He’s been called everything from a homicidal moron to a cowboy Robin Hood – but whoever and whatever Billy the Kid really was, his brief and bloody career earned him an enduring place in the American imagination…and created a virtual cottage industry in Hollywood, where his legend has been mined, refined and reshaped in more than 60 motion pictures.
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June 21, 2010 · Posted in Legends, Western  

Two ranches stood off the road to Newhall, California – one, an austere little spread that barely covered three acres; the other, a sprawling hilltop estate called Horseshoe Ranch, the home of the great film legend William S. Hart. By contrast, the tiny place in the valley below had neither a fancy name nor a picturesque view … yet the man who lived there, literally in Hart’s shadow, would eventually become a legend, too. His name was Harry Carey.

harrycarey4Based on his work as a beloved character actor of the 1930s and ‘40s, Carey’s reputation is as secure and deserved as any in film history – yet the same historians who cemented that reputation have also shrugged off his early work as a cowboy star, unfairly keeping him in another man’s shadow by painting his silent Cheyenne Harry series as mere imitation Hart. But it isn’t that simple.

By the time the first Cheyenne Harry two-reeler appeared in 1916, Hart had been electrifying audiences with his “good badman” roles for two years. But dramatically reformed outlaws had been a staple of Western film since Broncho Billy Anderson invented the cowboy series hero in 1907, and D.W. Griffith’s numerous oaters (including several featuring Carey) had offered stories about good badmen as early as 1910.

Hart’s take on the convention, his emphasis on realism and dignity, was a major contribution to the form – but it takes nothing away from either man to note that by the time Hart made his debut, Carey had already begun projecting the same qualities in his own work. Being the men they were, how could either have done anything else?

But it was their differences for which we remember them now. Hart’s austere Victorian façade, his constantly reenacted transitions from poetic loner to vengeful scorched-earth avenger, struck a chord in the audiences of his time; today, though, he’s seen more as a museum piece than as the gritty realistic character for which he was taken during the WWI era.

Carey, on the other hand, registers with a persona that still seems largely contemporary to modern viewers. Some of what he’s called on to do is old-fashioned in dramatic terms, but his cynical antihero is the genuine article. He’d made the Bogart thing his own when Bogie himself was barely out of short pants, coupled with a prototypical American look that was a cross between Will Rogers and Abraham Lincoln.

Most of the early films in Carey’s Cheyenne Harry series are among the lost works of the silent era, but one important effort remains: the 1917 Straight Shooting, which was not only the first feature-length Cheyenne Harry film, but also the first feature directed by John Ford.

As Ford’s biographer Tag Gallagher has noted, Ford was very much Carey’s 6a00d83451be5969e200e54f346eb88833-640wijunior partner on this production. Ford had worked his way up in the movie business as an assistant to his brother Francis – whose own sizable and once-popular body of early work deserves a new look – and had only recently struck out on his own as a fledgling director.

(In later years, Ford would be known for driving tough leading men to tears, but during work on Straight Shooting, he deferred to Carey’s experience and slept with the rest of the company in bedrolls on the grounds of Carey’s home. To his credit, as an elder statesman Ford would take pains to acknowledge Carey as the man who’d taught him the essentials of working with actors and making films.)

Universal Pictures was evidently considering pulling the plug on the Cheyenne Harry series, but for Ford it was still a big break … and neither he nor his star was ready to ride quietly into the sunset. The picture had been planned as another modest two-reeler, but Carey and Ford saw more potential in the story and simply refused to stop shooting. The story has it that Ford wheedled more film and shooting time out of the front office by concocting a tall tale about losing the original footage in a river. When it became clear that he and Carey were turning in a final product that was over twice its budgeted length, studio officials were outraged … but the quality of the rushes convinced Universal that the savvy old pro and the ambitious kid were on to something.

By giving the story a full five reels to breathe, Carey and Ford could use its traditional ranchers-vs.-farmers setup as a backdrop for a compelling human drama dotted with little touches that lifted it above the run-of-the-mill oater. Some moments are simple throwaways, such as the blink-and-you-miss-it business of one of the bad guys turning on a Victrola for a little (silent) background music in the gang’s headquarters. Other moments are pivotal and striking, such as actor George Berrell’s transformation from a comical proto-Gabby Hayes figure to a heartbreaking grieving father.

At times, one has the feeling of discovering the recurring motifs of Ford’s mature work alongside him. His use of a claustrophobically narrow passage through a rocky outcrop seems a clear precursor of his later love affair with the anomalies of Monument Valley. And his constant use of open doorways in the interior sets, which lend an air of verisimilitude and parallel action to the scenes, would culminate four decades later in the final shot of The Searchers.

If Ford’s work on Straight Shooting seems less than polished today, it’s still one of the most compelling pieces of on-the-job training ever committed to film – and in its day it was electrifying.

straightEqually unforgettable is Carey’s virtuoso turn as a hard-bitten thug who’s hired to wipe out the sodbusters, only to switch sides after getting an unexpected look at the misery his kind of violence leaves behind. Carey swears off killing, but it’s not that easy; his new alliance with the farmers has made him a target of the gang who’d hired him. One of the film’s finest moments occurs just after Cheyenne Harry’s been forced to shoot a former compatriot down in a sad dusty street. To the frightened townspeople, he’s still just another killer, and he realizes that he has no one with whom to share his mixed feelings but his oblivious, tail-switching horse.

The whole film is resolutely unglamorous. Carey doesn’t even wear a holster, opting to carry his six-gun inside his rumpled shirt. At one point a young cowboy (played by an impossibly boyish Hoot Gibson) topples off his horse while galloping across a stream, a real-life gaffe that fit the film’s warts-and-all approach so perfectly that Ford left it in.

Straight Shooting cleaned up at the box office, and any notion of putting Cheyenne Harry out to pasture was forgotten. Over the next two years, Carey and Ford made another 15 feature-length entries in the series, some highly serious and others wildly whimsical, but few with any concession to conventional notions of heroism. From beginning to end, Carey remained a hard character with criminal tendencies and a talent for drinking himself into a hallucinatory stupor. He was one of the most complex anti-heroes in the history of Western films.

Eighteen years after the series ended, Carey resurrected Cheyenne Harry for the 1937 Ghost Town, a leisurely low-budget programmer set in the “modern West.” At 59, Carey was well into that flinty Dutch uncle phase of his career for which he’s most celebrated, and no longer the hardcase of his silent features. But his personal charm and unique no-frills style were as effective as ever, and as the villains learned in an explosive climax, a mellow Cheyenne Harry was still no one to cross.


It was Cheyenne Harry’s last ride, but even today those with their ears to the ground can pick up the vibrations of his silent mount’s hoofbeats. Carey never equaled Hart’s immense stardom, but neither did he become a prisoner of it – for Hart’s genius was so utterly personal that he became as much his own monument as that magnificent hilltop ranch, a towering bronze figure whose retirement in 1925 guaranteed that his image would be forever frozen in time.

Carey outlived Hart by a year, retired only by his death in 1947. He left a harry_carey1different but equally imposing monument behind, built of the enduring freshness of his work, and the long reach of his influence: in the achievement of his friend and student John Ford; in the career of John Wayne, who based his screen persona on Carey’s; and in every generation that re-invents the “adult” Western he helped pioneer.

It’s an achievement as big as they come in the movies, thanks in no small part to a half-forgotten scoundrel with the unlikely name of Cheyenne Harry.

February 6, 2009 · Posted in Legends, Western