Search This Blog

Sunday, August 7, 2016

The Carey Family in the John Ford Western Universe

In 1947 Harry Carey Jr. had just finished his first picture with director John 'Uncle Jack' Ford.  He was hanging around the set when he saw a surprising sight -- his father's horse Sunny, and actor / stuntman Cliff Lyons dressed in his father's iconic black western attire.  Ford said to young Carey, "Go home, kid, you're not supposed to see this."  As Carey left the set to go home, he broke down in sobs.  This was the filming of the picture's dedication to the recently passed Harry Carey Senior. As shown after the opening credits of 3 GODFATHERS, with the tune 'Goodbye, Old Paint, I'm Leaving Cheyenne" playing in reference to Carey's iconic screen character 'Cheyenne Harry', I doubt there is a more elegant and meaningful torch passing from one generation to the next in film:

[This post celebrates the history of cinema as part of the 'Movie History Project' blogathon, hosted by Ruth of Silver Screenings, Aurora of Once Upon A Screen, and Fritzi of Movies Silently.  Check out their blogs from Aug 5-10th for a rich, diverse and entertaining look at Hollywood history.]

I was first introduced to Harry Carey Sr. by accident -- one of the 'extras' on the Criterion issue of STAGECOACH that I purchased was the silent film thought lost:  BUCKING BROADWAY, with John Ford directing Carey.  Initially thinking I wouldn't enjoy it, I couldn't turn away.  The combined genius of Ford, a director learning his craft, and Carey, who had as compelling, natural and nuanced screen presence as any of the silent greats, made it.  Sadly, of over 20 films they made together, there is only one other Ford-Carey silent film existing, STRAIGHT SHOOTING, their first feature.  As I learned more about Carey, I came to appreciate that there may not a John Ford as we know him today without him.  The intersection of the Carey family's lives and careers with that of Ford, is one of the fascinating and fruitful contribution to the Western film genre, spanning six decades of history.
Harry Carey Sr.
Young Olive Golden Carey
Henry DeWitt Carey II got his start far from the west -- he was born in Harlem, NY in 1878 into an upper middle class family.  He attended law school at NYU, but was kicked out for a prank involving female underwear (!).  He turned to acting and writing plays, and was hired by D.W. Griffith, and eventually by Carl Laemmle at Universal, where he spent several years making Westerns, which were very much in vogue in the early silent era.  According to Scott Eyman's Ford bio, in 1916 Carey met Ford at Universal, and was instantly impressed with his imagination and proficiency with the camera.  Ford was only 21.  Carey requested of Laemmle that Ford direct his next picture, and the collaboration was born.  Ford said of Carey at that time "Carey tutored me in those early years, sort of brought me along." They made 16 shorts together, with Carey starring as adventurous, somewhat dangerous, cowboy "Cheyenne Harry."  Carey often shared directing duties as well.  About this time actress Olive Golden, 18 years his junior, came into his life, and they married in 1916.  The newlyweds and Ford shared a small apartment initially, as their working relationship and friendship grew, and then fraternized in the Carey ranch in Newhall, California as Careys began to live a truly Western lifestyle.  According to Olive, many ideas for the Ford-Carey pictures were 'dreamed up around the wood stove in the kitchen' at Newhall.  As Olive was giving birth to Harry Carey Jr., the two got drunk on Mellwood brand whiskey waiting on the successful delivery.  (Later, Ford, when in one of his cantankerous moods, would call Jr."Mellwood").
Harry Carey with Harry Carey Jr.
Harry Carey's acting style was very natural -- in contrast to the more typical theatrical style of the early silent era.  His personality was tough, his looks rugged and dark.  But he projected a natural warmth and depth of emotion beneath that Ford tapped into. STRAIGHT SHOOTING showed Carey tormented over his potential role in dispatching the family of farmers who interfere with the ranching hegemony, and after some bloodshed, ultimately he changes sides and confronts the threat.
Carey in STRAIGHT SHOOTING with his iconic arm pose.
John Ford
He was a star, although a less popular one at the time compared with the likes of Tom Mix and William S. Hart.  A falling out with Ford around 1920 ended their professional collaboration.  The origins of the split seem to be buried forever; Carey Jr. said his father refused to talk about it, although he admitted in his later years his father would occasionally 'rant' about Ford's less admirable qualities.  Eyman references a potential issue about pay and equity, and mentioned that they did maintain an off-again/on-again friendship.  While Ford's star continued to rise, Carey's seemed to stagnate, and although he transitioned into the talking era well, his voice an authoritative deep baritone, he mainly starred in distinctly low-budget B westerns.  In a couple of those that I've seen, WAGON TRAIL and THE NIGHT RIDER, he adds interest and gravitas to the often melodramatic goings on.

