|Robert John Horner was born September 14, 1895 in Spring Valley, Illinois. There were tragic events in his youth: when he was six years old, he lost both legs while playing on the Rock Island railroad tracks in Spring Valley; a few years later, his father deserted the family; and Robert wound up living from about 1906 - 1913 at the Jesse Spaulding School for Crippled Children and later, at the Working Boys Home in Chicago (which is now the Mercy Home for Boys and Girls in Chicago). The Chicago Tribune / ProQuest had articles on Horner. And the Newspaper Archive had papers from his hometown of Spring Valley, Bureau County, Illinois:
- April 27, 1900 Bureau County Illinois Tribune: "Robbie Horner, the six-year old son of Mr. and Mrs. Dan Horner, who was thrown under the cars at Spring Valley last week and had both legs cut off, was still alive yesterday and may possibly recover."
- July 27, 1900 Bureau County Illinois Tribune: "Dan Horner, of Spring Valley, has sued the C. R. I. & P railroad company for $50,000. The claim is for damages sustained by Horner's little son ..."
- April 26, 1901 Bureau County Illinois Tribune: "The case of Robert Horner, a six-year-old boy of Spring Valley vs. the Rock Island company was tried in the circuit court yesterday." ; "... jury was instructed by the court to award the sum of $225 to the boy, as it was conceded that the railroad company could not be held liable for the boy ... while playing on the right of way."
- March 24, 1905 Bureau County Illinois Tribune - excerpt: "Ex-Alderman Dan Horner of Spring Valley, robbed his brother William of $600, and Charles Costello of $80 and skipped the town."
- March, 1908 Chicago Illinois Daily Tribune had several articles about hearings on charges of abuse / cruelty to children by the superintendant of the Jesse Spaulding School for Crippled Children.
- September 27, 1923 Spring Valley Illinois Gazette - headline: "FORMER VALLEY BOY, LEGLESS FILM GENIUS, IS MARRIED." ; Article excerpt: "Robert J. Horner, at one time a resident of Spring Valley (Illinois), legless motion picture producer, and Miss Frieda Bohn of Chicago, his boyhood sweetheart, were married ..."
- October 11, 1923 Spring Valley Illinois Gazette had a lengthy article on Horner with many details on his early years. Excerpts: "He is a son of Mr. and Mrs. Daniel Horner, former residents of Spring Valley and the boy lost his limbs while playing on the Rock Island tracks in this city, about twenty years ago." ; "The story of Robert Horner's life was told by Father Quille, directing genius of the Working Boys' Home in Chicago." ; "His father had deserted his family down in Spring Valley, Ill. It was in that town, I believe, that he lost his legs in a railroad accident." ; "... he entered this home December 28, 1906; and left in March, 1913." ; "Horner had four operations on his limbs while still in his early teens. The last one took the remaining stumps."
When he registered for the World War I draft in 1917, he was in Chicago and his occupation was "paper writing, North Shore Review". About three years later, he's in California working on Hoot Gibson oaters at Universal. Trades had many articles on Horner, and following are a few highlights and a timeline:
- April 15, 1916 Moving Picture World - excerpt: "Bob Horner, scenario writer, has been elected president of the United Pen Club, an organization composed of many authors in and about the middle west. At a banquet held March 26 (1916) at 4040 Broadway, Chicago ... Mr. Horner was unanimously elected president."
- April 13, 1918 Motion Picture News: "L. J. Pollard, president and general manager of the Ebony Film Corporation, of Chicago ... has closed a long-term contract with Bob Horner, the Chicago scenarioist and newspaper writer, to manage its script department and prepare material for the organization."
- September 28, 1918 Motion Picture News: "... Bob Horner, the writer, has severed his affiliations with the Ebony Film Corporation, where he was serving as scenario editor and continuity writer. Mr. Horner ... has joined the Colored-Players Film Company, a new organization, which intends to release through state rights."
- June 5, 1920 Wid's Daily - excerpt: "... general shakeup in the scenario department of serials and western production at Universal City, Hope Loring, executive head, announces the following personnel: Robert Horner, writing for 'Hoot' Gibson ..."
