Harry Horner - Writer

Art Director. Nationality: American. Born: Holicz, Austria-Hungary, 24 July 1910; emigrated to the United States, 1935; naturalized, 1938. Education: Studied architecture, University of Vienna, graduated 1934; also studied at Max Reinhardt's Seminary for Drama and Stage Direction, Vienna; studied costume design under Professor Roller. Military Service: Served in the United States Army Air Force, 1942–44. Family: Married 1) Betty Pfaelzer, 1938 (died 1950); 2) Joan Fraenkel, 1952; sons: James, Christopher, and Antony. Career: Actor and designer for Reinhardt's Viennese company, 1934–35, and with Reinhardt in the United States, then art director, and film director, in Hollywood; also stage designer in Europe and the United States; also TV designer, and director of Reader's Digest series, and episodes of other series. Awards: Academy Awards for The Heiress , 1949; The Hustler , 1961. Died: 7 December 1994.

Films as Art Director:


Our Town (Wood) (co)


The Little Foxes (Wyler) (co)


Tarzan Triumphs (Thiele); Stage Door Canteen (Borzage)


Winged Victory (Cukor) (co); A Double Life (Cukor)


The Heiress (Wyler)


Tarzan and the Slave Girl (Sholem); Outrage (Lupino); Born Yesterday (Cukor)


He Ran All the Way (Berry)


Androcles and the Lion (Erskine)


Separate Tables (Delbert Mann) (+ 2nd unit d)


The Wonderful Country (Parrish)


The Hustler (Rossen)


The Luck of Ginger Coffey (Kershner)


They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (Pollack)


Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things about Me? (Grobard)


Up the Sandbox (Kershner)


The Black Bird (Giler)


Harry and Walter Go to New York (Rydell)


Audrey Rose (Wise)


The Driver (Hill); Moment by Moment (Wagner)


Strangers: The Story of a Mother and Daughter (Katselas)


The Jazz Singer (Fleischer and Furie)

Films as Director:


Red Planet Mars ; The Marrying Kind (Cukor) (2nd unit); Beware My Lovely


Vicki ; New Faces


A Life in the Balance


Man from Del Rio ; The Wild Party


By HORNER: articles—

Theatre Arts (New York), December 1947.

"Designing The Heiress ," in Hollywood Quarterly , Fall 1950.

American Film (Washington, D.C.), February 1977

Cinématographe (Paris), February 1982.

On HORNER: articles—

Film Dope (Nottingham), November 1982.

Comuzio, E., "Harry Horner," in Cineforum , no. 31, May 1991.

Obituary in The New York Times , 8 December 1994.

Obituary in Variety (New York), 12 December 1994.

Obituary in EPD Film (Frankfurt), February 1995.

* * *

Harry Horner was born in Czechoslovakia in 1910 with an Austrian-Jewish background. At the University of Vienna, he began his studies in architecture. A well-educated and literate man, Horner grew increasingly interested in the theater. He began working as an actor and studied stage design under the theatrical producer Max Reinhardt. Horner also studied costume design.

In 1935 Horner emigrated to the U.S., and became a leading designer of opera productions and Broadway plays. When he finally began his film career he was to work with some of Hollywood's very best directors including William Wyler and George Cukor.

In his first film, Our Town , Horner apprenticed under the tutelage of that great Hollywood production designer William Cameron Menzies (best known to the American public for his extensive contributions to the movie Gone with the Wind ). Horner created drawing after drawing illustrating the individual and detailed lives of the townspeople. It became a living Norman Rockwell illustration, an appropriate vision for this folksy Thornton Wilder tale of smalltown life.

Horner began his work on a picture by doing extensive research, concentrating on spatial necessities and those objects essential to the plot. Constant drawings and plans were made before the actual blueprints for construction will be drawn. Horner provided his director and cameraman with continuity sketches of the entire picture from start to finish, from the very first close-up to that last distant long shot. These were used as a visual script for the picture by the cameraman and director. Throughout shooting Horner stayed on the set to make sure the lighting of spaces and the shooting of the performances were harmoniously integrated with his designs.

Historical films such as The Heiress required intensive investigation of the different periods involved and for this picture Horner accumulated three notebooks full of photographs filled with historically accurate details. He used these only as a starting point. His own designs were created specifically to highlight certain dramatic elements present in the story. Even such contemporary films as The Hustler demanded hours of Horner's research. He traveled from poolroom to poolroom searching for just the right touches for the story, and even toured college co-ed apartments to get a sense of how Eddie's girlfriend might live. As a result, his sets gave the feel of real people, their habits and ways of life. Horner gave characters an unstated third dimension.

Horner expressed great interest in character development and uses this as a pre-condition in his design. In The Little Foxes , the sets were designed around Regina, a dominant and demonic character filled with greed and a lust for material pleasures. At one point she stands in front of a piece of furniture that actually gives her devil's horns! That this was indeed Horner's intent can be proved by referring to his still intact continuity sketches.

In The Heiress , the house shows both Dr. Sloper's dominance over his daughter, Catherine, and his bitter grief over his wife's death. Sloper was portrayed both as master of the house, in a position of kingly power, and as a dark figure shown in the shadows of his gothic study. Catherine was an awkward helpless prisoner. Horner vividly illustrates this when he encloses her in the cagelike staircase. Latticed wallpaper further reinforced the image. As her character later gained strength, her manner of presentation changes. Horner surrounded Morris, Catherine's fortune-hunting suitor, with seductive details—highly polished mahogany, shimmering crystal, gleaming silverware. This represented Morris's elusive dreams of material wealth.

In The Heiress Horner gave such a clear explanation of the house's complex spaces (one even perceived a sense of four enclosing walls if one pays attention from scene to scene) that it can easily be reconstructed.

Horner expressed moments of emotional intensity with an expressionist style filled with high contrast lighting and extreme angles. This is true in The Heiress and many of his other films. In A Double Life he used this style to indicate the character's growing madness.

Horner worked on several comedies. His exaggerated, out-of-scale Baroque hotel room in Born Yesterday showed the bad taste in a humorous manner as the gangster awkwardly tries to express his wealth and power. Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? is a black comedy, and Horner's use of cold, impersonal interiors express the anti-hero's sense of loneliness and alienation. Horner's use of the outrageous and surreal gives the film an existential absurdity.

Horner approached his films as a visual author, retelling a story through its images. He used every tool at his command, from studious researching of the past to personal odysseys into aspects of contemporary life. Horner applied the knowledge and techniques found in centuries of art history, the technical virtuosity of an architectural background, and his own insights on the human condition. Horner's finest films revealed the motion picture as the powerful art form it can be.

—Edith C. Lee

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