James W. Horne: Comedies and Cliffhangers

Director James W. Horne (1881-1942) had an extraordinarily productive career,making close to 300 films over a 30 year career, and distinguishing himself in two genres, comedy and adventure serials.

The San Francisco native was from a theatrical family. His aunt Georgia Woodthorpe had acted with Edwin Booth and was in silent films herself. Georgia’s daughter, Georgia Cooper, ran Ye Liberty Playhouse in San Francisco, also acted in silent films, and was the mother of cinematographer/ director George Stevens. Horne’s mother Edith Woodthorpe was also a stage actress and with her encouragement Horne was acting San Francisco stock companies as early as age 13 (1894). 1909-1910 he acted in the Broadway musical The Love Cure. 

He began acting in films with the Kalem Company in 1913, writing the occasional scenario as well, and by 1915 he was directing for the studio. His first assignment was the serial The Girl Detective (1915). Horne was to marry its star Cleo Ridgley. Horne directed scores and scores of short films for the studio over the next two years, westerns, melodramas, crime stories. By 1917 he had graduated to features for various studios, including such films as Hands Up (1918) with Ruth Roland, The Third Eye (1920) with Warner Oland, The Yankee Consul (1924) with Douglas MacLean and Patsy Ruth Miller, and Kosher Kitty Kelly (1926) with Viola Dana.

In 1925 Horne also began to direct comedies for Hal Roach. This, plus his feature experience, led to his being hired to direct Buster Keaton’s College (1927). From 1929 through 1938, the Roach lot was to be Horne’s principle profesional home, where he turned out countless comedy classics featuring top stars Laurel and Hardy, Charley Chase, Our Gang, Harry Langdon, Max Davidson, et al. Among the better known ones are Big Business (1929), Laughing Gravy (1930), Chickens Come Home (1931), Beau Hunks (1931), Any Old Port (1932), Bonnie Scotland (1935), The Bohemian Girl (1936), and Way Out West (1937). He also directed many of the foreign language versions of come of the great Roach comedies by other directors.

Then after directing Olsen and Johnson in All Over Town (1937), he made a career switch and went back to his first love by directing serials for Columbia. Then and now, Horne’s serials were regarded as the gold standard for this sort of thing, his comedy experience enlivening both the staging of the action and the overall entertainment value. Among the titles : Flying G Men (1939), The Shadow (1940), Terry and the Pirates (1940), Deadwood Dick (1940), The Green Archer (1940), The Iron Claw (1941), Captain Midnight (1942), and Perils of the Royal Mounted (1942), his last. A stroke took him that year at age 60.

Some interesting trivia: Horne’s daughter Victoria married Jack Oakie; his daughter June married Jackie Cooper. A coupla Hal Roach husbands!

To learn more about show business history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.