1923, and put her in feature films, including one, CAPTAIN JANUARY, later made into a Shirley Temple picture. Peggy's shortsighted and greedy father got into a squabble with Lesser, and outside of some bit roles, she was essentially blackballed from the film industry. Her father further mishandled her career in vaudeville.  The money made during her four years of stardom spent on foolish luxuries, by the 1930's the family was surviving hand-to-mouth in extra parts. She did her last film work in 1938, when she got married and left Hollywood. Baby Peggy was but a dimly remembered novelty until the 1990's, when she wrote a memoir of her brief moment of stardom so long ago titled What Ever Happened to Baby Peggy: The Autobiography of Hollywood's Pioneer Child Star.

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Comments:
In the wake of the Arbuckle and William Desmond Taylor scandals, the top studio men get together and to show the world that Hollywood was devoted to high minded morality and all American purity. But how? They decided to have a parade down Sunset boulevard featuring all the virgins in town. But it had to be cancelled because Baby Peggy had a prior engagement.

(1923 joke)
 
She worked for Sol Lesser from September 1922 - to September 1924 was when her contract with Sol Lesser ended by mutual agreement. She began to write professionally in the late 1940s - and has been a professional writer (non-fiction) ever since.
No idea about SNAFS - although one of the money guys behind Lesser, name started with S.
 
Maybe the -NAFS part of it is Newspaper Association/Alliance Feature Service. Does that ring a bell with anyone?
 
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