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Cinecon 44 Special Article

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by Lisle Foote

Publicity still from The Iron ClawRegular Cinecon attendees are breathlessly awaiting the conclusion of The Iron Claw, a serial directed by James Horne. Before this showcase, Horne was best known as the director of Laurel and Hardy’s first features and Buster Keaton’s College. Keaton fans probably remember him mostly for the remarks Buster made to Kevin Brownlow in The Parade’s Gone By: “Keaton said that he did most of the directing. ‘James Horne was absolutely useless to me,’ he said uncharitably. ‘Harry Brand, my business manager, got me to use him. He hadn’t done many pictures, and no important ones. Incidentals, quickies. I don’t know why we had him, because I practically did College.’ ” Uncharitable, indeed: while it’s easy to understand why Horne’s efficient style would grate on Keaton, Richard Kozowski called him “one of the most important early American serial directors.” Horne might not have been a great artist, but he directed hundreds of hours of entertainment. He deserves a better epitaph than “useless.”

James Wesley Horne was born on December 14, 1881 in San Francisco, California. His father was Charles Horne and his mother was Edith Woodthorpe, part of a famous theatrical family. Her sister Georgia was known for being the youngest Ophelia to play opposite Edwin Booth, and her niece ran a theatrical company in Oakland, Ye Liberty Playhouse. Horne’s parents broke up when he was young, and his mother married a newspaper reporter, Alfred T. Dobson.

At 13 he began his career as a member of the Belasco-Mayer stock company. They performed at the Alcazar Theater in San Francisco. He also toured the country. In New York City he was part of the opening night cast of The Love Cure on September 1, 1909. Between shows he found other work; at the time of the 1900 census his occupation was “treasurer” and he was living with his parents in San Francisco. By the 1910 census he was divorced, living in a boarding house in Oakland, and was still the treasurer of a theatrical company. He had been married to Mary Schinwitter and they had one daughter, Victoria.

His first film job was with the Kalem Company. He was hired as a scenario writer in 1912 and was sent to their Glendale, California studio. He also doubled as an actor occasionally, in films like Cheyenne Massacre (1913) and On the Brink of Ruin (1913). After a year he was allowed to direct. He made serials like Stingaree (1915) about a dashing bandit in the Australian outback, and The Girl Detective (1915).

That detective was played in later episodes by the woman he soon married. Cleo Ridgely was born May 12, 1894, in New York City with the name Freda Cleo Helwig. Both of her parents died when she was two, so she moved in with her grandmother in Wisconsin. She decided to become an actress when she saw her cousin, Victor Moore, work as a comedian on stage. She began at New York’s Hippodrome Theater, then went into film. She worked for Kalem, Lubin, and Rex Studios. She married Richard Ridgely, a director at Edison. She became famous for a publicity stunt they did to promot Motion Picture Story magazine riding across the United States by horseback, stopping along the way to make personal appearances where she recited poetry. The trip, which began in 1912, took 18 months. In 1914 she divorced Ridgely and went back to work for Kalem.

She played the Girl Detective for six months, then she was hired by the Lasky Company. There she made several films with Cecil B. DeMille. Pearl Gaddis of Motion Picture Classic described her at the time as a pink and white and gold bon-bon, “her hair is frankly golden, with lots of light and curls, and her eyes are blue . . .a warm, sunny blue, frank and smiling as a child.” She married Horne in 1916. She gave birth to twins, June and James, Jr. on March 28, 1917 and retired from acting. She occasionally took bit parts over the years, and worked in three of her husband’s pictures.

Horne continued to make serials and series for Kalem until 1917. The IMDB describes the longest, The Girl from Frisco (1916) as “25 two-reel Western thrillers in which a cowgirl aids the cause of justice and humanity in the Old West, often aided by her fiancé and her rancher father. Each episode tells a complete story in itself.”

Horne did not look like the stereotypical Hollywood director, i.e. large and imposing. His draft registration said he was of average height and slender build. He certainly was – when he caught a huge fish in 1919, Moving Picture World announced “105 Pounds of Director Lands 125 Pounds of Tuna.” The fish broke all records at Catalina Island, and it took him two hours and 35 minutes to land it. Also unusual for a Hollywood director, he was modest. In 1916 he wrote, “I aim to get the personalities of my players on the screen rather than my own.”

