The Westerns of Harry Carey
Updated: Apr 19
I’ll come back to early John Ford Westerns but today I want to mosey on down a side-trail and look at the career of a Western pioneer who was at least as important as Ford in most of those pictures and who was a key figure in our noble genre.
Harry Carey (1878 - 1947), often called Harry Carey Sr to distinguish him from his son ‘Dobe’, Harry Carey Jr, was an actor, writer, director and producer and was one of the pioneers of the Western movie. He ranks up there with early luminaries such as Thomas H Ince, DW Griffith, Francis Ford and William S Hart as one of the great founding fathers of the form.
His first involvement with the Western film came as an actor in Griffith’s short Bill Sharkey’s Last Game in 1910 and his career was still going after World War II: his last Western was Howard Hawks’s Red River, released, posthumously for Carey, in 1948. In between, much of his career was closely entwined with that of John Ford, and though the two had a falling-out in 1921 and never made a Western together again, Ford’s relationship with the Carey family remained very close.
Though Carey did not have a very high opinion of motion pictures (“He never gave them much credence,” his son later said) he was nevertheless a great influence on them. For example, John Wayne grew up watching Universal's ‘Cheyenne Harry’ silent Westerns, idolizing Carey (he said Carey was "the greatest Western actor of all time") and attempting to imitate him when he started his own career. Carey avoided the flashiness associated with the likes of Tom Mix and adopted a more sober, lower-key approach similar to that of Hart. In an age when actors were often (to our modern eyes) completely over the top in their thespian antics, he was restrained, and this gave him an authority as a tough Westerner. A start in the business However, like Hart, Carey was not a Westerner by birth. Henry DeWitt Carey II was born in 1878 in New York, the son of a Supreme Court judge. As a boy he was enraptured by the lurid dime novels that told derring-do tales of the Old West. He attended a military academy before going on to study law at New York University (though he was expelled for running female underwear up the flagpole, and always referred to himself as a “premature alumnus” of the college). He grew up to be, says John Ford biographer Scott Eyman, “a tough but warm man.” A boating accident when he was 21 led to a bout of pneumonia, and while recovering he wrote a Western play, Montana, about the frontier, and toured the country performing in it himself, for three years. It was a big hit (audiences especially liked the part where he brought his horse on stage) and it made him a lot of money, but he lost it all when his next play, a Klondike yarn entitled Heart of Alaska, was a failure. That one had dog-teams on stage but the Chicago Tribune said that the dogs were the only convincing thing about the whole play. Harry did, though, get something out of it: he married the play’s leading lady, Fern Foster. It was then, financially wiped out but severely bitten by the acting bug, that he was introduced to the great DW Griffith, still at that time based in the East (Biograph’s studios were in the Bronx). Carey’s first film for Griffith was a sea story but it wasn’t long before he started featuring in Westerns, then a key part of silent movie output. Friends in 1912, a gold mining tale, was directed and produced by Griffith and starred future Hollywood royalty, Mary Pickford and Lionel Barrymore, as well as Carey and Henry B Walthall, the friend who had introduced Carey to Griffith in the first place. The first time Carey topped the billing in a Western was in the 1913 Biograph picture The Abandoned Well, directed by Oliver L Sellers.
That year Carey followed Griffith in his migration to California and it is said that he appeared (though he is uncredited) in The Battle of Elderbush Gulch, the famous Western written, produced and directed by Griffith and starring Lillian Gish and Mae Marsh, with Walthall as an Indian. At Universal In 1915 Carey signed with 'Uncle' Carl Laemmle’s Universal Film Manufacturing Co. at $150 a week, a very healthy salary for the time. Universal had been founded in New Jersey in 1912 but moved to the San Fernando Valley in 1915. Laemmle was given to hiring his close family as execs (Ogden Nash wrote Uncle Carl Laemmle/Has a very large faemmle) but had a keen eye for the latest thing and the up-and-coming coming stars, and he reckoned, rightly, that Harry Carey Westerns were just the ticket.
