Thomas H. Ince
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|Thomas H. Ince|
|Born||Thomas Harper Ince
November 16, 1882
Newport, Rhode Island,
|Died||November 19, 1924
1051 Benedict Canyon,
Beverly Hills, California
|Other names||Creator of the Hollywood Studio system
Father of the Western
|Spouse(s)||Elinor Kershaw (m. 1907–1924)|
Thomas H. Ince (November 16, 1882 – November 19, 1924) was an American silent film producer, director, screenwriter, and actor. He revolutionized the motion picture industry by creating the first major Hollywood studio facility and invented many mechanisms of professional movie production by introducing the "assembly line" system of filmmaking after being the first mogul to build his own film studio, dubbed “Inceville,” in Palisades Highlands. He was also instrumental in developing the role of the producer in motion pictures. Known as the "Father of the Western" he was responsible for making over 800 films. Two of them: The Italian (1915), for which he wrote the screenplay, and Civilization (1916), which he directed, were selected for preservation by the National Film Registry. He partnered with D.W. Griffith and Mack Sennett to form the famous Triangle Motion Picture Company whose studios are the present-day site of Sony Pictures. He then built his own studio, the present-day site of Culver Studios. Ince is also famous for his mysterious and untimely death aboard the private yacht of media tycoon William Randolph Hearst just as he was about to join forces with Hearst’s International Film Corporation.
Life and career
Thomas Harper Ince was born on November 16, 1882 in Newport, Rhode Island, the middle of three sons and a daughter raised by English immigrants, John E. Ince and Emma Ince. His father was born in Wigan, Lancashire, England, in 1841, and was the youngest of nine boys who enlisted in the British Navy as a “powder monkey”. He later disembarked at San Francisco, and found work as a reporter and coal miner. But his father and mother longed to act and around 1887, when Ince was about four, the whole family moved to Manhattan where to pursue theater work. Ince's father worked as both an actor and musical agent and his mother, Ince himself, sister Bertha and brothers, John and Ralph all as actors. Ince made his Broadway debut at 15 landing a small role in a revival of an 1893 play, Shore Acres by James A. Herne. He appeared with several stock companies as a child and was later an office boy for theatrical manager Daniel Frohman. Later he would form an unsuccessful Vaudeville company known as "Thomas H. Ince and His Comedians" in Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey. In 1907, Ince met actress Elinor Kershaw (also known as "Nell) and they were married on October 19 of that year. They had three children together: William T., Richard Kershaw and Thomas H. Jr.
Ince's directing career began by luck fashion when he found himself in the right place at the right time. In 1910, through a chance encounter in New York with an employee from his old acting troupe, William S. Hart, he found his first film work as an actor for the Biograph Company, being directed by his future partner, D.W. Griffith. Griffith was impressed enough with Ince to hire him as a Production coordinator at Biograph. This led to more work coordinating productions at Carl Laemmle's Independent Motion Pictures Co. (IMP). That same year he discovered that a director at IMP was unable to complete work on a small feature film. In a moment of bravado, Ince suggested the idea to IMP's owner Laemmle of hiring him as a full-time director to complete the film. Impressed with the young man, Laemmle sent him to Cuba to make one-reel shorts with his new stars, Mary Pickford and Owen Moore, out of the reach of Thomas Edison's Motion Picture Patents Company—the trust that was attempting to crush all independent production companies and corner the market on film production. Ince's output, however, was small. And, although he tackled many different subjects, he was strongly drawn to Westerns and American Civil War dramas.
When clashes between the trust and independent films became exacerbated, Ince felt he should move to California to work away from these pressures. He wanted to achieve the sort of spectacular effects accomplished with minimal facilities that Griffith had done. This, he believed, could only be accomplished in Hollywood. After only a year with IMP, Ince quit. In September 1911, attempting to convey the appearance of a successful director by wearing a borrowed suit and a large diamond ring loaned from a jeweler, Ince walked into the offices of actor-financier Charles O. Baumann (1874-1931) who co-owned the New York Motion Picture Company (NYMP) with actor-writer Adam Kessel, Jr. (1866-1946). Ince had found out that NYMP had recently established a West Coast studio named Bison Studios at 1719 Alessandro (now known as Glendale Blvd.) in Edendale (present-day Echo Park) to make westerns and wanted to direct those pictures.
