1878 - 1947
Movie Cowboy: Harry Carey was born Henry DeWitt Carey II in the Bronx, New York, the son of a New York City judge and the president of a sewing machine company.
In his teen years, Carey studied at a military prep school and after graduation, he was offered an appointment to West Point, which he turned down in favor of attending law school at NYU. A boating accident at the age of 21 resulting in a severe case of pneumonia, caused Carey to give up the pursuit of law. Instead, he pursued writing and his first endeavor was a play called "Montana". He liked it so much that he decided to play it on the stage and it turned out to be such a big hit that Harry toured the country with it for the next three years.
Following that success, Harry wrote another play, this one titled "Heart of Alaska" but it flopped. He then turned his attention to acting in the up-and-coming movie industry, first finding work at the old Biograph studios in New York in which he became part of D. W. Griffith's stock company. The 1909 film " Bill Sharkey's Last Game" is reported to be Carey's first important film.
Carey joined Griffith in his trek west and he continued to make numerous short Westerns in the new environment of Hollywood. In 1913 he appeared in "The Battle at Elderbush Gulch" which starred Lillian Gish and Lionel Barrymore. For the next few years, Carey stayed busy alternating between Westerns and non-Western roles. 1915 marked a turning point in Carey's career, when he signed up with Universal and began a series of longer two-reel Westerns, at a reported salary of $150 a week. He played the character 'Cheyenne Harry', the first of which was in "Knight on the Range". Co-starring with him in most of the two-reelers was Carey's future wife, Olive Golden and pal, Hoot Gibson.
It was his association with John Ford during this period that set the stage for both of their future successes in the film industry. The first of 26 features films that would come out of the Ford/Carey alliance was Universal's "Straight Shooting" in 1917.
Carey's portrayal in the early silent films, and in fact, during his entire career, has been linked somewhat to the William S. Hart tradition of Westerns with emphasis on realism and grittiness. His films were often true portrayals of the West and his physical appearance, like Hart, was rather rugged. His taciturn expression, a trademark of his Western role-playing, was depicted in every picture he made.
Many of his gestures, such as the way he sat on a horse, slouched with elbows resting on the saddle horn, were unique. (displayed in the John Wayne 1947 "The Angel and the Badman"). Some of Carey's gestures, in fact, were picked up by Wayne, who has been quoted as saying that Harry Carey "was the greatest Western actor of all time." One trait, in particular, adopted by Wayne can be seen in 1956 John Ford's classic "The Searchers" when Wayne is framed in the doorway in the final scene, walking away holding his left arm with his right as Carey often did.
By 1919 Carey's salary had increased to $1,250 a week, putting him in the top echelon of Western stars. Carey and Ford continued their winning combination up until the early 1920s. It's been said that certain traces of Ford's style could be seen in such Carey Westerns as his 1921 "Desperate Trails", which also highlighted Carey's fine acting ability.
Carey left Universal and John Ford in 1922 when Universal decided to feature Hoot Gibson as the leading star. The new trend left behind the realism and strong plots of the Ford/Carey pictures in favor of a more flashy style as evidenced by a younger Tom Mix. Carey was also getting old for a leading cowboy star; he was 44 in 1922.
Carey turned out solid performances with several other film companies beginning with FBO, then joining Hunt Stromberg's Producer's Distributing Corporation (PDC), and finally signing in 1926 with Pathé Pictures, one of the finest makers of silent Westerns. Such titles as "The Night Hawk", "The Prairie Pirate", "The man From Red Gulch, all released in 1924, proved that Carey could still captivate an audience. Pathe's "Satan Town" (1926) was the best of the bunch.
Between 1912 and 1928 Carey had made scores of Westerns and a few non-Westerns. The silent era was coming to a close and despite the fact that his salary had grown and he found himself among the top Western stars, he was somewhat discouraged that he not quite reached the elusive fame garnered by the younger set, including Hoot Gibson and Tom Mix. When his Pathé contract was not renewed, Carey decided to hit the vaudeville stage with wife Olive (they married in 1920), but they weren't successful and the traveling from town to town soon took its toll on them. During this stint, the San Francisquito Dam burst and flooded the Santa Clarita Valley, killing hundreds of people and totally destroying the Carey's ranch.
Producer Irving Thalberg and MGM came to his rescue in 1929, casting him as the lead with Duncan Renaldo and Edwina Booth in what has been called the greatest adventure film of all time, "Trader Horn" which took him to Africa and Mexico for seven months. It proved to be a huge success, earning Carey enough to rebuild and re-stock his ranch. Bad luck struck again shortly afterwards when their ranch was totally destroyed by fire.
Luckily the success of "Trader Horn" generated new interest in Carey and he was soon signed by Mascot Pictures' to star in the 1931 serial, "The Vanishing Legion" and he was immediately contracted for two more in 1932 ("Last of the Mohicans" and "The Devil Horse"). That same year he was cast in Universal's highly acclaimed "Law and Order" about the famous gunfight in Tombstone. Carey plays a Doc Holliday type character and Walter Huston worked his magic in a Wyatt Earp type role.
For the next several years, Harry starred in a number of Westerns for various independent producers and he had the lead in the 1935 RKO all-star "Powdersmoke Range". The following year, Carey and Hoot Gibson teamed again in RKO'S "The Last Outlaw" which John Ford had helped script. Carey was billed over Hoot Gibson in both of these films, indicating that perhaps over the long haul, Carey's career was more consistent than Gibson's.
In 1938, Carey starred in his last program Western, "Law West of Tombstone" and in 1939 he was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor award for his role in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" but he lost it to Thomas Mitchell who won the Oscar for his role in "Stagecoach".
In the early forties, Carey returned to the stage for several Broadway productions, including Eugene O'Neil's "Ah, Wilderness". He also continued portraying character and support roles in both Westerns and non-Westerns throughout the forties. One of the best was with John Wayne in Paramount's semi-Western, 1941's "The Shepherd of the Hills". The following year he was cast as Wayne's partner in "The Spoilers". 1947 saw another fine performance of Carey's in "The Angel and the Badman" with Carey as the understanding lawman trailing good guy outlaw Wayne. The following year brought him to "Red River", again with Wayne. Carey's son, Harry Jr. also appears in the film, the only time father and son were cast in the same picture, although they do not appear together in any scenes.
Carey was ailing quite a bit by this time. "Red River" and a Disney film called "So Dear to My Heart", in which he played an understanding judge, were his last films. Both pictures were released a year after his death which occurred on September 21, 1947 at Brentwood, California. He died from a combination of lung cancer and long ongoing emphysema from cigarettes, and pneumonia as a young man. Carey was buried in his cowboy outfit at a ceremony that was attended by more than one thousand admirers.
In addition to Harry Jr., the Carey's also had a daughter named Ella. Both children were raised on the ranch near Saugus, California. Carey's wife Olive, a creditable actor in her own right, continued to act in films. Most notable was her performance in Ford's 1956 classic "The Searchers"with son, Harry, Jr. She died on March 13, 1988 at the age of 92.