In 1917 he became a freelance director. He directed more serials, including Bulls Eye (Universal, 1917, 18 episodes, ), Hands Up (Astra Films, 1918, 15 episodes, ), and The Third Eye (Universal, 1920, 18 episodes, ). Then in 1920 Lew Cody gave him a chance to direct his first feature, Occasionally Yours. Cody starred as a playboy who loved women but was frightened of spending a lifetime with just one. In the next five years Horne made 18 features, including several comedies with Douglas MacLean and Richard Talmadge.

He next spent a year making comedy shorts for Hal Roach, then he went back to being a freelance feature director. His work included a Viola Dana comedy, Kosher Kitty Kelly (1926), and The Cruise of the Jasper B (1926). With this track record, Keaton’s new business manager hired him to direct College.

Keaton wasn’t pleased, as he told Kevin Brownlow. It’s easy to see why the two didn’t work well together. Horne wrote an article for Photoplay magazine in 1916, and he described how he made films: “I believe in system – which is another word for efficiency – in active photography. I have my work laid out from day to day. I have found that everyone works better under a bit of speed pressure than when taking one’s time. . . Amazing as it may seem, my cameraman, Howard Oswald, has not had a retake in two years.” His philosophy is all very sensible for a serial director, under pressure to get each weekly installment done. He was exactly what Harry Brand thought was needed for Keaton’s first film after The General, which had been quite expensive.

Keaton worked completely differently. He described his working methods to George Pratt in 1958: “We didn’t’ shoot by no schedule at all. We didn’t know when we started whether we was going to have the camera up five weeks or ten weeks. And it didn’t make a difference. We owned our own camera. We’re not paying rent on anything . . .we may lay out a routine in a nice set that we’ve built for this and we start out in this thing and we find out we’re not getting any place. The material is not working out the way we thought it would . . .we could feel it. Not only looking at our own rushes, we could feel it also. Now, in a broom closet or something like that, we’re liable to find a very good routine. So we shift right then and there.” College must have been an unhappy experience on both sides.

Horne made two features starring Jobyna Ralston , then he went back to Roach Studios. He directed many two-reelers featuring Charley Chase, Laurel and Hardy, and Harry Langdon. He even made a brief return to acting, playing the villainous head of the Riff-Raff tribe in Laurel and Hardy’s Beau Hunks (1931). In 1932 he moved to Universal, where he made more shorts including some co-written by his nephew, George Stevens (who went on to direct Gunga Din, The More the Merrier, Shane, and Giant). Three years later Horne returned to Roach. He worked on some Laurel and Hardy shorts, including their last, Thicker Than Water (1935). He then directed three of their first three features: Bonnie Scotland (1935) The Bohemian Girl (1936), and Way Out West (1937).

He made one more comedy feature, All Over Town (1937) with Olsen and Johnson, and then he returned to his roots: serials. He made twelve fifteen episodes chapter plays for Columbia, including Terry and the Pirates (1940) and of course The Iron Claw (1941).

In May, 1942 he suffered a stroke. A month later, he was hospitalized with a mild cerebral hemorrhage. Then he had a second stroke on June 29 and died, aged 60. He was buried at Forest Lawn, Glendale.

His wife survived him for many years. Cleo Ridgely Horne continued to take bit parts in films. She died at home on August 18, 1962, from a coronary occlusion. She was buried next to her husband.

His eldest daughter Victoria had many small parts in films. She married comedian Jack Oakie (best known for his role as Benzini Napaloni, a satiric send-up of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, in Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator) in 1950. She wrote four books about their lives together, and died on October 10, 2003 of natural causes.

James Horne's twins also tried acting. James, Jr. had several bit parts, then he moved to New York and became a top advertising model. He married his first wife on the radio show “Bride and Groom.” He is now retired. June Horne took a few small parts, then she married actor Jackie Cooper on December 11, 1944. She had a son, Jackie Cooper, Jr. in 1946 and divorced her husband in 1949. She re-married in 1953 and moved to Florida. She died on September 17, 1993 in Los Angeles.

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