There was probably no living man, certainly no living film star, who forged a deeper link to the past than Harry Carey, Jr., who passed today at the age of 91.
His father was the quintessential cowboy star in the last age when that had something to do with playing actual cowboys. The man the elder Carey made his deepest mark with, and left a very deep mark on, in the early silent era–roughly the late teens and early twenties–was the young director John Ford, who, after he and Carey, Sr. had a falling out (Ford had them with everyone sooner or later, though most were repaired), went on to become the singular giant of American cinema.
On one of the commentary or extra tracks for one of Ford’s westerns (I don’t have the time to look up which just now, unfortunately), the younger Carey said that when Ford was in ascendance in the thirties, his father told him Ford would never hire him again…but when the time came he would hire Carey, Jr. himself.
The time happened to be just after Harry, Sr. died, when Ford dedicated Three Godfathers, his next film, to him. And he hired his son (who gave a performance worthy of the faith displayed by both older men) to star in it.
After that, Carey, Jr. was a ubiquitous presence, not just in Ford’s films, but in westerns particularly and films generally, for decades. And when his acting day was finally done, he wrote a well-regarded memoir specifically devoted to his time in Ford’s stock company and made himself available for numerous interviews and documentaries where he never failed to project the prime family trait in spades.
That quality was fundamental, old-fashioned decency and having a father and son who wore its mantle so easily and unassumedly around for a nearly a combined century–as a reminder of possibilities in a degenerating world–was probably worth as much on its own as the legacy of all those wonderful films.
For my money, the younger Carey’s signature performance (among many fine ones) was in The Searchers, where the manner and timing of his early death shaped the story in ways few, if any, critics have ever written about. I think Carey probably did not mind being largely passed over in the volumes dedicated to a film that has been written about–and dissected–as thoroughly (and from as many conceivable angles) as any.
He seemed to be from the school that believed if they didn’t talk about you–if people took it for granted that just about anyone could have played those crucial scenes that ended up being on your shoulders–it meant you had done it right.
And that having done it right–on screen or off–was its own best reward.
(For a nice excerpt involving Ford and John Wayne from Carey, Jr’s memoir, please check here)