In his book Hollywood Corral (Film Fan Monthly, 1976), the late Don Miller had words about Robert J. 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 ..."
Tradepapers even had quips on Horner and his efforts and finances. The November 7, 1933 issue of Variety reported a "$1,000 WESTERN." and "Hollywood, Nov. 6. With $1,000 in his jeans, Bob Horner has taken a company to the San Bernadino mountains to make a western. Bill Cody is starred."
From about 1920 through the late 1930s, Horner ran Poverty Row film production companies churning out ultra cheap features and a serial for the independent, states right market. During that period, he did films for Ralph M. Like's Exhibitors Film Corporation, Morris R. Schlank's Anchor distributing company, W. Ray Johnston and Rayart, William M. Pizor, others. Horner is often associated with the Aywon Film Corporation. Pronounced A 1 - just like the steak sauce - Aywon was formed about 1919 by Nathan Hirsh (187? - 1956), who got his start in the movie business by owning a string of theaters in New York. Aywon disappeared into Hollywood history circa 1936 when Hirsh retired.
Horner's production companies operated under many names. Circa 1921, he was Western Classics. Couple years later, he was Robert Horner Pictures, Inc. Then Robert J. Horner Productions, Inc. Jump forward to the mid to late 1930s and he's the boss of Roadshow Classics and American Pictures Corporation. There were other company names.
He often performed multiple functions - producing, directing, editing, and penning stories and scripts. Having lost both legs in a railroad accident as a child, he used a four-wheeled cart to maneuver on the sets. Peddled to 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 who couldn't get - or afford - better fare.
Let's begin with Horner's early years - and the accident that took his legs, the breakup of his family, and abuse at a Chicago school for crippled children where he lived for a time.
Robert John Horner was born September 14, 1894ish in Spring Valley, Bureau County, Illinois. 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 (and brother William) 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 and the Newspaper Archive had papers from his hometown of Spring Valley, 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: "Ex-Alderman Dan Horner of Spring Valley, robbed his brother William of $600, and Charles Costello of $80 and skipped the town."
- March 21 and March 28, 1908 issues of the Chicago, Illinois Daily Tribune had reports of a hearing on child abuse and cruelty charges by the superintendant of the Jesse Spaulding School for Crippled Children. One child who testified "told of a boy whose legs are cut off - Robert Horner. The principal dragged him over the floor and tore his coat."
- October 11, 1923 Spring Valley, Illinois Gazette had a lengthy article on Horner with 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 ... 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 Horner 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 at Universal on Hoot Gibson westerns. There were many trade and newspaper articles on his film career and following are highlights which provide a timeline through the late 1920s:
- 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."
- November 19, 1921 Moving Picture World had an announcement on the creation of Horner's first company: "Bob Horner and Fred Hirons Head Western Classic Company."
- December 24, 1921 Motion Picture News had a photo from Pete Morrison's two-reel THE GATES OF HELL which was among the earliest releases from Horner's Western Classic Sales Company.
- 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.
- March 11, 1922 Camera!: "Bob Horner, directing for Western Classics, recently finished cutting 'Neath Western Skies', featuring Monte Montague and Ena Gregory, and will presently begin preparing the continuity of 'West of the Rockies'."
- July 7, 1923 Camera!: "HORNER SIGNS 2 STARS FOR COMING PICTURE. Robert J. Horner Productions signed Geo. Cheesbro [sic] to play the lead in the serial, 'A Voice from the Air' ..." (and that serial wasn't made or is lost / missing)
- 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 ..."
- September 6, 1924 Moving Picture World: "W. Ray Johnston, President of Rayart Pictures, this week announced the consummation of negotiations with Bob Horner Productions of Los Angeles and Hollywood for the production of a series of six fast action stunt pictures based on newspaper reporter stories. The first picture ... 'Midnight Secrets' and stars George Larkin."
- November 22, 1924 Exhibitors Herald: "Rayart ... announces acquisition of distribution rights for a five-reel production entitled 'Safeguard' featuring Eva Novak." ; "was written and directed by Robert J. Horner and produced on the west coast."
- 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."
- August 5, 1926 Film Daily: "Horner Completes First. Hollywood - Robert J. Horner has completed the first picture of his new series starring Pawnee Bill, Jr., entitled 'The Mystery Rider.'"
- September 7, 1926 Film Daily: "Robert J. Horner ... is preparing a ten episode serial under the working title of 'The Mansion of Mystery' ..."
- July 10, 1927 Film Daily: "Robert J. Horner, head of Associated Independent Producers, has started production on his 1927-28 lineup, consisting of six westerns featuring Montana Bill and six frontier thrillers starring Kit Carson. The first three episodes of 'The Mansion of Mystery' are completed ..."
- 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."
