The Westernization of Harry Carey

How I love a story like Harry Carey’s (1878-1947). Considered the quintessential western star back in the day, Carey’s origins couldn’t have been more Eastern. He was a generation younger than Teddy Roosevelt but had the same sort of posh New York upbringing and was undoubtedly one of the many inspired by his infatuation with the Strenuous Life and Roughing it in the Wild West. Born Henry Dewitt Carey II, he was raised on City Island, the son of the president of a sewing machine manufacturing company, lawyer and local judge. He attended Hamilton Military Academy, and was accepted to West Point, but turned it down to follow the call of the theatre. He also studied law for a time at NYU.

The turning point for Carey came following a boating accident off Long Island Sound. He caught pneumonia following a dunking in cold water. While he was laid up, he wrote a western themed play called Montana, which he self-financed, starred in, and toured successfully across the U.S. for three years. The highlight of the play was when he rode a horse onto the stage! His next venture however The Heart of Alaska a.k.a Two Women and That Man (1909), did not do as well and wiped him out financially. This inspired him to go into films as an actor. Henry B. Walthall introduced him to D.W. Griffith, who cast him in Bill Sharkey’s Last Game (1910). Carey remained with Griffith and Biograph through 1915, appearing in such classics as The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) and Judith of Bethuliah (1914).

At Universal in 1916, Harry Carey became a full-fledged western star and bona fide competitor to the king of the genre, William S. Hart. First there was a series of “Tom Larnigan” westerns, and then he was often “Cheyenne Harry”, although he played a variety of characters through these years. In 1917 he drafted Francis Ford’s younger brother Jack to direct him in Straight Shooting. Jack, better known later as John Ford, directed Carey in over two dozen subsequent westerns.

In 1920 he married Olive Fuller Golden, daughter of George Fuller Golden, founder and head of the vaudeville performers’ union known as the White Rats. Their son, Harry Carey Jr would also become a western star with the help of family friend and colleague John Ford.

When sound arrived, Carey teamed up with Olive and toured the big time vaudeville circuits for a couple of years. For a time he also toured with his own Wild West Show.

He was briefly a star in such talkies as The Last of the Mohicans (1932), but he was now entering his mid 50s and didn’t have the juice to remain a marquis name, so he reinvented himself (of necessity) as a supporting player. Ironically, today these are his best known and remembered films. These include Barbary Coast (1935), The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), The Shepherd of the Hills (1941), The Spoilers (1942), Air Force (1943), The Great Moment (1944), Duel in the Sun (1946), Angel and the Bad Man (1947), The Sea of Grass (1947), and Red River (1948). He also returned to the stage for three Broadway plays Heavenly Express (1940), the 1941 revival of Ah, Wilderness!, and But Not Goodbye (1944). His last professional credit was a role in the Walt Disney live action film So Dear to My Heart (1948). He died in Los Angeles — far, far west of New York City.

 For more on silent film please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.