A Baby Peggy Rediscovery — or: When “Circus Clowns” Doesn’t Mean “Circus Clowns”
I was pretty much set with additional material for the DVD of the Library of Congress’ restoration of The Family Secret. After playing for MoMA’s restoration of the short Miles of Smiles, I’d inquired about and gotten the okay to include it on the disc, and Rob Stone had found a couple of Screen Snapshots segments of Baby Peggy that could also be included. And then one of those stories, one of those magical film archive stories, happened.
Not quite on the level of how the Tod Browning-directed Lon Chaney film The Unknown was rediscovered, but pretty close. The Chaney picture had turned up in a French archive’s collection of unidentified films because the cans had been labeled “l’inconnu”, meaning “unknown”. “You see, Dorothy? You’ve always had a print of that, my dear.”
One of the many activities of a nitrate vault staff is pulling and winding through reels of 35mm film just to see what they are. Often this confirms some information, and sometimes it helps to fill out metadata in a database. There’s so much film held in every archive, more than there is time and people-power to go through. Exponentially so. And often there are reels that were unidentifiable or were just under-identified when they were catalogued decades ago. I think that if Willie Wonka had a film archive, even with an endless staff of oompa-loompas he still wouldn’t be able to get through everything in his collection.
At some point during the production of the Family Secret DVD back in 2015, maybe it was while I was working on scoring, Geo. Willeman found something. Geo. is the nitrate vault manager at the Library of Congress Packard Preservation Campus. He’d pulled some reels of nitrate on one of these expeditions, one of which had been catalogued as simply “Circus Clowns”. No other information in the database. Just those two words under the “title” field, and nothing more. Perhaps newsreel or actuality footage of clowns from some long-ago circus? The amber-tinted nitrate seemed to be in good shape as Geo. carefully wound through it, occasionally taking a look at frame through a loupe, and…wait a sec. Was that Baby Peggy? A few frame caps were taken with a digital camera and shown to Rob Stone. Yes — it was Baby Peggy, all right.
A quick round of emails between Geo. Willeman, Rob Stone, Steve Massa and me ensued: Rob confirmed this was the Baby Peggy short Circus Clowns. Steve Massa seconded, remembering that MoMA had an incomplete print of the film that would fill out this surviving reel 2. More emails, and arrangements were made for MoMA’s material to be scanned for the project. We now had two rare Baby Peggy comedies to fill out the DVD.
What was truly significant about this discovery is that the few Baby Peggy comedies that survive all have foreign titles, and Century comedies from the early ‘20s are also rare, so it’s hard to know what the original titles really look like. The nitrate 2nd reel of Circus Clowns was an original, American-release print with all its intertitles and “It’s a Century” logo at the end intact.
Once I had the scan I was able to figure out — using What the Font — what typeface they were done in. Once we had the Czech “flash” titles from MoMA’s print translated into English I was able to make new intertitles that looked really close to the originals in the Library of Congress’s print. MoMA’s print turned out to be reel 1 and some of reel 2. This would be the first time anyone, including Diana Serra Carey herself, had seen the film in complete form since the 1920s. And it’s sharp as a tack.
The restoration of the Family Secret combines two 35mm elements, one from the Library of Congress and one from the Fondazione Cineteca Italiana, with some intertitles filled out from an vintage 1930s 16mm print. There are older DVD releases of The Family Secret available, at bargain prices, sourced from a 16mm home-use print, which is missing some footage. The DVD that I’ve released on my Undercrank Productions label is from the Library’s 35mm restoration with my organ score — which has aired on TCM — and also has this new restoration of Circus Clowns and MoMA’s restoration of Miles of Smiles.
Last I checked, Baby Peggy was the last surviving star of the silent film age. Is she still hanging in there?
As far as I know, she’s doing okay…all things considered.