The offer came as a distinct shock, but I kept cool and concealed my excitement. I tried to convey the impression that he would have to raise the ante a trifle if he wanted me. That also worked, and I signed a contract for three months at $150 a week. Very soon after that, with Mrs. Ince, my cameraman, property man and Ethel Grandin, my leading woman, I turned my face westward.
Together with his young wife and a small entourage, Ince moved to Bison Studios to begin work immediately. He was shocked, however, to discover that the studio was nothing more than a "tract of land graced only by a four-room bungalow and a barn."
Ince's aspirations soon led him to leave the narrow confines of Edendale and find a location that would give him greater scope and variety. He settled upon a 460-acre (1.9 km2) tract of land called Bison Ranch located at Sunset Blvd. and Pacific Coast Highway in the Santa Monica Mountains, (the present-day location of the Self-Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine) which he rented by the day. By 1912, he had earned enough money to purchase the ranch and was granted permission by NYMP to lease another 18,000 acres (73 km2) in the Palisades Highlands stretching 7.5 miles (12.1 km) up Santa Ynez Canyon between Santa Monica and Malibu where Universal Studios was eventually established, which was owned by The Miller Bros out of Ponca City, Oklahoma. And it was here Ince built his first movie studio.
The "Miller 101 Bison Ranch Studio", which the Millers dubbed "Inceville" (and was later re-christened "Triangle Ranch") was the first of its kind in that it featured sound stages, production offices, printing labs, a commissary large enough to serve lunch to hundreds of workers, dressing rooms, props houses, elaborate sets, and other necessities - all in one location. While the site was under construction, Ince also leased the 101 Ranch and Wild West Show from the Miller Bros., bringing the whole troupe from Oklahoma out to California via train. The show consisted of 300 cowboys and cowgirls; 600 horses, cattle and other livestock (including steers and bison) and a whole Sioux Indian tribe (200 of them in all) who set up their teepees on the property. They were then renamed "The Bison-101 Ranch Co.", and specialized in making westerns released under the name World Famous Features.
When construction was completed, the streets were lined with many types of structures, from humble cottages to mansions, mimicking the style and architecture of different countries. Extensive outdoor western sets were built and used on the site for several years. According to Katherine La Hue in her book, Pacific Palisades: Where the Mountains Meet the Sea:
Ince invested $35,000 in building, stages and sets ... a bit of Switzerland, a Puritan settlement, a Japanese village ... beyond the breakers, an ancient brigantine weighed anchor, cutlassed men swarming over the sides of the ship, while on the shore performing cowboys galloped about, twirling their lassos in pursuit of errant cattle ... The main herds were kept in the hills, where Ince also raised feed and garden produce. Supplies of every sort were needed to house and feed a veritable army of actors, directors and subordinates.
While the cowboys, American Indians and assorted workmen lived at "Inceville", the main actors came from Los Angeles and other communities as needed, taking the red trolley cars to the Long Wharf at Temescal Canyon, where buckboards conveyed them to the set.
Ince lived in a house overlooking the vast studio, later the location of Marquez Knolls. Here he functioned as the central authority over multiple production units, changing the way films were made by organizing production methods into a disciplined system of filmmaking. Indeed "Inceville" became a prototype for Hollywood film studios of the future, with a studio head (Ince), producers, directors, production managers, production staff, and writers all working together under one organization (the unit system) and under the supervision of a General Manager, Fred J. Balshofer.
Before this, the director and cameraman controlled the production of the picture, but Ince put the producer in charge of the film from inception to final product. He defined the producer's role in both a creative and industrial sense. He was also one of the first to hire a separate screenwriter, director, and editor (instead of the director doing everything themselves). By 1913, the concept of the production manager had been created. With the aid of George Stout, an accountant for NYMP, Ince re-organized how films were outputted to bring discipline to the process. After this adjustment the studio's weekly output increased from one to two, and later three two-reel pictures per week, released under such names as "Kay-Bee" (Kessel-Baumann), "Domino" (comedy), and "Broncho" (western) productions. These were written, produced, cut, and assembled, with the finished product delivered within a week. By enabling more than one film to be made at a time, Ince decentralized the process of movie production to meet the increased demand from theaters. This was the dawning of the assembly-line system that all studios would eventually adopt.