- July 25, 1928 Exhibitors Daily Review: "Ralph M. Like, head of Exhibitors Film Corporation has signed a contract with Art Acord for a series of 8 westerns. R. J. Horner will direct the series, the first of which is 'The White Outlaw'."
The biggest name in Horner's silent oaters was Art Acord who had earlier starred at Universal. His other silent range riders included Jack Perrin, Al Hoxie, Fred Church, Ted Wells, Monte Montague, and Pete Morrison. Another was Elia Bulakh who used screen names of Boris Bullock / William Barrymore, and he became a Horner regular.
Several series were based on real and fictional men of the west - Barrymore was Horner's "Kit Carson"; Ted Wells portrayed "Pawnee Bill, Jr."; and Fred Church was "Montana Bill". Barrymore was also the hero in the ten chapter serial THE MANSION OF MYSTERY (1927) which Horner directed and William M. Pizor distributed. There were a few non-westerns - for example, Horner was with Rayart circa 1924 and doing newspaper reporter yarns starring George Larkin.
Throughout his career, Horner was plagued by money problems. He scrounged dollars for his next cinema venture from whomever ... sometimes failing to pay salaries of people working for him ... sometimes "borrowing" from actors and actresses who had roles in his films ... and sometimes promising film jobs to people in exchange for money. In summary, he had problems bankrolling his films, making payroll, and there were many legal wranglings and several arrests. (See 1927 newspaper clippings toward the bottom of this webpage.) He even got into a court battle with Gordon W. Lillie, the real life showman known as "Pawnee Bill":
February 16, 1927 Variety: "Los Angeles, Feb. 15. Pawnee Bill (Gordon W. Lillie) has been granted a permanent and perpetual injunction stopping Robert J. Horner and Associated Independent Producers from using his Pawnee Bill title in creating and exploiting motion pictures."
Horner's plans and financials took another hit with the arrival of talking pictures and turmoil from the 1929 Stock Market Crash and the Depression. In newfangled talkies, he specialized in sagebrush adventures and employed heroes whose careers were in decline - Buffalo Bill Jr. (Jay Wilsey), Bill Cody, Edmund Cobb, Perrin and Wells. He even dabbled in a color film, producing TEX TAKES A HOLIDAY (Argosy, 1932) which was shot in "Multicolor", an early two-strip color process. (More on HOLIDAY on a later webpage.)
Horner's quick, cheap, and less than creative approach to film making resulted in negative trade reviews:
May 10, 1931 Film Daily review of Jack Perrin's KID FROM ARIZONA (Cosmos, 1931): "Routine western with makeshift story ... and rather poorly done all around. There is not a great deal to this old-fashioned western and its only chances are in the small, outlying houses, preferably as a part of a double bill."
March 11, 1931 Variety review of 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."
April 11, 1931 Motion Picture Herald review of Buffalo Bill, Jr.'s PUEBLO TERROR (West Coast Studios, 1931): "Not So Good. A Western that is heavy with old ideas." ; "... photography and recording are not up to standards. The direction ... is weak ..."
December 13, 1932 Variety review of the Multicolor TEX TAKES A HOLIDAY: "In black and white this might have eased through as a second-grade western, but in color, it is very weak. It is wholly spoiled by about as poor an exhibition of bad color work as has been brought forward yet. On top of this, much of it seems to be slightly out of register, giving an out-of-focus effect." ; "It will not be in the running even in the minor houses."
Money and legal issues continued and in October, 1932, Jack Perrin won a $1475.00 court judgement for salary that Horner owed him for WILD WEST WHOOPEE, KID FROM ARIZONA, and several other completed movies. 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."
The came westerns starring Ted Wells, Bill Cody, Buffalo Bill, Jr., and Edmund Cobb. All were released in 1933 - 1935 ... were dirt cheap ... didn't get many play dates ... and couldn't have generated much revenue. In addition to working for Horner, poor Buffalo Bill, Jr. (Jay Wilsey) had the misfortune of starring in some grade Z oaters for another member of Poverty Row's fringes, Victor Adamson / Denver Dixon.
Buffalo Bill Jr.'s THE WHIRLWIND RIDER arrived in theaters during Spring, 1933, a few months after the bankruptcy filing. It has interesting opening titles and credits - see screen capture on the left. To mask his real identity, Horner reverse spelled his last name and became "R. J. Renroh" ... and good bet that he's also writer "Royal Hampton".
He may have also hidden behind the name "Robert Hoyt" for RACKETEER ROUND-UP (Aywon, 1934) which starred familiar sagebrush villain and character player Edmund Cobb. Mitchell Leichter, boss of short-lived Beaumont Pictures, wound up acquiring RACKETEER, added 6-7 minutes of footage with "Black King, the Horse With the Human Brain", and released it as GUNNERS AND GUNS (Beaumont, 1935). More details on the next webpage.