Harry Carey Sr. in
In bigger budget pictures, he won mostly secondary roles.  A notable exception was MGM's first 'on-location' blockbuster TRADER HORN (1931), where he plays the lead.  (I admit to not being able to watch this one, because of the reported rampant mistreatment of animals during filming). Olive Carey, who had taken a long break from acting to raise her two children, appeared in a small role, but only made $300 for her work in horrific conditions (Star Edwina Booth contracted malaria and nearly died).  Carey later won an Oscar for his small role as quietly supportive Senate President in the Frank Capra/James Stewart classic MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (1939).  Long-time friend and collaborator George Hively said about Carey "He was a warm, warm man. Remember the character he portrayed in MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON? That was Harry Carey."

Harry Carey Jr.
Despite the continued friendship, Ford was not initially an encouraging influence on young Carey Jr., whose red hair earned him the lifelong nickname 'Dobe.'  Ironically the young man's first film appearance was with Howard Hawks, in the classic RED RIVER, a film in which Carey Sr. also had a small role near the end.  The two did not share a scene.

John Ford is best known today for his classic sound Westerns beginning with the 1939 Best Picture Oscar nominee STAGECOACH, which gave John Wayne his shot at stardom.  Ford told complex tales with breathtaking beauty, using stunning outdoor shots and well-drawn characters, emphasizing community, honor and heroism, often with healthy doses of humor. He used a group of actors he liked and trusted, referred to as the 'John Ford Stock Company' and did not give allegiance to any one studio.  He relished the independence often accorded him.  When Harry Carey died in 1947 of lung cancer and its complications, Ford, and also John Wayne, who had become an admirer and friend of the elder Carey, were both present.  Not too long before he died, Carey Jr., recalled, his father told him that Ford would only hire young Carey in a film after he died " will (work for Ford)...--not till after I croak-- but then you will.  You can bet on it."  Shortly thereafter came 3 GODFATHERS -- and sure enough, Jr. was offered a starring role, along with Wayne and Pedro Armendariz.  As a film it's not in Ford's top echelon, but it's stirring in its Christian allegorical themes, appropriate somehow for the film that signaled the passing of the acting baton from the father to the son.

That association with Ford, built on many years of family friendship and loyalty, cemented the Western career of the younger Carey.  He had initially hoped on being a singer, but that didn't turn out. (You can hear him sing in 3 GODFATHERS, a pleasant enough voice). While 'Dobe' worked in the same film genre as his father, he projected a starkly contrasting screen character. Carey Sr. was dark, Jr. was a very light red-head.  All boyish enthusiasm and naivete, he rarely stole a scene and was more or less content with his supporting roles.  He was fearful of Ford, who was well known for his eccentric and tyrannical ways on and off set, yet he grew to love him.  His memoir brims with humorous exploits with the Ford crew, including Wayne, friend Ben Johnson, Ward Bond, and the rest.  Despite working with young Carey on a few pictures, it took Ford time to trust his acting abilities, and for SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON, he hired actor Arthur Shields to coach him, and ultimately help him get into the character of the secondary role he played.
Carey Jr. with Wayne in SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON (1949)
Carey Jr. did not only make Westerns with Ford -- he relished his roles in two non-Westerns, MISTER ROBERTS, with Henry Fonda, and THE LONG GRAY LINE, with Tyrone Power and Maureen O'Hara.  The last Ford film he appeared in he wasn't even credited -- it was CHEYENNE AUTUMN, and he and Ben Johnson were apparently paid mostly to ride their horses together on location at critical moments.  Both he and his mother Olive transitioned into television roles, often in the Western genre, and both lived into their early nineties.  Harry Carey Jr. died in December 2012, approximately 100 years after his father broke into the picture business.