With this model, developed between 1913 and 1918, Ince gradually exercised even more control over the film production process as a director-general. In 1913 alone, he made over 150 two-reeler movies, mostly Westerns, thereby anchoring the popularity of the genre for decades. While many of Ince's films were praised in Europe, many American critics did not share this high opinion. One such picture was The Battle of Gettysburg (1913) which was five reels long. The picture helped bring into vogue the idea of the feature-length film. Another important early movie for Ince was The Italian (1915), which depicted immigrant life in Manhattan. Two of his most successful films were among his first, War on the Plains (1912) and Custer's Last Fight (1912), which featured many Indians who had actually been in the battle.
Even though he was the first producer-director and directed most of his early productions, by 1913 Ince eventually ceased full-time directing to concentrate on producing, transferring this responsibility to such proteges as Francis Ford, his brother John, Jack Conway, William Desmond Taylor, Reginald Barker, Fred Niblo, Henry King and Frank Borzage. The story was the preeminent aspect of Ince’s pictures. Films such as The Italian, The Gangsters and the Girl (1914), and The Clodhopper (1917) are excellent examples of the dramatic structure that resulted from his masterful editing. Film preservationist David Shepard said of Ince in The American Film Heritage:
(He) did everything. He was so proficient at every aspect of film making that even films he didn't direct have the Ince-print, because he exercised such tight control over his scripts and edited so mercilessly that he could delegate direction to others and still get what he wanted. Much of what Ince contributed to the American film took place off the screen; he established production conventions that persisted forbears, and, though his career in films lasted only fourteen years, his influence far outlived him.
Ince also discovered many talents, including his old actor friend, William S. Hart, who made some of the best early westerns, beginning in 1914. Later a rift developed between the two over sharing of profits. Ironically, on January 16, 1916, a few days after the opening of his first Culver City studio, a fire broke out at "Inceville", the first of many that would eventually destroy all of the buildings. Ince later gave up on the studio and sold it to Hart, who renamed it "Hartville." Three years later, Hart sold the lot to Robertson-Cole Pictures Corporation, which continued filming there until 1922. La Hue writes that "the place was virtually a ghost town when the last remnants of "Inceville" were burned on July 4, 1922, leaving only a "weatherworn old church, which stood sentinel over the charred ruins."
By 1915, Ince was very powerful and considered one of the best-known producer-directors. It is around this time that real estate mogul Harry Culver noticed him making one of his westerns in Ballona Creek. Impressed with his talents, it was Culver who convinced Ince to move from his studio at the beach and re-locate to what was to become Culver City. Taking Culver's advice, that same year Ince left NYMP and on July 19 partnered with moguls D.W. Griffith and Mack Sennett to form The Triangle Motion Picture Company based on their prestige as producers. Triangle (so named because from an aerial point of view the property took a triangular shape) built their studios at 10202 W. Washington Boulevard (the present-day site of Sony Pictures Studios) which Ince insisted be named "Ince-Triangle Studios". The very first Culver City movie studio began to take shape in the form of a Greek colonnade – the impressive entrance of which still stands today and is an historical landmark.
With Ince as its vice-president, Triangle announced that it was going to focus on feature-length "epic and quality dramas". Ince and his partners would charge more money for their prestige pictures based on their reputations as producers. The company was funded by Harry and Roy Aitken, two brothers from the farmlands of Wisconsin who also pioneered the studio system of Hollywood's Golden Age. Harry had been Griffith's partner at Reliance-Majestic Studios, but had also been fired by the Mutual Film Corporation as a result the aftermath of Griffith's The Birth of a Nation since even though the film was a box-office success, it also led to riots in major northern cities due to its racial content.
Triangle was one of the first vertically integrated film companies. By combining production, distribution, and theater operations under one roof, the partners created the most dynamic studio in Hollywood. They attracted the greatest directors and stars of the day, including Pickford, Lillian Gish, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, and Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. They also produced some of the most enduring films of the silent era, including the Keystone Kops comedy franchise. Originally a distributor of films produced by NYMP, The Reliance Motion Picture Corp., Majestic Motion Picture Co., and The Keystone Film Co., by November 1916 the company's distribution was handled by Triangle Distributing Corporation.
