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Richard Widmark: A Princeton legend

Editor’s note: This is the first segment of a two-part series on John Ford and the Careys.

Richard Widmark made three more westerns in the first half of the 1960s: “Two Rode Together” (1961), “How The West Was Won” (1962), and “Cheyenne Autumn” (1964).  All three movies had John Ford as the director, though Ford was only one of three directors for “How The West Was Won,” and Widmark was not in his segment. Widmark co-starred with James Stewart in “Two Rode Together” and with Carroll Baker and a stellar cast in “Cheyenne Autumn.” Harry Carey Jr. and Ken Curtis were in the cast of both films.

The Widmark family bought Harry and Olive (Ollie) Carey’s sprawling ranch home off of Mandeville Canyon, Calif., after the death of Harry Carey who died in 1947 of pneumonia. Harry Carey Jr. and his wife, Marilyn, lived there also, as it was a large place. Before Ollie could put it on the market, the Widmarks made her an offer. She accepted it. Mrs. Carey said, “I was glad to turn the house over to people who really loved it and appreciated its charm.” 

Harry Carey was a western star of the silent era and into the sound movies. He was the star of John Ford’s first feature film, “Straight Shooting” (1918), and Richard Widmark saw him on the screen as a child when his grandmother would take him to the movies. This must have been life at its best for him to purchase this particular home. When Widmark was set to make a film out of the country, Ollie Carey was the one who watched over the ranch and their livestock. They had some trouble with daughter, Anne, about her not wanting to leave her pets, but the child relented, knowing Ollie would be taking care of them. Widmark said, “Annie knows that Ollie is as silly about animals as she is.”

Harry Carey Jr. made six movies with Widmark, five of them westerns. Carey Jr. was married to Marilyn Fix, the daughter of actor Paul Fix, who played the marshal, Michah Torrance, on “The Rifleman” television show. I bring all these connections up to show how many of these people, Richard Widmark, John Ford, the Careys, Ken Curtis (he was married to John Ford’s daughter, Barbara), and John Wayne were each a layer in the western genre that overlapped at one time or another, on and off screen. Many times it was these connections that brought actors roles or led directors to the actors. Widmark was the impetus himself for landing his own role in Ford’s “Cheyenne Autumn” (1964) which I’ll write about down the line.

“Two Rode Together” is a straight forward tale that is both harsh and light hearted at times. It is the story of two very different men. The cynical marshal of Tascosa, Texas, (now a ghost town of the Texas Panhandle), James Stewart as Guthrie McCabe, who is kept in money and fine garments by the local madam Belle Aragon (Annelle Hayes), and an idealistic cavalry first lieutenant, Richard Widmark as Jim Gary. Lt. Gary is sent from Fort Grant to recruit McCabe to go on a mission to bring back white children taken by the Comanche Indians, led by Chief Quanah Parker. (Quanah Parker was a real person. The son of a Comanche chief and Cynthia Ann Parker, an English-American, who was kidnapped at the age of 9 and assimilated into his tribe.)

Lt. Gary is often repulsed by Marshal McCabe, for he is corrupt and exploitative. This is not a heroic role for Stewart at times, though his character is very redeeming at the end. They have one scene that is well worth seeing the movie for, it is pure John Ford, and a pure pleasure to watch. It is light hearted, several minutes long, and takes place in the first part of the movie with Widmark and Stewart sitting on a log, smoking cigars, along the river bank. Widmark and Stewart realistically play off each other. Stewart has a little more of the dialogue, but Widmark’s listening and reacting is equal in skill. The entire movie is filled with these same quality dialogues, maybe the best in any Ford western. 

When John Quelen as Ole Knudsen makes his plea to Stewart’s character to find his “Freda” who was 9 when taken, it really rips your heart out. Stewart coldly tells him “the Comanche mate their women at a young age, and she probably has two half-breeds by now. Go home and forget about her.” 

“Dats no make no matter to me,” a teary eyed Ole says and takes his $285 from his pocket and smacks it on the table – seven years of savings. John Quelen was the master character actor who did the Swedish immigrant broken accent better than anyone. He was born in Canada and grew up in Elgin, Illinois. He was a John Ford regular, like the Careys. Widmark always expected to be surrounded by good supporting actors, and on a Ford film, he was. He never seems to try to monopolize a film, and maybe this is why he worked well with John Ford. Even on his worst day, Ford made movies better than most. 

Carey Jr. and Ken Curtis play the idiot Clegg brothers whose mother had been abducted many years ago. There is a scene at the Comanche camp where Widmark and Stewart are getting settled in a teepee and an old, obviously white woman is in with them. She is telling them about the other captive whites. She tells them she is Hanna Clegg, the fool boy’s mother. She begs them not to tell her family she is there. Widmark, with a tender sympathy, asks her if she wants to be listed as dead.  “I am dead,” she replies. It is a short scene but important to the telling of the story. It must have been very moving for Widmark to do the scene. The very professional actress was Mae Marsh. She started in silent movies in 1910, was in the most racially charged scene of “Birth Of A Nation” (1915) for W.D. Griffith, made over 200 movies, and was seen on film by Richard Widmark (and as a child with his grandmother) on many occasions. Widmark was a movie junky. He knew who this lady was.

There was some friction on the set, but it was mainly due to frivolities and age. Stewart insisted on wearing the same hat he wore in a decade of Westerns, and Ford wanted him to change it. Stewart and Widmark were a little hard-of-hearing and in need of help from the makeup department wig-makers. They needed a little hair added in front. Ford, on purpose, would sit far away from them while directing scenes, and then give them directions in a quiet voice they could barely hear. When neither one of the stars could make out what their director was saying, Ford would theatrically announce to his crew, that after over 40 years in the business, he was reduced to directing two deaf toupees. This was typical John Ford. He could be extraordinarily cruel. Both stars were professionals and neither ever took the bait. Widmark loved working with John Ford no matter. He said, “John Ford was so funny that I couldn’t wait to go to work in the morning.” 

Widmark and Ford both liked working outdoors as opposed to the studio. “He enjoys working in the fresh air,” as Widmark described John Ford making Westerns. Widmark treasured his work with the great John Ford, “I’m glad I got him as a director at all.”

We’ll get into the second half of this story next time with more on Widmark, Ford and “Two Rode Together.” You better be here or as Festus Hagen (Ken Curtis) would say, “I’ll get after you like thunder after lightnin’.”

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