In Ford's Western masterpiece from the 1950s, THE SEARCHERS, the entire Carey family had their time in the spotlight.  'Dobe' Carey was on hand again playing a young man from the village, Brad Jorgenson, who is full of hate for the Comanches who murdered his sweetheart.  His mom Mrs. Jorgenson is played by Olive Carey.  Harry Carey Sr. made an 'appearance' through the assistance of an old friend:  At the very end of the film, after John Wayne brings his lost niece home to the loving arms of Olive's 'Mrs. Jorgenson' and family, he was filled with emotion thinking of Harry Sr.  As Olive looked on off camera, in the famous shot framed in the dark doorway, Wayne reached over with his left arm and held his right above the elbow, in the way Harry Carey often did, in a poignant tribute, before walking slowly away.

The Carey family collaborations with Ford yielded among the best of the Western genre over 50 years in Hollywood.  Their legacy remains alive in that genre, which still is pertinent today.  As Robert Warshow wrote:  "The movies in which the Westerner played out his role preserve for us the pleasures of a complete and self-contained drama--and one which still effortlessly crosses the boundaries which divide our culture."

Many of Harry Carey Sr.'s  films are on Youtube, here's a few:

For further perspective on the Careys, check out this terrific post by blogger Caftan Woman.

(1) Carey, Harry Jr. Company of Heroes -- my Life as an Actor in the John Ford Stock Company.  Taylor Publishing, 2013.
(2) Eyman, Scott, Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford, Simon & Schuster, 1999.
(3) Bogdanovich, Peter, 'Directed by John Ford', documentary from 1971.
(4) Kitses, Jim, Horizons West, British Film Institute Publishing, 2004.
(5) Warshow, Robert, "The Westerner" in The Immediate Experience, Harvard University Press, latest edition 2001.


  1. Great tribute to a family that made some of my favorite films come alive.

    1. Thank you! I enjoyed the process leading to this post. I saw you recently wrote about CHEYENNE AUTUMN -- I posted a comment there. Thanks for stopping by.

  2. It was a treat rediscovering the connections between the Careys and Ford through your insightful eyes.

    Shortly after it was "found", Peter Bogdanovich introduced "Bucking Broadway" at a film festival here in Toronto. It was a treat to listen to is Ford stories and watch the movie. Did they mention on the "Stagecoach" DVD extras that the city slicker in "Bucking Broadway", Vesper Pegg was one of the Plummer boys in "Stagecoach"?

    Thank you for the generous shout out.

    1. Thank you! I had a blast exploring this topic, as part of my 'western movie summer.' What a cool experience to see BUCKING BROADWAY on the big screen with Bogdanovich present. Was that part of the Toronto Silent Film Festival? I need to make a trip over for that sometime. I don't recall a mention of Vesper Pegg on the DVD; I'll have to watch it again to double check ;-)

    2. The screening was part of TIFF. Either that international festival or The Silent Film Festival are worth the trip north.

    3. Ah OK, I've heard great things about those festivals. Will try to make the trip soon.

  3. Loved this post! I feel like I know the Careys (and John Ford) a bit better, thanks to your research.

    I'm glad you talked about the image of John Wayne, at the end of The Searchers, holding his arm the way he does. I didn't realize this was a famous Harry Carey Sr pose, and was always puzzled by it. Now that you've explained it, it resonates with meaning.

    Thank you for joining the blogathon with this look at Harry Carey, Sr and Jr!

    1. Thank you! HC Sr really did adopt that pose often, at least in the films I watched. I really wish that there were more of his early films that survive. He had a great presence. And yes, so many meaningful and some surprising connections between these greats through the generations.

  4. I never thought Jr. and Sr. looked Much alike but after seeing that picture of Sr. young I can definately see it. This is a lovely tribute post!!

    1. Yes there is a resemblance, if not a striking one. HC Sr had a great voice; had he been born a few years later he may have been even a bigger star, Thank you very much for reading and for your kind comment!

  5. Great post! I'm more familiar with Harry Jr, so thank you for adding the links for Harry Sr's films on YouTube! It was a nice tribute and very enlightening post.
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)

    1. Thanks very much! I hope you enjoy HC Sr--he really was a talent. I will definitely check out your post :-)

  6. Hi Jocelyn. That was a fine tribute to the Carey family. I liked your statement that "there may not a John Ford as we know him today without" Harry Carey. You're right.

    1. Yes, it's a shame Harry Carey isn't better known. Thank you for reading and commenting!