Though Ince had many credits as a director in this time period, he really only supervised the production of most of the pictures, working primarily as executive producer. One of his most important and famous pictures as a director was Civilization (1916), an epic plea for peace and American neutrality set in a mythical country and dedicated to the mothers of those who died in World War I. The film competed with Griffith's famous epic, Intolerance and beat it at the box office at the time. The picture was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". Ince added a few stages and an administration building to Triangle Studios before selling out his shares to Griffith and Sennett in 1918. Three years later the studios were acquired by Goldwyn Pictures, and in 1924 the facility was turned into the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios. On that lot would later be filmed such classics as Gone with the Wind, King Kong and Citizen Kane.
Thomas H. Ince Studios
For a while, Ince joined competitor Adolph Zukor to form Paramount-Artcraft Pictures (later Paramount Pictures). However, he yearned to go back to running his own studio. On July 19, 1918, following Samuel Goldwyn’s acquisition of the Triangle lot, he purchased a 14-acre (57,000 m2) property at 9336 West Washington Blvd. on an option basis from Culver along with a $132,000 loan. Thus was formed "Thomas H. Ince Studios", which operated there from 1919 to 1924. Known later as the “40 Acres,” it was to be another Culver City historic landmark. When Ince conceived the idea of building his own studio, he was determined to have it different from the others. Among plans submitted to him by architects Meyer & Holler, was one that suggested the whole front administrative building made a replica of George Washington's home at Mount Vernon. The resulting administration building, known as "The Mansion", was the first building to go up on the lot.
In back of the impressive office building were approximately 40 buildings, most of which were designed in the Colonial Revival style. A small group of bungalows, built for various movie stars and designed in styles popular in the 1920s and '30s, were constructed on the west side of the lot. By 1920, two glass stages, a hospital, fire department, reservoir/swimming pool, and the back lot were completed. That same year President Woodrow Wilson took a tour of the studios as did the King and Queen of Belgium, along with their son, Prince Leopold, among much pomp and ceremony.
Ince had two or three companies working continuously on the lot at any given time. According to The Blue Book of the Screen (1923), his equipment at the facility was "new and complete to the extent of having his own film laboratory, generating plant and carpenter shops. There was also a large wardrobe department." By now Ince had drifted away from westerns in favor of social dramas and made a few more important films. One was a prestige version of Anna Christie (1923), based on the play by Eugene O'Neill. He also produced Human Wreckage (1923), which was an early anti-drug film. Film historian Marc Wanamaker wrote that his studio was, until Ince's untimely death in 1924, "a center of creativity and innovation in film production".
Although he found distribution for his films through Paramount and MGM, Ince was no longer as powerful as he once had been and set about trying to regain his status in Hollywood in several ways. In 1919, with several other independent entrepreneurs (notably his old partner at Triangle, Mack Sennett, Marshall Neilan, Allan Dwan and Maurice Tourneur) he co-founded the independent releasing company, Associated Producers, Inc., to distribute their films. It was modeled after the United Artists Corporation formed by Ince's old partner Griffith; one his star's, Pickford; and the man who would be embroiled in his mysterious death, Charlie Chaplin. Ince served as its president and the company distributed major producer-directors like Sennett. However, Associated Producers could not function on its own successfully and in 1922 merged with First National which released Ince's films until 1924.
Though Ince still made some significant motion pictures, the studio system was starting to take over Hollywood. There was little room for an independent producer and despite his attempts Ince could not regain the powerful standing he once held in the industry. He and other independent producers tried by forming the Cinematic Finance Corporation in 1921, which made loans to producers who already had been successful, but only accomplished its goal in a limited sense.
In 1925, a year after Ince’s death, the studio was sold (with Pathé America) to Ince's friend Cecil B. Demille. Besides DeMille, among those who had offices on the lot were producer Howard Hughes and Selznick International Pictures. After about four years, DeMille sold his interest to Pathé and the studio was then known as the Pathé Culver City Studio. By 1928 after mergers, the studio became RKO/Pathé. By 1957, a number of other studios followed: Desilu Culver, Culver City Studios, Laird International Studios, etc.
