REMEMBERING HARRY CAREY, JR.

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by Leonard Maltin
December 29, 2012 1:00 AM
17 Comments
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A Harry Carey, Jr. trading card from the 1950s
The last survivor of John Ford’s stock company has left us. Harry Carey, Jr. died peacefully, on the 27th, two days after Christmas at the age of 91. Everyone who was lucky enough to spend time with Carey—whose lifelong nickname was Dobe—basked in the glow of his wonderful stories. Thank goodness he set so many of them down in a book, Company of Heroes, and made himself available to interviewers and historians over the years.

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.

Dobe’s father the great 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.

Carey in his breakout role in ‘Three Godfathers’ (1948)

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.

Four Western veterans reunite in the 1980s: Iron Eyes Cody, Pat Buttram, Harry Carey, Jr. Yakima Canutt

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17 Comments

  • Jeff Lunt | August 8, 2013 10:08 AMReply

    Dobe's autobiography is one of the best I've ever read, and I've read a lot of them. I always liked him in the old westerns as he had a gentle quality that always came through. He is in a good place now and just waiting for the rest of the gang to show up around the ranch. Until that time...

  • Mickey Fisher | January 1, 2013 5:47 PMReply

    I had the pleasure of meeting him and his wonderful wife Marilyn at the (so far) only John Wayne convention. They were the highlight and absolute joys! His autobiography had just come out, and I was thrilled to purchase a copy from him, which he signed for me. What a great read. I wish someone would write a book on his father. He later let me know he was working on another book entitled 'Growing Up Western,' which would have covered his father's life as well, but I know his health problems has already started by then.

  • Cowboy Bob | December 31, 2012 8:28 PMReply

    Although there are many heroes in my life mostly western actors John Wayne being one. Harry Carey Jr. was one I always enjoyed watching work with many western actors. He was a hero in my life and a man I strive to be like.

  • Jim Beaver | December 31, 2012 5:31 PMReply

    Leonard, you always have such fine things to say and such a fine way of saying them. Dobe was a wonderful man, much beloved by my own dear friend Hank Worden. I will say, though, that Maureen O'Hara with 5 appearances for Ford, Vera Miles with 4, and Patrick Wayne with more than both of them combined (10) are still very much with us from the Ford Stock Company.

  • William Bailey | December 31, 2012 10:59 AMReply

    your tribute to Harry Carey Jr was spot on.many baby boomers first saw him for the first time as bill burnett in the spin and marty series on the mickey mouse club.as we grew older we realized he was in many more movies we enjoyed weather it be a movie with john wayne or just on tv .there were so many movies that were rerun on tv that his exposure was multiplyed to new fans. for over the years fans grew to love just about any movie he was in.harry will be greatly missed by all his fans.

  • Kristine Roades | December 30, 2012 9:12 PMReply

    How many little girls grew up watching "Boone and Tyree" and wanting to be/ride horses just like them?
    I sent Mr. Carey a fan letter, and he sent ME a thank you note for the fan letter! What a gentleman. I have a copy of his book --autographed to me AND to my horse (I'd mentioned my horse in the fan letter, and he remembered). My condolances to the Carey family.

  • Melinda Carey | December 30, 2012 5:01 PMReply

    Thank you Leonard for capturing my father so well. The Carey clan appreciates your long time friendship and your tribute to him.

  • Mickey Fisher | January 1, 2013 5:48 PM

    Ms. Carey: Thank you for sharing your father with us.

  • J.Hoerth | December 29, 2012 9:36 PMReply

    Great article. Glad someone took the time to remember Harry Carey Jr. Sad to hear he passed away & even more sad when I heard it lastnight and realized he was the last of the John Ford stock company and now has joined the others in the big ranch in the sky! However it is nice to just go to my dvd collection where I have tons of his films and pop one into the dvd player!!

  • Nat Segaloff | December 29, 2012 5:15 PMReply

    Thank you for this, Leonard. I was waiting to read whatever you posted, expecting it to be the most informed and evocative. It is.

  • KathyG | December 29, 2012 5:08 PMReply

    I was saddened to hear of Harry Carey, Jr's death as well. I really enjoyed your article, to learn more about him. I too, as a baby boomer, remember him best for his role in the Spin and Marty series. Between Mr. Carry, Jr and Roy Barcroft (who I see passed away in 1969) as the two main "adult" performers in that show, Disney sure did pick two very "western cowboy" professionals actors for the roles. RIP Mr. Carey.

  • Karen Snow | December 29, 2012 4:30 PMReply

    A wonderful tribute Leonard. I read Carey's book when it came out and loved it, and I have fond memories of seeing him at Cinecon. "Wagonmaster" is one of my favorites, and I'll be on the lookout for the WB version with the commentary track. Another link to the old days passes -- he will be missed !

  • Kay | December 29, 2012 4:26 PMReply

    Dear Leonard, I remember him so well in so many films, but my kids will recall him best from Spin & Marty on the Mickey Mouse Club. Thanks for this lovely tribute. I'll take your advice on Wagon Master...especially as the other Ford regulars are on it, too. Kay www.MovieStarMakeover.com/blog/

  • Bob Giovanelli | December 29, 2012 3:29 PMReply

    This is sad to read, as I finally watched "3 Godfathers" on TCM on Christmas Eve last week, and was glad to read on IMDB that Harry Carey Jr. was still around! Little did I know...

  • Ed | December 29, 2012 2:18 PMReply

    This is sad news indeed. The Company of Heroes is a marvelous book on the man who is certainly the greatest film director this country has produced; Mr. Carey's book gives a lot of first=hand insight into Ford (altho, as he says, it was impossible at times to understand the man completely).

  • James Knuttel | December 29, 2012 1:44 PMReply

    I met Harry Carey, Jr. at the Lone Pine Film Festival several years ago. He was a fine character actor and a very nice man.

  • Barry Robertson | December 29, 2012 5:20 AMReply

    That is sad news. Like many film fans, I first became aware of Harry Carey Jr through the work of John Ford. I think you are right to highlight his role in Wagonmaster as one of his best, although I also particularly liked him in Rio Grande. He and Ben Johnson certainly played very well off each other. It's a bit of a shame that Carey Jr didn't get the same opportunity as Johnson to shine in his later career (during the 1960s and 70s). Carey Jr did make regular appearances in the films of Andrew V. McLaglen but the roles were too small for him to do much with. A prime example is his part in The Devil's Brigade. Carey Jr can be seen on screen on a number of occasions but has very little in the way of dialogue. But better this than no Carey Jr at all. It was always great to see him in films, no matter how big or small the part.

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