The peak of Peggy Ann Garner’s career was in 1945 when at age 12 she gave memorable performances in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (one of the saddest movies ever) and Junior Miss (a light-hearted comedy). Most commentators seem to have an idiotic way of talking about her as though her career were finished after childhood — in reality she worked regularly through the end of the 1960s and has great credits through the end of the 1970s. Garner acted in film, television and in live theatre, and only sickness (pancreatic cancer) and an early death at age 52 in 1984 ended her career.
Born in Canton, Ohio, Garner was placed in talent contests and pageants by her driven stage-mother from early childhood. Early film credits included Blondie Brings Up Baby (1939), Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940) and Jane Eyre (1943), in which she played the title character as a child. In addition to those major triumphs of 1945, she was also in Nob Hill (1945), Home, Sweet Homicide (1946), Thunder in the Valley (1947), Daisy Kenyon (1947), The Sign of the Ram (1948), Bomba the Jungle Boy (1949), and The Lovable Cheat (1949). Also in 1949, the first of two movies she would make (for some reason) about mountain lions: The Big Cat (the second, in 1966, was The Cat. She worked constantly throughout the 1950s in live television dramatic series, and also did four Broadway shows: The Man (1950), The Royal Family (1951), First Lady (1952), and Home is the Hero (1954). Also in 1954, a key role in another high profile film, an instigating young woman in Nunnally Johnson’s Black Widow.
In the ’60s Garner worked constantly in television, on such shows as Bonanza, Have Gun – Will Travel, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Batman, Ironside, The Big Valley, and numerous others. This continued into the 70s, when she guest starred on Police Woman, Lou Grant, and other shows. One of her last roles was in the ensemble of Robert Altman’s all-star A Wedding (1978). She was married three times, to singer and game show host Richard Hayes; to actor Albert Salmi, and to a man named Kenyon Foster Brown, a union which, like the others, ended in divorce.
Last word: Garner was tremendously moving in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, but I’ve seen plenty of her later performances, and I think it’s both inaccurate and insulting to let the phrase “child star” be what forever defines her.