In 1991, Sony Pictures Entertainment purchased the property as the home for its television endeavors, renaming it Culver Studios, and eventually selling it in 2004 to a group of investors. In his honor, the street intersecting the studios was renamed Ince Blvd. It is still home to Brooksfilms today.
Murder or natural death debate
By 1924 Ince was rumored to be close to bankruptcy. To rescue his floundering fortunes, Ince set upon trying to enlist the aid with William Randolph Hearst by negotiating a deal with Hearst's International Film Corporation. On Saturday, November 15, he boarded Hearst's lavish 280-foot (85 m) yacht, the Oneida, and set sail from San Pedro, California heading for San Diego. Among Hearst's guests that weekend were his mistress, Marion Davies, silent film star Charlie Chaplin, newspaper columnist Louella Parsons, author Elinor Glyn, film actresses Aileen Pringle, Jacqueline Logan, Seena Owen, Margaret Livingston, and Julanne Johnston; actor, choreographer and ballet dancer Theodore Kosloff and Dr. Daniel Carson Goodman, Hearst's film production manager. Ince, the guest of honor as it was his 42nd birthday, was actually late due to the fact that he was still finalizing the production deal with Hearst and the yacht left without him.
After Ince finished his business in Los Angeles he took a train to San Diego, where he joined the guests the next morning. At dinner that Sunday night, the group enthusiastically celebrated his birthday. Sometime later, Ince suffered an acute bout of indigestion. Determining that he was quite ill, he was taken ashore in San Diego by water taxi, accompanied by Dr. Goodman, a licensed though non-practicing physician, then quickly put on a train bound for Los Angeles. While en route Ince's condition worsened. At Del Mar, he was removed from the train and taken to a hotel where he was given medical treatment by Dr. T. A. Parker and a nurse, Jessie Howard, provided by Hearst. Ince informed them he had drunk liquor on the yacht. Afterward, he was taken to his "Dias Dorados" estate at 1051 Benedict Canyon Drive where, forty-eight hours after leaving the Oneida, Ince died.
Two days before his death, Chaplin, Davies, and Hearst each claimed to have visited Ince at his home where he supposedly told them he believed he would soon be well. Dr. Ida Cowan Glasgow, Ince's personal physician, signed the death certificate citing heart failure as the cause of death. However, the front page of the Wednesday morning Los Angeles Times told another story: '"Movie Producer Shot on Hearst Yacht!", headlines that mysteriously vanished in the evening edition. Without further ado, Ince's body was quickly cremated, after which his widow, Nell mysteriously and abruptly left for Europe.
The first stories in Hearst's own newspapers about Ince's death claimed the producer had fallen ill while visiting the Hearst ranch in San Simeon, and had been rushed home by ambulance, dying "in the bosom" of his family. The rumor mill in Hollywood, however, immediately went to work. Several conflicting stories began circulating about the incident, often revolving around a claim that Hearst shot Ince in the head mistaking him for Chaplin.
The story goes that Hearst suspected that Davies and Chaplin were secretly lovers and in order to keep tabs on the two, he invited them both on board the yacht. It was reported that he found the couple in a compromising clinch and went for his gun. Davies' screams awakened Ince who rushed to the scene. A scuffle ensued, followed by a gunshot, and Ince took the bullet intended for Chaplin. According to Chaplin in his autobiography, he claims he wasn't even aboard the yacht that day but stated that he did hear from his friend Glyn that Ince had been merry and debonair earlier, but that during lunch he had been suddenly stricken with paralyzing pain and forced to leave the table.
A second version of the story had Davies and Ince alone in the galley late Sunday night. Ince, who suffered from ulcers, was looking for something to ease his upset stomach when Hearst walked in. Mistaking Ince for Chaplin, Hearst shot him while Davies was attending to him. A third version tells of a struggle over a gun below decks between unidentified passengers. The gun accidentally discharged and the bullet ripped through a plywood partition straight into Ince's room where it struck him.
