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 ..."
Ouch! Let's begin ... at the beginning.
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.
- 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 at Universal on Hoot Gibson westerns. There were many trade and newspaper 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.
- 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 ..."
- 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 1930s, he ran Poverty Row film production companies churning out ultra cheap features and a serial for the independent, states right market. During those years, he was often associated with the Aywon Film Corporation. Pronounced A 1 - just like the steak sauce - Aywon was formed about 1915 by Nathan Hirsh, who got his start in the movie business by owning a string of theaters in New York. Hirsh's Aywon company disappeared into Hollywood obscurity in the mid 1930s.
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. 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.
The biggest name in Horner's silent oaters was Art Acord who had earlier starred at Universal. Other Horner silent range riders were Jack Perrin, Al Hoxie, Fred Church, and Ted Wells (as "Pawnee Bill, Jr."). William Barrymore / Boris Bullock had the lead in the ten chapter serial THE MANSION OF MYSTERY (William Pizor Prod., 1927) which Horner directed and William M. Pizor distributed. Barrymore also had the lead in Horner's "Kit Carson" series.
When sound arrived, Horner employed silent screen heroes whose careers were in decline - including Buffalo Bill Jr. (Jay Wilsey), Bill Cody, Edmund Cobb, Perrin and Wells. Horner even dabbled in early 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 and his companies operated under many names. Circa 1923, he was Robert Horner Pictures, Inc. Then Robert J. Horner Productions, Inc., etc. Jump forward to 1937 and he's the boss of Roadshow Classics and American Pictures Corporation.
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 arrival of talking pictures, the 1929 Stock Market Crash, and the Depression negatively impacted Horner's plans and financials. And the time of the really cheap, independent sagebrush adventure was nearing its end because of changes in the states rights distribution system and rising costs associated with film production. Plus, Republic Pictures was formed in 1935 ... and they were initiating a new series featuring a singin' cowboy named Gene Autry.
If Horner's films were reviewed in the trade publications, the results were negative. A few excerpts below:
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 ..."
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."
His last film projects were 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 didn't generate much revenue. In addition to working for Horner, Buffalo Bill, Jr. (Jay Wilsey) also had the misfortune of starring in some grade Z oaters for Victor Adamson / Denver Dixon.
The two with Buffalo Bill Jr. came from Horner's American Pictures Corporation brand name: THE WHIRLWIND RIDER (American Pictures Corp., 1933) and the lost / missing TRAILS OF ADVENTURE (American Pictures Corp., 1933).
THE WHIRLWIND RIDER was released in Spring, 1933 and has some interesting opening titles and credits - see screen capture on the left. Horner had become "R. J. Renroh" ... and good bet that he's also writer "Royal Hampton". Looks like he was trying to hide his real identity due to his bankruptcy and financial woes.
Horner may have also hid behind the name "Robert Hoyt" for RACKETEERS ROUND-UP (Aywon, 1934) which starred familiar B western villain and character player Edmund Cobb. Mitchell Leichter, boss of short-lived Beaumont Pictures, wound up acquiring RACKETEERS, added 6-7 minutes of footage with "Black King, the Horse With the Human Brain", and released it as GUNNERS AND GUNS (Beaumont, 1935). Alas - poor Edmund Cobb of RACKETEERS became "Edwin" Cobb in the opening titles and credits as well as trade and newspaper ads.
Horner had plans to do fourteen oaters with Ted Wells (in 8) and Bill Cody (in 6). A total of five were made and handled by Nathan Hirsh's Aywon company.
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).)
DEFYING THE LAW (Aywon, 1935) was the other Wells starrer and it's among the lost / missing westerns.
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 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 ever filmed. Horner favorite Jimmy Aubrey is also 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 consists of dark pants and 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 cheapos (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 was over. A few years later, he announced plans 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 - a 1925 theater ad for LIGHTNING JACK (Robert J. Horner/Anchor, 1924) starring Jack Perrin.
Above - 1928 theater ad for THE MYSTERY RIDER, one of Horner's Pawnee Bill, Jr. adventures.
Above is a 1930 theater ad for one of Horner's early sound films, SOUTH OF SONORA (1930) with Buffalo Bill Jr. (Jay Wilsey), which played in a few theaters but is another of the lost / missing westerns. Trades reported that the negative was destroyed in a fire.
(Courtesy of Les Adams)
Above - September 26, 1939 article about Horner's plans for a series of Spanish language films. That never happened.