In June 1916 Universal released a rarity, a big-budget six-reel feature Western which was something of a landmark in the genre because it was the first version of The Three Godfathers. Directed by Edward LeSaint, it starred Carey, billed second after leading lady Stella Razeto. (In 1919 John Ford would use Carey in Marked Men, a version of the same plot, and in 1926 Ford would make yet another version, 3 Bad Men, but without Carey).
Most of Carey’s Westerns for Laemmle, however, were one- and two-reelers, especially the long series of two-reel Westerns starring Carey as the character Cheyenne Harry. Cheyenne Harry was more of a shambling saddle-tramp type than a bold gunfighter, and he was usually the already classic ‘good badman’ character. Many of the pictures had teenage Olive Golden as the love interest and a young Hoot Gibson as Harry’s sidekick. Olive became Harry’s agent/manager and would then become his second wife in 1921, when Harry’s divorce became final, though they were (rather daringly) living together a year before that.
The Fords Many of these early Universal films were ‘supervised’ by Francis Ford, then a leading light in the genre, and Carey developed a liking for Frank’s younger brother Jack, soon to be much better known as John Ford. He asked Laemmle to hire Jack, and the studio boss consented.
The first Harry Carey/Jack Ford collaboration was one that has survived (tragically, many have not), Straight Shooting (1917), John Ford’s first feature, and still a fascinating watch today – click the link for a review of that. Scott Eyman says, “It looks more like a film from 1922 or 1923 than one from 1917, and, in an art form that moved as torrentially as the movies did in their infancy, that is no small statement.”
Straight Shooting is a 57-minute feature that Ford and Carey made despite rather than on Laemmle’s instructions. Like most studio bosses at the time, Laemmle wanted shorts, in rapid succession, as they were more cost-effective and profitable, but Ford and Carey made a feature anyway (they pretended their film stock had been ruined so they could get more) and Laemmle accepted it, saying, “If I order a suit of clothes and the fellow gives me an extra pair of pants free, what am I going to do? Throw them back in his face?” Straight Shooting was a watershed for Ford, and he knew it. He kept the edition of the Universal Weekly which called it “The most wonderful Western picture ever made”. It cemented Carey’s position in the genre and made Ford a man to be watched.
The only other Carey/Ford Cheyenne Harry to have survived from that year is the entertaining Bucking Broadway (1917) which for a long time was thought lost but happily in 1970 a copy was discovered in the archives of the Centre national de la cinématographie in France, and a restored print was the result. We reviewed it too, recently, so click for that.
In 1918 Carey and Ford did Hell Bent with a story by both of them and some clever and creative visual touches, such as when at the start a Frederic Remington painting comes to life and the action begins. This too has survived and been restored and you can read about that by clicking the link.
In 1919 there were two important John Ford/Harry Carey Westerns (among the many) which were the five-reel Marked Men, as mentioned above yet another remake of the three godfathers plot, and the first film version of the Bret Harte story The Outcasts of Poker Flat, a six-reeler, with Carey as John Oakhurst, now tragically lost.
Some of the lost Carey/Ford Westerns do exist in script form. Other directors on these Cheyenne Harry movies were Fred Kelsey and a young George Marshall. In all the Westerns Carey collaborated on stories, scripts, production and directing. He was no mere hack actor but a key part of the studio’s output. The 1920s Desperate Trails, a 50-minute picture, released in 1921 but shot in 1920, was the last Carey Western to be directed by John Ford. There was a breach between the two. Both men were reluctant to speak publicly of it afterwards and we do not know the ins and outs but Eyman says that Ford’s grandson Dan believed there was a financial element to the conflict between the director and actor. Carey was the nearest Universal got to a big star and was earning $1250 a week by this time, while Ford, who believed he was at least as talented and deserving as the star, was pulling in about $300. Carey lived an extravagant lifestyle that Ford simply could not afford. Furthermore, Ford was a complex, even strange man and he seemed inexplicably to resent those who had contributed to his early success. Both Carey and Ford’s brother Francis had basically launched John Ford’s career, and he never forgave either of them for it. He was an odd man. Harry Carey’s son wrote that that his father would sometimes “launch into his usual twenty-five year old tirade about John Ford and his faults and egomania” and he told his son that he never appeared in a Ford Western after 1921 simply because “He won’t ask me.”
