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WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BIGGEST CHILD STAR OF THE '20S?

Byline: Tom Nolan and Dick Lochte Special to the Daily News

The pint-size but greatly talented silent-screen performer known as Baby Peggy was the first of hundreds of underage actors to make a name for themselves in Hollywood. The term ``child star'' lost its meaning by being applied to virtually any professional moppet; but Baby Peggy - the main attraction in some 150 short and feature films of the early 1920s, and a vaudeville headliner - was undeniably a star. She made millions (all squandered by family members) before being cast aside by ``the industry.''

``Whatever happened to Baby Peggy?'' became a '30s Hollywood catch phrase for the fleeting nature of show-biz success. Now Diana Serra Cary, the grown-up Baby Peggy, answers that once-elusive question in her powerful autobiography, ``Whatever Happened to Baby Peggy?'' (St. Martin's Press, 347 pages; $25.95).

Cary, author of two previous books about pioneer movie performers, brings the skills of a trained historian and a remarkable objectivity to the telling of her own highly charged story, a tale filled with enough real-life drama and trauma for any D.W. Griffith melodrama. Her book is not only an inspiring memoir of and by a remarkable individual, but one of the most vivid firsthand chronicles of early Hollywood ever likely to be written.

Several decades after Baby Peggy, Hollywood continues to lure those who seek careers in film, and the city still provokes its share of extreme reactions. ``This place is a stinkpot of evil and excess'' says one aspiring filmmaker in Billy Frolick's fascinating ``What I Really Want to Do Is Direct: Seven Film School Graduates Go to Hollywood'' (Dutton, 359 pages; $24.95).

Movie journalist Frolick had the inspired idea (and the necessary stamina) to track a batch of promising young film apprentices for three years as they tried to launch L.A. careers. He found a good mix of cooperative and articulate people to take part in his project, including a South African man who went to AFT, a young animator from NYU, a woman from the UCLA film school and so on.

The author supplements his subjects' interviews with his own on-the-scene accounts of their doings, as well as brief quotes from successful film folk who've traveled similar roads. The recounting of Frolick's people's many proposed projects, pitch meetings, raised hopes, dashed expectations, shifting alliances and twists of fortune makes for a sort of marathon prose documentary: engrossing, exhausting, eye-opening and quite entertaining.

Most of the great film figures of the 1930s and '40s whose movies continue to inspire today's would-be moviemakers regularly ate and socialized at one of Bob Cobb's four L.A. restaurants. Those vanished landmarks are nicely celebrated in

``The Brown Derby: A Hollywood Legend'' (Rizzoli, 160 pages; $30), a richly illustrated words-and-pictures album by Sally Wright Cobb and Mark Willems.

Several recipes (including the Derby's famous Cobb Salad) are included in the text, along with many discreet anecdotes and postage-stamp-sized reproductions of the Derby celebrity caricatures; but it's the 150 black-and-white photographs that are the main course in this commemorative volume, and they're well worth the cover charge. There are candid snapshots of scores of Derby-dining stars from the dawn of talking pictures to the start of the TV era, among them Jean Harlow, Tom Mix, Carole Lombard, Clark Gable, Ingrid Bergman, Gary Cooper, Judy Garland and Howard Hughes.

Though Katharine Hepburn's famous face is not present in the Brown Derby photo display, one assumes she must have visited the place. But, as is suggested by James Prideaux's entertaining memoir, ``Knowing Hepburn and Other Curious Experiences'' (Faber and Faber, 336 pages; $24.95), the actress has always shown a definite preference for dining at home.

Playwright and screenwriter Prideaux had dinner at the West Coast digs of the actress-icon early in his career and late in hers, when producer Irene Selznick tried to put them together for a film. That project failed to materialize, but their friendship has endured for several decades, resulting in three television movies - ``Mrs. Delafield Wants to Marry'' (1986), ``Laura Lansing Slept Here'' (1988) and ``The Man Upstairs'' (1992).

By focusing on the many real-life roles of Hepburn - from warm and generous friend to dedicated artist to spoiled and cantankerous egocentric - Prideaux presents a portrait of the star that is perhaps a bit more dimensional than her own autobiographical effort. And his vivid (if understandably subjective) descriptions of the making of the Hepburn television vehicles provide a compelling and informative map through the perilous twists and turns of the collaborative art of filmmaking.

In addition to the humorous and down-to-earth but exhaustingly difficult superstar, there are a number of other celebrities in Prideaux's cast. Julie Harris, who starred in his play ``The Last of Mrs. Lincoln,'' Geraldine Page, Angela Lansbury and Judith Anderson are among those who are treated with respect and admiration.