- June 5, 1920 Camera!: "Bob Horner, continuity writer from the East ... is scenarizing Louis D. Lighton's series of Western dramas for Hoot Gibson."
- December 11, 1920 Camera!: "Bob Horner, formerly connected with Universal, is now directing a series of western dramas for the Beau Arts Film Company, an Eastern concern."
- January 14, 1922 Exhibitors Trade Review had an article on Bob Horner, general manager of the Western Classic Sales company, and his plans for two and five-reel westerns for the independent market.
- April 11, 1925 Exhibitors Trade Review: "Bob Horner, who heads his own company in Hollywood has signed a contract with Nathan Hirsh of the Aywon Film Corporation to produce a series of six western thrill dramas featuring Kit Carson. Horner is well known in the state right field having directed and produced pictures with Marjorie Daw, Eva Novak, Jack Perrin and George Larkin. The first picture of the series, 'His Greatest Battle', has already been completed."
- September 7, 1926 Film Daily: "Robert J. Horner ... is preparing a ten episode serial under the working title of 'The Mansion of Mystery' ..."
- November 23, 1927 Film Daily: "Robert J. Horner, who wrote and directed 'The Mansion of Mystery' serial for Wm. M. Pizor, is preparing the continuity on his next, 'Riders of the Plains', a western in ten episodes."
From the early 1920s through the mid 1930s, he ran his own Poverty Row film production companies churning out ultra cheap features and a serial for the independent market. During those dozen or so years, he was often associated with the Aywon Film Corporation. Pronounced A 1 - just like the steak sauce - Aywon was formed in 1919 by Nathan Hirsh. Perhaps Horner had some financial interest in Hirsh's company which disappeared into Hollywood obscurity around 1935.
Horner often did multiple functions - producing, directing, editing, and penning stories and scripts, and he used a four-wheeled cart to maneuver himself around on the sets. Released through independent film exchanges, his cinematic underachievements wound up as the second feature on a double bill at movie houses in small towns and rural areas.
His silent oaters featured Art Acord, Jack Perrin, Fred Church, Ted Wells (as "Pawnee Bill, Jr."), and William Barrymore / Boris Bullock (as "Kit Carson"). Barrymore also had the lead in the ten chapter serial THE MANSION OF MYSTERY (William Pizor Prod., 1927) which Horner directed and William M. Pizor distributed. When sound arrived, Horner employed silent screen heroes whose careers were in decline - including Buffalo Bill Jr., Bill Cody, Perrin and Wells.
If his films were reviewed in the trade publications, the results were negative. Couple of excerpts below from Variety:
Jack Perrin's KID FROM ARIZONA (1931): "Western contains nothing unusual to recommend it beyond the smallest houses."
Jack Perrin's WILD WEST WHOOPEE (1931): "One of the poorest independent westerns turned out since dialog. Too weak for anything but the 10-15 grinds and only on a double bill."
In his book Hollywood Corral (Film Fan Monthly, 1976), the late Don Miller had words about Horner and his westerns:
"Mr. Horner was a man with ... small resources, and his artistic pretentions were forthrightly nonexistent."
Relating to Bill Cody's trio for Horner: "These odorous efforts were apparently produced around 1935; difficult to tell, since they played in so few theaters ..."
"Sometimes descriptions of films at the nadir are impossible, since the printed word can only fail to adequately impress upon the senses the depths to which bad filmmaking can plummet. One can only point, gagging, to Border Menace, directed by Jack Nelson, and run. Another Aywon debacle is Phantom Cowboy, directed by Horner personally ..."
Horner and his companies operated under many names. Circa 1923, he was Robert Horner Pictures, Inc. Then Robert J. Horner Productions, Inc. In the 1937 Film Daily Product Guide and Directors' Annual, Horner is the president of two companies, Roadshow Classics and American Pictures Corp., and both were located at 4376 Sunset Drive, Hollywood.
He scrounged money for his next cinema venture from whomever ... sometimes failing to pay salaries of people working for him ... and sometimes "borrowing" from actors and actresses who had roles in his films. In summary, he had problems making payroll and there were many legal wranglings. Check out the newspaper clippings from 1927 further down this webpage.