Chaplin's own valet, Toraichi Kono, added fuel to the fire when he claimed to have seen Ince when he came ashore via stretcher in San Diego. Kono told his wife that Ince's head was "bleeding from a bullet wound." The story quickly spread among Japanese domestic workers throughout Beverly Hills. Whether Ince was killed in a fit of jealousy or by accident, the story stuck, and with many believing Hearst used his power and influence to cover up the incident. One month after Ince's death, the rumors ran so rampant that the San Diego District Attorney's Office was forced to take action.
The D.A. only interviewed Dr. Goodman, who explained that once ashore, he and Ince caught a train for Los Angeles. According to Goodman, Ince got sick on the train so they disembarked in Del Mar and checked into a hotel. Goodman then called a doctor, as well as Nell Ince. Concerned for her husband, Nell agreed to come to Del Mar immediately. Goodman, unclear whether Ince was suffering from a heart attack or indigestion, claimed he left Del Mar before Nell arrived. The D.A. quickly closed the investigation. Rumors and suspicions continued to be fueled by the very people who celebrated with Ince that weekend beginning with Chaplin's denial of actually being there, and then insisting that he, Hearst, and Davies visited the ailing Ince later. He also stated that Ince died two weeks after their visit. In reality, Ince was dead within 48 hours after leaving the Oneida with Chaplin attending the memorial services that Friday.
Davies also added to the mystery in her attempts to deny the incident. She never acknowledged that Chaplin, Parsons, or Goodman were aboard the yacht that weekend. She insisted that Nell Ince called her late Monday afternoon at United Studios to inform her of Ince's death. When the Oneida sailed, Parsons was a New York movie columnist for one of Hearst's papers. After the Ince affair, Hearst gave her a lifetime contract and expanded her syndication. Hearst also provided Nell Ince with a trust fund just before she left for Europe. She refused an autopsy and ordered her husband's immediate cremation. Rumor has it that Hearst also paid off Ince's mortgage on his Château Élysée apartment building in Hollywood. Later D. W. Griffith would say of the incident: "All you have to do to make Hearst turn white as a ghost is mention Ince's name. There's plenty wrong there, but Hearst is too big."
The circumstances of Ince's death sadly overshadowed his reputation as a pioneering filmmaker and diminished the way in which his role in the growth of the film industry would be remembered. Even his studio did not survive. It was sold soon after he died. The final film he produced, Enticement, a romance set in the French Alps, was released posthumously in 1925. In summarizing Ince's career and the potential for his future in the movie business had he lived, film historian David Thomson wrote in A Biographical Dictionary of Film:
His shameless self-aggrandizement seems the original of a brand of ambition central to American film. In that sense, he was the first tycoon, more businesslike than Griffith and much more prosperous. Remember that he died in early middle age, and it is possible to surmise that he might have become one of the moguls of the 1930s.
In popular culture
The 1996 book Murder at San Simeon (Scribner), a novel by Patricia Hearst (William Randolph's granddaughter) and Cordelia Frances Biddle, is a fictionalized version of this murder, presenting Chaplin and Davies as lovers and Hearst as the jealous old man unwilling to share his mistress with anyone else.
The 2001 film directed by Peter Bogdanovich, The Cat's Meow, is based on the incident. Bogdanovich claims that he heard the story of Ince's death from director Orson Welles, who in turn said he heard it from screenwriter Charles Lederer, Marion Davies's nephew—which Bogdanovich confirmed with Lederer himself. In Bogdanovich's film, Ince is portrayed by Cary Elwes. It was adapted by Steven Peros from his own play.
The Silver Sheet
A studio publication promoting Thomas H. Ince Productions.
Filmography, posters and newspaper ads
The Battle of Gettysburg (1913)
The Wrath of the Gods (1914)
The Italian (1915)
The Return of Draw Egan (1916)
The Aryan (1916)
Civilization Peace Song (1916)
Hell's Hinges (1916)
Aloha Oe (1916)
Wagon Tracks (1919)
Silk Hosiery (1920)
Her Husband's Friend (1921)
Human Wreckage (1923)
Anna Christie (1923)
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Thomas H. Ince.|
- Thomas H. Ince at the Internet Movie Database
- Ince Theater, Culver City,California
- Bellaonline.com article: The Strange Death of Thomas Ince
- Thomas Ince: Hollywood's Independent Pioneer by Brian Taves