Posted by Susan Doll on December 31, 2012
During the last phase of his career, Harry Carey, Jr., appeared in small but significant parts in some of the few westerns produced in Hollywood during the 1980s. In Walter Hill’s The Long Riders, he played a stagecoach passenger named George Arthur, who is robbed by members of the James-Younger Gang. When George reveals that he had fought for the South during the Civil War, Bob Younger shakes his hand. The unreconstructed rebel bonds with the outlaws as he helps them rob a cowardly passenger who lies about fighting for the Stars and Bars. As the gang rides away with guns blazing, George walks toward the camera, murmuring in amazement, “I’ll be god damned and go to hell”—a proper testimonial after an encounter with legends. The stage hold-up is one of my favorite scenes in the film because it is Harry Carey, Jr., who delivers this line. As a member of John Ford’s stock company, Carey had walked among a few western legends himself, albeit cinematic ones.
Carey died last week at the age of 91, and most obituaries identified him with Ford, John Wayne, Ward Bond, Ben Johnson, and the other actors associated with Ford’s troupe. Carey was proud of his close association with Ford and his westerns even when he didn’t fully agree with the great director’s attitude toward his actors. In his autobiography Company of Heroes: My Life As an Actor in the John Ford Stock Company, he declared, “. . . I’ve only had one teacher. That man was John Ford. He was my nemesis and my hero. There were times when I was not an admirer—but when the day’s work was done—I loved him.”
Over the decades, accounts of Hollywood’s most colorful stock company have been exaggerated, romanticized, and contradictory, depending on the storyteller. In John Wayne biographies, the Duke is often given credit for suggesting Carey, Jr., to Ford, just as he had introduced the lad to Howard Hawks. Hawks had hired the aspiring actor to play Dan Latimer, the singing cowhand who gets trampled in Red River, and the role launched Carey’s career in earnest. Others assume that Carey, Jr. was a shoo-in for the stock company because he was the son of silent star Harry Carey, Sr., who had worked with Ford on silent westerns. According to Carey, Jr.’s autobiography, the truth is more complicated—and more personal. When the elder Carey was ill with emphysema in 1946, his son asked why he had stopped starring in Ford’s films. Carey, Sr., answered that Ford had stopped asking him. Apparently, Carey, Sr., and Ford—who had been the best of friends during the silent era—fell out around 1921. Olive Carey claimed that the split was the result of jealous actors Joe Harris and J. Farrell McDonald, who spread gossip about Carey, Sr., to alienate him from Ford. In 1935, Carey, Sr., did appear in The Prisoner of Shark Island, but it was too late to rekindle their close friendship. During his painful reminiscence of his Hollywood past, the elder Carey, who called his son Dobe, because his red hair was the color of red adobe brick, predicted with great assurance that Dobe would work for the director in the future, but “not till after I croak—but then you will. You can bet on it.”
In 1947, when the elder Carey was on his deathbed with cancer, Ford, his wife Mary, and John Wayne were at his side until the bitter end. Carey, Sr., had been Wayne’s boyhood idol, and after becoming a major star during World War II, Wayne was able to secure roles for Carey, Sr., in his films. Within a year of the actor’s death, Ford told Dobe that he was remaking The Three Godfathers, a story he had shot with Carey, Sr. in the silent era. He wanted Dobe to the play the Kid. Ford dedicated the film to Carey, Sr., perhaps as a testament to their earlier friendship or an acknowledgement of the actor’s impact on his career.