Ford moved to Fox, where he would make a hit right away with a Buck Jones picture, Just Pals (review soon), and go on to do some big pictures, notably The Iron Horse in 1924 (ditto). Carey too left Universal when Laemmle decided to promote co-star Hoot Gibson as the studio's principal screen cowboy. Gibson would do the flashier Tom Mix/Ken Maynard style of Western and also work for considerably less. 1921 was the year that Harry and Olive’s son was born, Harry Carey Jr, and his father nicknamed the child Dobe because the infant’s red hair reminded him of the color of the adobe buildings on their ranch in the San Francisquito Canyon.
Harry Carey Jr would of course go on to become a fine Western actor like his father, and would become a key member of Ford’s stock company of actors. Ford made Dobe one of the three ‘godfathers’ when in 1948 he remade the movie as a talkie after Harry Carey Sr’s death. The picture opens with the image of a lone rider atop a hill silhouetted against the setting sun, leaning in Carey’s signature semi-slouch on the saddle horn, and in the on-screen dedication Ford sentimentally eulogized Carey (who was, the cynical might say, now safely deceased) as the "Bright Star of the early western sky."
Carey Sr, though, went on making silent Westerns all through the 1920s. Many were directed by Val Paul, Scott R Dunlap or B Reeves ‘Breezy’ Eason. He signed with Joseph P Kennedy's FBO Pictures and continued to make his brand of realistic Western before moving to Hunt Stromberg's Producer's Distributing Corporation (PDC). In 1926 Carey left PDC for Pathé Pictures, a studio that, despite low budgets, had a reputation for turning out some of the finest of the silent Westerns. Satan Town, for example, a six-reel silent directed by Edmund Mortimer, was said to be a serious movie with atmosphere and quality.
The Talkies The arrival of sound pictures at the end of the decade was a crisis for Harry Carey, as it was for many other actors. He had a good voice, a solid reputation and was a proper actor, but he was much more in the William S Hart mold of screen cowboy, sober, even dour, with what has been described as an “unassuming authenticity”, and far from style of the highly-paid sagebrush superstars of the silver screen who were all the rage. Considering Carey passé, Pathé declined to renew his contract. Harry and Olive turned to vaudeville, but their act wasn't very successful and the couple disliked the incessant traveling. While they were away, their ranch was completely destroyed when the San Francisquito Dam burst and flooded the Santa Clarita Valley, a disaster in which hundreds of people died. It was a bad time.
Harry needed to work, and returned to motion pictures, accepting supporting parts as a character actor. But in 1931 he got a lead role in MGM’s ‘African white hunter’ picture Trader Horn, in which he overpowered his rather green second lead, Duncan Renaldo, later to be the Cisco Kid. Olive was in it too, fifth-billed as Olive Golden. It was a box-office hit, and the Careys earned enough from the movie to rebuild and re-stock their ranch, though shortly after it was destroyed again, this time by fire, and again rebuilt. And then the following year, '32, he landed a fine part back in a Western in the splendid Law and Order, directed by Edward L Cahn, in which he was the silk-hatted Doc Hollidayesque gambler Ed Brandt to Walter Huston’s Earpish Frame ‘Saint’ Johnson. This is still to this day one of the best ever treatments of the Earp/Holliday Tombstone saga and Carey was superb.
In the early 30s Harry landed parts in Paramount’s Zane Grey talkie remakes directed by Henry Hathaway and starring a young Randolph Scott, such as The Thundering Herd and Man of the Forest.