The 1929 Stock Market Crash, arrival of talking pictures, and the Depression weren't kind to Horner and further impacted his plans and financial troubles.
In October, 1932, Jack Perrin won a $1475.00 court judgement for salary that Horner owed him for starring in five early talkies (see clipping further down this webpage). A few months later, Horner filed for bankruptcy:
February 7, 1933 issue of Variety: "Los Angeles, Feb. 6. Practically the only assets listed by Robert J. Horner, independent producer, who filed a bankruptcy petition here, were six silent western negatives. Horner's liabilities amount to $29,573 and include a large proportion of unpaid labor claims. Assets total $1500."
His last film projects were a couple of western series starring Ted Wells and Bill Cody. Five dirt-cheap oaters were made and released in 1934 - 1935.
The August 21, 1934 Film Daily reported that Horner was shooting "The Phantom Bandit" with Ted Wells (that was released as THE PHANTOM COWBOY). A month later, Film Daily noted that Horner was planning an eight film series for Wells, and DEFYING THE LAW (Aywon, 1935) had been completed and was the first of the batch. However, the remaining six were never lensed.
Too bad Ted Wells had to attempt a return to stardom with Horner, as THE PHANTOM COWBOY (Aywon, 1935) is a mess. Wells has a dual role and also plays the caped "phantom cowboy". Jimmy Aubrey is his overacting sidekick "Ptomaine Pete". This thing has rotten dialog, a stationary camera, and other issues. But the worse is when Wells and Aubrey decide to go swimming and strip down to their skivvies. A substitute phantom steals their clothes, gunbelts and horses, and Ted and Jimmy spend about 10 minutes doing scenes in their underwear.
Just prior to that short-lived comeback try for Wells, Horner had Bill Cody starring in three: BORDER GUNS (Aywon, 1934), THE BORDER MENACE (Aywon, 1934) and WESTERN RACKETEERS (Aywon, 1934). MENACE is the film that many consider to be the worst, most inept B western that was ever filmed. Jimmy Aubrey is in this one also as Cody's over-the-top sidekick "Polecat Pete" (and billed as "Jimmie Aubrey" in the opening titles). He also picked up an extra dollar or two as the film editor (and credited as the more formal "James Aubrey"). Cody alternates between two outfits - one has light shirt and pants and a multi-colored cowhide vest, and the other is a slick, black shirt (sans the vest). There's a brawl between Cody, Benny Corbett, and others beginning around the sixteen minute mark, and during the fight, Cody's shirt gets torn behind his right armpit. No time for a wardrobe change or sewing repair on a Horner film - keep on filmin' !
Horner must have liked Aubrey as he employed him in three with Jack Perrin, the pair with Ted Wells, and two of the Bill Codys. As mentioned, he even did film editing for BORDER MENACE. Likewise with George Chesebro who turns up in a dozen of Horner's 1930s cheapo sagebrushers (five with Perrin; two with Wells; all three of the Codys; and one each with Jay Wilsey (Buffalo Bill Jr.) and Wallace MacDonald).
Horner's movie makin' days ended with those Ted Wells and Bill Cody westerns. Plans were announced for some Spanish language films, but that never happened (see blurb on the right).
Forty five year old Robert J. Horner passed away on July 29, 1942 at the City-County Hospital in El Paso, Texas, and the cause of death was cirrhosis of the liver. He was divorced and occupation was "projectionist".
While Horner's career is chock full of negatives and criticisms, give him credit for overcoming the loss of his legs and a very difficult childhood and family life.
On the next webpage, you'll find more on Robert J. Horner, producer, director, et al. And there's info on the 25 year old Robert J. Horner who was killed in a car accident in 1935.
Above - Horner in his mid twenties. From the December 10, 1921 Exhibitors Trade Review, available at the Internet Archive.
He was "Bob Horner" in early trade publications but by 1922 or so, he was the more formal "Robert J. Horner".
Above - 1925 theater ad for one of Horner's western silents with Jack Perrin.
Above - 1928 theater ad for one of Horner's Pawnee Bill, Jr. adventures.
(Courtesy of Les Adams)
Above - September 26, 1939 article about Horner's plans for a series of Spanish language films. That never happened.