New York Premiere: September 28, 1924
Directed by William Seiter
CAST: Baby Peggy Montgomery (Baby Peggy Holmes), Gladys Hulette (Margaret Selfridge), Edward Earle (Garry Holmes), Frank Currier (Sim Selfridge), Lucy Beaumont (Miss Abigail), Martha Mattox (Nurse), Martin Turner (Uncle Mose), Elizabeth Mackey (Aunt Mandy), Cesare Gravina (fruit vendor)
"I think it's a pretty good film," said Diana Serra Cary, Baby Peggy of the silent movies, about "The Family Secret," her 1924 film which has been released on DVD by Ben Model's Undercrank Productions - with the added perk of one of his superb organ scores. (1)
And, Cary is not alone in her assessment of the film. Critics at the time felt it was well-made and would do good business at the box office. Variety said, "It is a corking story that has a lot of interest and gives the little baby star a chance to deliver legitimately. If a kid picture with a real story can get over anywhere, then this one is set about right for any audience. . . It will interest, entertain and get some money." (2) The trade journal Harrison's Reports chimed in, "It is an appealing domestic drama. . . . It should please almost any adult picture-goer." (3) Although we don't have access information on its success at the box office, Cary remembers, "I don't think it lost money," adding, "I think it made its own way." (4)
Seen today, one can easily imagine it made money for Universal. For one thing, it couldn't have been expensive to make. Although it's a Universal-Jewel, meaning it was one of Universal's more prestigious pictures, it doesn't have the look of an expensively produced film and, outside of Baby Peggy, there were no major stars in the movie. Given low production costs, a good, solid story, and the popularity of Baby Peggy at the time, Cary's suggestion that "it made its own way" should be accurate.
Without a doubt, Baby Peggy carries the movie and makes it the joy that it is with an excellent performance, both on the comedy side and the dramatic side. As Harrison's Reports noted, "As usual, Baby Peggy gets the most out of her part, charming the spectators with her magnetic little personality." (5) Gladys Hulette, who plays Peggy's mother and Edward Earle, who plays her father, are effective. Harrison's Reports praised them both, actually giving Hulette the greatest share of the credit. "Gladys Hulette, the adult heroine of the piece, deserves most of the credit for the picture's appeal. Edward Earle, too, as the hero, is good." (6)
Two of the cast who tend to be overlooked are Frank Currier, as Hulette's father, Sim Selfridge, and Lucy Beaumont, who plays her aunt, Miss Abigail. Currier, especially, is most effective in his part as the domineering, heartless father who opposes his daughter, Margaret's (Hulette), relationship with Garry Holmes (Earle). He doesn't realize, however, that they are secretly married. Plotting with Miss Abigail, he sends her away for a lengthy period in hopes the relationship with Holmes will die out. However, when she's away, she has a baby. When she returns, she tells of the marriage and the child hoping her father will relent. Selfridge could care less that she is married and has a child. He forces Holmes out of the house when he comes to see the baby and demands he never return. Holmes sneaks in that night to visit his wife and child, but Selfridge catches him and has him arrested for burglary. Holmes ends up spending three and a half years in prison for his "crime." Currier's character is thoroughly despicable, and he plays the part well. Beaumont as his shrewish cohort, adds to the high level of emotion in these scenes.
"The Family Secret" is pure melodrama, to be sure, but director William Seiter wisely gives Baby Peggy some comedy sequences that blend smoothly into the film, help develop the character, and intensify the viewer's emotional involvement in the story. For example, Peggy's days are mostly relegated to being overseen by the less-than-kind Nurse Sneed (ably played by Martha Mattox) because her mother is an emotional wreck pining away for Peggy's father - and the grandfather doesn't seem to have the time or the patience necessary for a small child. The nurse is so busy reading "Three Weeks" by Elinor Glyn that Peggy is able to slip out and get into mischief. One time she goes into the kitchen, and the kindly black servants, Uncle Mose and Aunt Mandy, (Martin Turner and Elizabeth Mackey) are happy to see her and help hide her when Sneed comes looking. Unfortunately, Peggy chooses the flour bin with a bowl of chocolate in hand as a hiding place and comes out covered in flour and a face smeared with the chocolate. In another scene, she goes outside to meet a poverty stricken little boy and girl she sees out the window. She would like to have the little girl's banana, and the little girl would like to have Peggy's nice dress, so they trade. All sorts of turmoil follows when Peggy goes with them into their neighborhood where two fruit vendors are fighting. Later, when things calm down, Peggy eats bananas until she's sick. According to Cary, the comedy in the film was devised by Lewis Milestone who was working for Seiter long before he became a famous director (Milestone's most famous film came six years later, the early talky "All Quiet on the Western Front" which won the Best Picture Academy Award in 1930). "I have a photograph that I found in my old album," Cary said. "There's an off camera scene with Seiter, my father and myself. Right behind us is a very young man wearing glasses, and I'm very sure that's Lewis Milestone." Cary said it was 50 years later before she knew that Milestone had been a part of that movie. "If I had never interviewed Milestone in 1974, I would have never known that he was hired by Seiter as a comedy relief expert for the movie." (7)