In 1935 he got a smallish but still significant part in Samuel Goldwyn’s Barbary Coast with Edward G Robinson, Miriam Hopkins and Joel McCrea, directed by Howard Hawks (and William Wyler, uncredited). He also that year topped the billing in an RKO ‘cowboy superstar’ picture, Powdersmoke Range, which featured Hoot Gibson, Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams, Bob Steele and Tom Tyler. RKO teamed Carey with Gibson again in The Last Outlaw in 1936, a picture co-written by John Ford. And there seemed to be a rapprochement when John Ford cast both Harry Carey and Francis Ford in his (non-Western) The Prisoner of Shark Island that same year.
All through the 1930s, even while landing supporting parts in big major-studio pictures, Carey was also heading up the cast for some lesser outfits. Nat Levine, the boss of Mascot Pictures, one of the champions of the low-budget horse opera, starred him in serials such as The Vanishing Legion (1931), The Last of the Mohicans (1932), in which Harry was Hawkeye, and The Devil Horse (1932).
You could also try the 1935 Berke picture Wagon Trail. At Commodore Pictures Carey brought Cheyenne Harry back to life in Aces Wild in 1936. Carey last topped the billing in a program oater in RKO’s The Law West of Tombstone in 1938, with a young Tim Holt.
Motion Picture Herald and Boxoffice conducted popularity polls from the md-30s on. Carey was past his prime as a cowboy star by the time they started yet he still managed to rank eighth in 1937 and ninth in ’38. The last Westerns Harry Carey's Western career wasn’t over yet, though. In 1941, when he was well into his sixties, he co-starred with John Wayne, the first time they had appeared in a movie together, in the Western melodrama The Shepherd of the Hills, for Paramount, directed again by Henry Hathaway. Rather poignantly perhaps he played Wayne’s father. It was not a great film and the source novel (1907) was archaic, sentimental and implausibly plotted, but it was great to see Wayne and Carey together and it must be said that Carey’s performance was very fine.
In 1942 Carey returned alongside Duke with a part in that year’s remake of The Spoilers (click the link for our review), playing Wayne’s partner Dextry. This is a big, noisy Western, the best of the many versions of that story that were made, and once again Carey is memorable, even in a small part.
And talking of big, Harry was cast by David O Selznick as the tough railroad detective in the rather lurid but huge blockbuster Duel in the Sun in 1946.
That same year he took part with Wayne in the shooting of Red River, under Howard Hawks (though it would not be released till 1948) and this was the only time in which he and Dobe, who got his role thanks to Wayne, appeared in the same film (though they had no scene together and Harry Sr had completed his location work before Dobe was invited to do his part). Once again Carey Sr’s part as Mr Melville was not a huge one but once again it was memorable.
In 1947 Wayne started producing as well as starring and he cast Carey as the sympathetic marshal in Republic’s rather charming Angel and the Badman. So The Shepherd of the Hills had started a little flurry of Carey appearances in Wayne Westerns.
In ’47 Harry also took the part of the doctor in MGM’s rather overblown melodrama but major A-picture The Sea of Grass, directed by Elia Kazan. But by this time Harry was not well. A lifelong smoker, he developed emphysema and then lung cancer, and he died in Brentwood, California on September 21 that year. When he was interred in the Carey family mausoleum at Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, New York, clad in a cowboy outfit, over 1,000 admirers turned out for the funeral. Olive, by the way, died in 1988 aged 92. Let’s finish with John Wayne’s homage to Harry. Carey was well known for his signature gestures, in particular holding his left forearm with his right hand, which in the semiotics of stage melodrama and the early silent movies signaled thoughtfulness, but which Carey made uniquely his own. Duke paid a tribute to the Western actor he admired so much by doing this at the end of John Ford's classic The Searchers, nine years after Harry’s death, when he walks away from Mrs Jorgensen (Olive) and is framed by the doorway in the final scene. It was for Wayne a gesture of respect and farewell.
I am grateful to the bio by Jon C Hopwood on IMDb (external link), to Bill Russell writing on Carey on The Old Corral (ditto) and to Scott Eyman for his mentions of Carey in his books John Wayne: The Life and Legend and Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford. Another important source is Company of Heroes: My Life as an Actor in the John Ford Stock Company by Harry Carey Jr., published in 1994.