As a baby boomer, I first knew him as Bill Burnett on Spin and Marty, the serial that was such a popular part of Walt Disney’s daily television show The Mickey Mouse Club. It was only later that I realized what an extraordinary life and career he had.
His father was John Ford’s first star and collaborator, Harry Carey, and his mother Olive Golden Carey was also an actress—first in silent films during the teens, then later as a character woman in the 1950s and 60s. Dobe married the daughter of another prominent character actor, Paul Fix. It was quite a family. His father and Ford had a falling-out which was never fully explained or understood. Toward the end of Harry Senior’s life he told his son that after he died, the Old Man would most likely look after Junior and cast him in a film…and that’s exactly what happened. Dobe was given a costarring role with John Wayne and Pedro Armendariz in Ford’s beautiful production Three Godfathers…and came through with flying colors. Ford even dedicated the film to Harry Carey, Sr.
That didn’t stop the famously quixotic director from needling young Dobe or making his life as difficult as any other actor in his troupe.
Dobe once wrote, “John Ford could see, in detail, something going on two hundred yards away. And probably hear every word even though he said ‘What?’ all the time. He never missed a thing. He knew what was going on behind him and we never caught him looking. When he was very old he did have a cataract removed from his left eye and wore a patch over it afterwards because he said it was overly sensitive to light. But most of us believed it was because it was the ham in him that caused him to wear it. I loved him like a father and so did the rest of his gang but we all felt that he was playing his role a lot of the time. He always wore dark glasses, though, so you could never see where he was looking. His daughter Barbara always said, ‘He didn’t want you to see those soft, kindly eyes.’ ”
If you want to give yourself a real treat, get ahold of Warner Home Video’s DVD release of Wagon Master (1950). One of John Ford’s personal favorites among his films, Wagon Master is a film of modest ambition and enormous charm. It afforded the director an opportunity to showcase two of his “discoveries,” wrangler-turned-actor Ben Johnson and Dobe. They are perfectly cast (in tailor-made roles) as carefree young men who are persuaded to help a wagon train of Mormons make their way to their new homestead. All the emblematic ingredients of a Ford Western are here, from the majestic scenery of Moab, Utah to spirited scenes of folk-dancing. Four of Stan Jones’ evocative songs are beautifully sung on the soundtrack by the Sons of the Pioneers, while Richard Hageman’s score extends those themes and makes fine use of other Americana. The cast is full of familiar Ford faces like Ward Bond, Jane Darwell, Hank Worden, Russell Simpson, and the director’s brother Francis Ford, along with such newcomers as Kathleen O’Malley and young James Arness.
But the real treat, especially for film buffs who already know the picture—aside from having such a beautiful copy as this—is a commentary track featuring director Peter Bogdanovich and Dobe Carey. Bogdanovich aptly describes the director’s work here as silent picture-making (every shot—without calling attention to itself—is perfectly framed, and wonderfully descriptive, a credit to veteran cameraman Bert Glennon), and shares generous excerpts from his audio interview with Ford from 1966. Carey has vivid memories of making this film and gives us a wonderful sense of being there, whether recalling one of his costars or complaining that “Uncle Jack” placed his hat on his head for one scene in a way that made him feel like the Village Idiot—but one dared not touch an article of clothing that the boss had arranged to his liking.
Being with Dobe and his loving wife Marilyn (who survives him) was never dull. He loved telling stories, especially to an appreciative audience, whether it was over dinner or in front of a camera. One night my wife and I ran into him and Marilyn at a local restaurant after I’d read a biography of William Mulholland which told the horrifying story of the 1927 dam break that flooded Harry Carey, Sr.’s ranch in Saugus, not far from William S. Hart’s property. I asked Dobe if he had any memories of the incident, and indeed he did: he was six years old, and although he and his mother were in New York at the time of the tragedy, he vividly recalled its aftermath. He especially felt terrible losing his friends among the ranch hands who died in the flood. How many other people could I discuss this with seventy years after it took place?
I feel awfully lucky to have known him.