Harry Carey, Sr., enjoyed one of those fabled lives in which he crossed paths with the famous and the infamous. Though well-known as a western hero, he was actually born in New York City, the son of a judge who also owned a sewing-machine company. Carey, Sr., however, was always fascinated by the history and lore of the American West, and he spent a lifetime reading about the subject. The Carey family was well-to-do, and young Harry attended a military academy and then law school, where he befriended future New York mayor Jimmy Walker, the colorful skirt-chasing politician who was eventually run out of town. (Bob Hope starred as Walker in the biopic Beau James.) Carey became a western “star” after writing and starring in a long-running play titled Montana. In the early 1910s, Carey knew actor Henry B. Walthall, who was part of D. W. Griffith’s stock company. Walthall introduced Carey to Griffith, and the tall, athletic actor became a motion picture performer, appearing in one-reelers such as The Musketeers of Pig Alley. He moved with Griffith to Hollywood, where he became an established actor during the mid-teens. The 40-ish Carey fell in love with 20-something actress Olive Fuller (daughter of legendary vaudeville monologist George Fuller Golden), who was the same age as young director John Ford. According to Olive, as told by Carey, Jr., she introduced the two. Carey, Sr., was acting for Universal, and he asked studio head Carl Laemmle to hire Ford to direct his next film. As one of Griffith’s and Ford’s regulars, Carey, Sr., worked closely with two of Hollywood’s most historically significant directors during the silent era.
Dobe Carey did not follow his father’s path as an actor, opting to be a character actor rather than a leading man. Like most of Ford’s stock company, Carey, Jr., took the director’s ribbing and browbeating on the set of The Three Godfathers, but he held his own against John Wayne and Pedro Armendariz, whom Ford insisted on calling “the world’s greatest actor” in front of everyone else in the cast. Throughout the 1950s, the boyish-looking Carey continued to play in Ford’s films, generally cast as the youthful cowboy who must learn that life is harsh and incredibly unfair. As Brad Jorgensen in The Searchers, he goes berserk when he learns that his fiancée Lucy was raped and killed by marauding Indians; as Sandy in Wagon Master, he is the innocent, emotional half of a team of cowboys who lead a band of Mormon settlers across the West. Carey, Jr., also appeared in the films of other directors, including Niagara, Beneath the 12-Mile Reef, and The Outcast but in small roles and bit parts.
The historian in me is tempted to divide Carey, Jr.’s career into three stages, though the divisions tend to overlap. The 1940s-1950s, which are highlighted by roles in Ford’s films, represent the first phase, which was followed by a period dominated by appearances in western television series. From Have Gun, Will Travel to Wagon Train to Bonanza, Carey guest-starred in every major western series of the day. He continued to appear in small roles in feature films during this time, ranging from Don Siegel’s revisionist Death of a Gunfighter to the dubious Billy the Kid vs. Dracula.
It was the directors of the 1980s and early 1990s who gave Dobe Carey recognition, resonance, and respect in the final phase of his career. John Ford’s key films became important touchstones for the Film School Generation and those directors who followed in the 1980s. In their movies, filmmakers as diverse as Scorsese and Lucas paid homage to Ford ’s work—particularly The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The Film School Generation was followed by directors like Walter Hill and John McTiernan, who also revered Ford and Hawks. They mined the western for its mythic properties, either interpreting the genre for a contemporary audience or appropriating its conventions for the action film. As lovers of the western genre, Hill and his peers cast character actors such as Harry Carey, Jr., and John Carradine in small roles because of their identities as members of Ford’s stock company. In this way, Carey’s appearance amounted to more than an actor playing a character. He was not only a reminder of the silent western because of his father but he also referenced the classic western because of his films with Ford and yet belonged to the post-revisionist era because he was still working. In the last phase of his career, Harry Carey, Jr. became a marker for the history of the genre, a signifier of its long-lasting mythic power in our culture. In films such as The Long Riders, Tombstone, and even Back to the Future, Part III, his appearance, his dialogue, or his death took on a meaning beyond the surface of the plot for the filmmakers who cast him and the savvy viewers who recognized him.
When I heard that Harry Carey, Jr., had died, I was not only saddened at the loss of a great character actor but also of an icon who embodied the history of a genre that has lost its cultural currency. And with studios determined to cater to adolescents who prefer shallow representations of comic-book characters and superficial action heroes, few directors cast with star-image subtext in mind. The death of Harry Carey, Jr., represents the end of the line in more ways than one.
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