The comedy works well into the film and doesn't have the feel of being adding for padding, but rather enhancing the story and the kind of unloving, restrictive life Peggy was relegated to without her father. That being said, Baby Peggy adds much to the dramatics of the film, as well. Throughout the film, her innocence and excellent acting support the serious side of the story, but her big scene comes toward the climax when her father, who has been released from prison, down on his luck and urged on by a former prison mate, breaks in into the Westchester home of Selfridge to rob the safe. He is not aware this is Selfridge's home, though, or that his wife and daughter are there. Peggy comes downstairs and catches him robbing the safe. Earlier in the story, it was he who had rescued her from her banana-eating debacle on the street and took her to the police station so she could be returned home. However, he still doesn't know this is his daughter, and she is not aware this is her father - that is, until he notices a necklace that Peggy has -- a necklace he gave Margaret before he was sent to prison. The reunion is emotional in itself, but Selfridge comes into the house and sees the "burglar" in the next room (he doesn't see Peggy). Holmes tries to run out the window. Gun in hand, Selfridge shoots him with Peggy to the side observing the whole scene. Margaret comes in and both Peggy and her Mom cry and caress the seemingly lifeless body. The scene is heart-rending and shows that Baby Peggy's histrionic ability at less than five years of age was absolutely amazing - giving full understanding why she was such a popular star in the 1920's.
Commenting on her crying scene, Cary said, "In the feature films I really worked on these scenes, so I thought of something sad. I remember the scene where he (Earle) was shot. I definitely remember that I viewed it as a crisis - and a family crisis, because the possibility of losing my father was something I worried about at home. I became concerned about it as if my own father had been shot. I was very close to my father, so we worked together all the time. The idea of him being out of commission was disastrous. That whole sequence was a family situation where, within the family, something serious was happening." (8)
Certainly, much credit must be given to Seiter for Baby Peggy's fine performance. Cary said she has fond memories of the director. "This was my first episode with William Seiter, and then I did "Helen's Babies" with him. He was a very laid back, very nice director. I liked him very much." (10)
For some unknown reason, "The Family Secret" apparently wasn't promoted well by Universal. Our search produced no reviews in any of the major fan magazines (Photoplay, Motion Picture, Picture Play, Motion Picture Classic), which is very unusual since her other Universal features were reviewed. Conversely, the two trade journals already mentioned (Variety and Harrison's Reports) did review the film and speak positively of it. The New York Times did not review it, either, but local theaters around the country advertised ithe movie judiciously as can been seen from a search of newspapers of the time. Cary said, "Universal didn't do anything to promote the film that I can remember at all. They didn't have any promotional setup like Sol Lesser (producer of "Captain January" - 1924). The only thing I can find was mentioned in the trade journals, but very low-key advertising. I don't remember doing anything in the way of dolls or anything else for 'The Family Secret.'" (9)
Viewed today, "The Family Secret" is an enjoyable melodrama that has all of the elements necessary for a successful film. It has a solid story line, a despicable "bad guy" in the grandfather, the emotion of a wife and husband separated, the injustice of the father being imprisoned for trying to see his baby for the first time, appropriate (not overbearing) and enjoyable comedy sequences, the appeal of an adorable, precocious child, excellent acting, fine direction, and - well, what else could it need? To be sure, it's not a great film, but it is a good film that can still bring both a tear and a smile today.
Silent film accompanist Ben Model is to be praised for bringing this movie to DVD through his Undercrank Productions from a print preserved by the Library of Congress and The Museum of Modern Art - and accompanied by one of his excellent organ scores. The DVD also includes two restored Baby Peggy two-reel comedies from her period with Century Comedies entitled "Circus Clowns" (1922) and "Miles of Smiles" (1923), as well as a three-minute "Screen Snapshots" (1921) and a one-minute "Screen Almanac" (1924) that feature Baby Peggy.
1. Silents Are Golden interview with Diana Serra Cary. November 11, 2015.
2. "The Family Secret" review. Variety. September 17, 1924.
3. "The Family Secret" review. Harrison's Reports. June 14, 1924.
4. Silents Are Golden interview.
5. Harrison's Reports.
7. Silents Are Golden interview.
Copyright 2015 by Tim Lussier. All rights reserved
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