Family & Companions
To moviegoers during the era of silent films, Harry Carey was the quintessential cowboy, despite having been born no closer to the frontier than the Bronx. A judge's son, Carey was pointed toward a career in law when a bout of pneumonia sent him westward to recuperate. Channeling his experiences among Montana ranch hands into a hit play, Carey parlayed his success onstage into a career in motion pictures, making his debut for D. W. Griffith in 1909. Following Griffith to Hollywood, Carey became the star of dozens of Western two-reelers in which he etched his rough-hewn characters with a leathery verisimilitude he had seen firsthand. By 1917, Carey was a bona fide movie star, earning $1,250 a week to play white-hatted Cheyenne Henry in several films for John Ford. Though his career sagged as he aged beyond the range of the average leading man, Carey enjoyed a comeback as the indefatigable "Trader Horn" (1931), a box office hit for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. While continuing to play heroes in B-Westerns, Carey enjoyed a sidebar career as a reliable character player in such contemporary urban fare as Michael Curtiz' "Kid Galahad" (1937) and Frank Capra's "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939), which netted him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Towards the end of his life he partnered for several above-average prairie dramas with rising star John Wayne, who eulogized Carey at the time of his 1947 death as the greatest Western actor of all time.
Harry Carey was born Henry DeWitt Carey II in the New York City borough of the Bronx, on Nov. 16, 1878. It was the hope of his father, a New York Supreme Court judge, that Carey attend the United States Military Academy at West Point, to which end the boy was first sent to Virginia's Hamilton Military Academy. Dropping out after three years, Carey enrolled in pre-law classes at New York University, later continuing his education at the New York Law School. When he contracted pneumonia after a boating accident on Long Island Sound, Carey's father sent him to recuperate in Montana. While regaining his health, he wrote a play based on his experiences and environment. With production funds supplied by his family, Carey toured the country in "Montana" for four years. His follow-up, "The Heart of Alaska," was a flop, but by this point Carey had forgotten about a career in law in favor of making his way as an actor. Eschewing the stage, Carey set his eyes on the fledgling film business. Through his friendship with actor Henry B. Walthall, Carey met director D.W. Griffith, for whom he made his motion picture debut in "Bill Sharkey's Last Game" (1909), earning a salary of five dollars a day.
Carey appeared in several of Griffiths' films for the Biograph Company in New York - among them "The Musketeers of Pig Alley" (1912) and "Gold and Glitter" (1912) with Elmer Booth and Lillian Gish - before following the maverick filmmaker to California. After a journeyman phase playing stock parts - sheriffs, outlaws, sailors, and soldiers - Carey broke out as a leading man in "The Master Cracksman" (1914), which he wrote and directed. He also took the lead in "McVeagh of the South Seas" (1914), which he codirected with Cyril Bruce, and stood behind the camera for the last time with the comic Western "Love's Lariat" (1916), which he directed in tandem with George Marshall. Having weathered a failed early marriage, Carey wedded his 19-year-old "Just Jim" (1915) co-star Olive Fuller Golden. In 1915, Carey left Biograph for Universal. For up-and-coming director John Ford, Carey starred in "Straight Shooting" (1917), one of several two-reel entries in a long-running series of Westerns centered on the adventures of cowboy hero Cheyenne Henry. Carey's growing popularity resulted in a pay raise from Universal, bringing his $150-a-week salary up to $1,250 - a extraordinary amount of money at that time.
Having spent time in the west, Carey based his characters on the ranch hands and cowboys he had known, grounding his film performances in a weathered, broken-in reality that contrasted sharply with the flashier screen presence of Tom Mix and Ken Maynard. Carey's commitment to realism would ultimately be his undoing at Universal, where studio head Carl Laemmle came to favor Carey's young protégé, Hoot Gibson, and plots that veered from verisimilitude towards sensationalism and melodrama. The actor was in his mid-forties when he broke with Universal in 1922. For independent producer Hunt Stromberg, Carey headlined such oaters as "The Night Hawk" (1924), "The Prairie Pirate" (1925), and "The Man from Red Gulch" (1925) before he signed with Pathé Exchange to star in the hit "Satan Town" (1926). Carey played the villain in MGM's early sound film "The Trail of '98" (1928), bedeviling romantic leads Delores Del Rio and Ralph Forbes before meeting his comeuppance in a saloon fire. He enjoyed a dual role as twin brothers on opposite sides of the law in Pathé's "Burning Bridges" (1928), but when the studio failed to renew his contract, the 50-year-old Carey and his wife made up for the shortfall as stars of a vaudeville tour.
Carey's flagging career was given a boost when MGM cast him in the title role of the safari drama "Trader Horn" (1930), shot on location in Uganda and the African Congo. The film was an undeniable success, which relaunched Carey as the star of a slew of B-Westerns and other adventure tales, such as the Mascot Pictures serial "Last of the Mohicans" (1932), in which he played James Fennimore Cooper's immortal frontier scout Hawkeye. Universal tapped Carey to play a Doc Holliday surrogate in "Law and Order" (1932), a fictionalized account of the Gunfight at the OK Corral, and he retained top billing when reteamed with Hoot Gibson for "Powdersmoke Range" (1935) and "The Last Outlaw" (1937) at RKO. Carey also excelled in non-Western roles, bringing a laconic sense of purpose to his role as a boxing trainer in Michael Curtiz's "Kid Galahad" (1937) and earning an Academy Award nomination as the president of the U.S. Senate in Frank Capra's "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939). Carey would go on to co-star with John Wayne in "The Shepherd of the Hills" (1941), "The Spoilers" (1942), and "The Angel and the Badman" (1947). Returning to the stage, he made a belated Broadway debut in 1940.
Carey enjoyed vivid character work in King Vidor's "Duel in the Sun" (1946) and Elia Kazan's "The Sea of Grass" (1947), though he turned down with considerable indignation the offer of a part as a Nazi spy in Alfred Hitchcock's "Saboteur" (1942). Carey and his namesake son, Harry Carey, Jr., were both given roles opposite John Wayne in Howard Hawks' "Red River" (1948), though père et fils shared no screen time. Diagnosed with lung cancer - a condition exacerbated by emphysema and the bite of a black widow spider - Carey completed just one more film, Disney's "So Dear to My Heart" (1948), before his death by coronary thrombosis on Sept. 21, 1947 at the age of 69. Frequent co-star John Wayne would eulogize Carey as an inspiration and as the greatest Western actor of all time. Wayne, John Ford, and Harry Carey, Jr. would dedicate "3 Godfathers" (1948) - a sound remake of Edward Le Saint's "The Three Godfathers" (1916), in which Carey had starred - to his memory. He was buried in the Bronx's Woodlawn Cemetery in full Western regalia, and in 1976, he was inducted posthumously into the Western Players Hall of Fame.
By Richard Harland Smith
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Cast (Feature Film)
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Producer (Feature Film)
Misc. Crew (Short)
Wrote a stage melodrama, "Montana", in which he toured (dates approximate)
Joined D W Griffith at Biograph studios in New York; appeared in three Westerns shot on Staten Island
Began film acting career in earnest with film, "Bill Sharkley's Last Game"
Went to Hollywood
One-shot reunion with director John Ford; played supporting role in Ford's "The Prisoner of Shark Island"
Received Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor for his role as the vice president in Frank Capra's "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"
Broadway debut, "Heavenly Express"
Played a leading role in a stage revival of Eugene O'Neill's comedy drama, "Ah, Wilderness!"
Acted onstage in "But Not Goodbye"
Release of last films, "So Dear to My Heart" and "Red River"