Others, such as Burt Reynolds (whose company produced ``The Man Upstairs''), Elizabeth Taylor and John Travolta, get mixed reviews. But it is the author's way to find something nice to say about nearly everyone mentioned. Raquel Welch, for example, may be a bit difficult to talk with, unless the subject is herself, but Prideaux admits being impressed by a scenario she penned on the life of 1920s torch singer Libby Holman.

The author, who is refreshingly self-deprecating throughout, suggests that his final film with Hepburn, ``The Man Upstairs,'' was the most difficult for both of them. And when the actress began to talk about yet another ``last'' appearance, he made himself scarce. ``I felt it was time to protect the Hepburn legend,'' he writes. In short, it was time for her to stop. Only Garbo, however, knew when to stop. Attention, after all, must be paid. Right to the end.

Proper attention is being paid, via thick trade paperbacks, to two deceased film directors famous for their views of the dark side of the American dream - Don Siegel and Nicholas Ray.

``A Siegel Film'' (Faber and Faber, 500 pages; $17.95) is a typically straight-from-the-shoulder recollection by the feisty filmmaker of his movies, which include everything from B's (``Riot in Cell Block 11,'' ``Baby Face Nelson'') to telefilms (``The Killers,'' ``The Hanged Man'') to big-budget features (``Dirty Harry,'' ``The Shootist'').

A sample of Siegel's razor-sharp descriptive style is this appraisal of Bette Midler, whom he directed in the appropriately titled ``Jinxed'': ``... surprisingly small in stature, (she) was somewhat Napoleonic in strength of character and temper. She was bright, energetic, hypersensitive, witty, with a great sense of fun and occasionally full of hate.'' The book includes a foreword by the director's favorite leading man, Clint Eastwood.

Unlike ``A Siegel Film,'' which concentrates solely on career notes, ``Nicholas Ray: An American Journey'' (Faber and Faber, 599 pages; $17.95) takes a more traditional biographical approach to its subject. Translated from critic and film historian Bernard Eisenschitz's French study of Ray, it begins with the director's birth (as Raymond Nicholas Kienzie Jr.) in La Crosse, Wis., continues through his early years in radio and theater and finally settles down to his long film career. Richly detailed are the descriptions of the events surrounding such revered Ray classics as ``They Drive by Night,'' ``In a Lonely Place,'' ``Johnny Guitar'' and, of course, ``Rebel Without a Cause.''

Both Ray and Siegel are treated to numerous references in the amazingly detailed ``The Oxford History of World Cinema'' (Oxford University Press, 824 pages; $45), a hefty chronicle of the motion picture edited by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith.Separated into three segments - Silent Cinema (1895-1930), Sound Cinema (1930-1960) and Modern Cinema (1960-1995), it covers every aspect of international filmmaking - from the creation of stars to the refinement of technology. But it should be mentioned that Nowell-Smith does not use the term ``world cinema'' lightly. Hollywood product is just a small part of a study that includes ``The Cinemas of Sub-Saharan Africa'' and ``New Cinemas in Latin America,'' while Tim Burton is only briefly mentioned and Chinese film rates a special section.

Paul Newman, who is mentioned only briefly in ``The Oxford History'' (as one of the stars who have won Academy Awards under Martin Scorsese's direction), is given a more deserved appraisal in ``Newman, A Biography'' (Turner Publishing, 192 pages; $29.95). This study of the actor-director, apparently crafted with Newman's permission, has the benefit of biographer Eric Lax's elegant style as well as a splendid assortment of photographs, stills and posters that speak their own volumes.

The usually taciturn Newman also has a few things to say. ``It's always been one of the great losses in my life,'' he confided to Lax, ``that my father ... was not around to see what has happened. I think he would have been one of the few people in the family who would have really appreciated how complicated the process has been in this trajectory. He would have recognized the luck, the tenaciousness, the good fortune, the appearance. But he would have understood all those factors and would have been able to delight in it, I think.''

Finally, for every contemporary movie fan intrigued by the celebrities and films of the past, there must be many more young ticket-buyers who have not the slightest knowledge of a previous generation's favorites. An odd example of the relative nature of Hollywood fame can be found in the photo section of Kathleen Tracy's ``Antonio Banderas'' (St. Martin's Paperbacks, 199 pages; $5.99), a softcover biography of one of the movies' latest leading men. One snap shows Banderas posing at an awards ceremony with another trophy-winning actor by his side; the caption informs us: ``Photographer who took this shot does not remember who the older gentleman was.'' The unidentified ``older gentleman'' is a very recognizable James Garner.
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Title Annotation:Review; L.A. LIFE
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jan 12, 1997
Words:1616
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