The August 21, 1934 Film Daily reported that "Bob Horner is shooting 'The Phantom Bandit', featuring Ted Wells. This will be released by Aywon of New York. It is the first of a series of eight westerns that Horner is making for Aywon. He will also make six Bill Cody westerns for the same release." ('Phantom Bandit' was released as THE PHANTOM COWBOY (Aywon, 1935).)
Eight with Wells and a half dozen with Cody was a tad optimistic. A total of five were made and released through Nathan Hirsh's Aywon company.
Too bad 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. The other Wells starrer was DEFYING THE LAW (Aywon, 1935) and is a lost / missing western.
Just prior to that short-lived comeback try for Wells, Horner had Bill Cody in three: BORDER GUNS (Aywon, 1934), THE BORDER MENACE (Aywon, 1934) and WESTERN RACKETEERS (Aywon, 1934). Many consider MENACE to be the most inept B western ever filmed. Horner favorite Jimmy Aubrey is also in this one 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 consists of dark pants and a slick, black shirt with a V neck that exposed lots of chest. There's a brawl between Cody, Benny Corbett, and others beginning around the sixteen minute mark, and during the fight, Cody's black shirt gets torn behind his right armpit. No time for a wardrobe change or sewing repair on a Horner film - just 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 earlier, Aubrey even did film editing for BORDER MENACE. Likewise with George Chesebro who turns up in a dozen of Horner's 1930s cheapos (five with Perrin; two with Wells; all three of the Codys; and one each with Jay Wilsey (Buffalo Bill Jr.) and Wallace MacDonald). Also working in over a dozen Horner silents and talkies was Boris Bullock / William Barrymore.
Horner's movie makin' days MAY have ended with those cheap, slapdash features with Wilsey, Cobb, Cody and Wells. Or, maybe not.
Film Daily Yearbooks mention several additional films that he may have done ... or they were listed in error ... or are fake. Yearbooks for 1936, 1937 and 1938 have Robert J. with these "mystery titles": CRIMSON TRAILS (1935), INNOCENCE ON THE MANHUNT (1936), VICE BONDAGE (1936), and MIDNIGHT SECRETS (1936). Another is THE THREE RENEGADES (1935), and it appears that was made. The star was Ted Wells and it premiered at an Arkansas theater in July, 1935 (see theater ad on the right from late July, 1935).
And in the late 1930s, Horner announced plans for some Spanish language features. But that didn't happen (see blurb on the right).
Though disabled, Horner had to register for the World War II draft and did so on April 25, 1942. He was living in Los Angeles and occupation was "Road Show Exhibitor". About three months later, July 29, 1942, he passed away from cirrhosis of the liver at the City-County Hospital in El Paso, Texas. He was divorced, occupation was "projectionist", and he was living in Clint, El Paso County, Texas, a small town about 25 miles southeast of the city of El Paso. Why was he in Texas? No rock solid answers to that question, but there are several possibilities:
- Perhaps he was traveling with some offbeat or exotic films and trying to make a buck with showings?
- Or was he working as a projectionist in an El Paso movie house?
- Another explanation was an article in the October 12, 1940 issue of Boxoffice which had some Dallas, Texas news: "Bob Horner, who has been making pictures for the independent market for many years, passed through here (meaning Dallas) on his way to Oklahoma, saying he will open several theaters there and in Texas."
While Horner's career is chock full of negatives and criticisms, gotta give him credit for overcoming the loss of his legs and a tragic childhood. And for being able to eke out a living for about twenty years on the fringes of Poverty Row.
A few of his silents are available on DVD, but many are lost / missing. Likewise with most of Horner's sound films.
On subsequent pages, 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 and was the grandson of R. J. Horner, noted New York furniture designer and manufacturer.
Above - Horner in his mid twenties. From the December 10, 1921 Exhibitors Trade Review, available at the Internet Archive.
Above - a 1924 theater ad for Jack Perrin in LIGHTNING JACK (Robert J. Horner/Anchor, 1924).
Above - 1928 theater ad for THE MYSTERY RIDER, the first of Horner's Pawnee Bill, Jr. adventures which starred Ted Wells.
Above is a 1930 theater ad for one of Horner's early talkies, SOUTH OF SONORA (1930) with Buffalo Bill Jr. (Jay Wilsey). It played in a few theaters and trades reported that the negative was destroyed in a fire. This is among the lost / missing westerns.
Theater ad above for Bobby Horner's THE THREE RENEGADES which premiered in Blytheville, Arkansas in late July, 1935. Buford Thweatt was a local farmer, and he also wound up as Vice President of Horner's American Pictures Corporation. Is this a third Ted Wells film? Or a retitled PHANTOM COWBOY or DEFYING THE LAW?
(Courtesy of Les Adams)
Above - September 26, 1939 article about Horner's plans for a series of Spanish language films. That didn't happen.