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Thomas H. Ince

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Thomas H. Ince

Thomas H. Ince
In 1916
Born Thomas Harper Ince
(1882-11-16)November 16, 1882
Newport, Rhode Island, United States
Died November 19, 1924(1924-11-19) (aged 42)
Pacific Ocean or 1051 Benedict Canyon, Beverly Hills, California, United States
Other names "Father of the Western"
Occupation studio mogul, producer, director, screenwriter, actor
Years active 1897 - 1924
Spouse(s) Elinor Kershaw
(married: 1907 - 1924)

Thomas H. Ince (November 16, 1882 – November 19, 1924), was an American silent film producer, director, screenwriter, and earlier an actor. He was a pioneering studio mogul who made more than 600 films. Known as the "Father of the Western", he invented many mechanisms of professional movie production, introducing early Hollywood to the "assembly line" system of film making. He wrote the screenplay for The Italian (1915), and directed Civilization (1916), both films selected for preservation by the United States National Film Registry. He was a partner with D.W. Griffith and Mack Sennett in the Triangle Motion Picture Company, and built his own studios in Culver City, which later became the legendary home of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Ince is also known for his death aboard the yacht of William Randolph Hearst; officially he died of heart trouble, but Hollywood rumor of the time suggested he had been shot by Hearst in a dispute over actress Marion Davies.

Life and career

Born in Newport, Rhode Island, November 16, 1882, Ince first appeared on the stage at age six and then worked with a number of stock companies. He made his Broadway debut in 1898 when he was 15 after debuting in Shore Acres. Vaudeville offered work for him, but the work was inconsistent, so he was a lifeguard, a promoter and part-time actor. In 1905 he was hired to work for the Edison Manufacturing Company and formed his own Vaudville company, though with little success. He met his wife, Biograph contract actress Elinor Kershaw, when they appeared together in a Broadway show, For Love's Sweet Sake in 1906. They were married a year later and had three sons during their marriage. With his stage career a failure, however, Ince felt he was headed nowhere as an actor. Before long, through his wife's connections, Ince got a job with Biograph in New York. Although he was working exclusively in films, making $5 per day, he was regularly underemployed.

Thomas Ince (c. 1910)

In 1910, a chance encounter in New York with an old employee from his acting troupe led Ince to some work at the Independent Motion Pictures Co. (IMP).[1] That same year he was given an opportunity to direct when a director at IMP was unable to complete work on a small film. In a precocious moment of bravado, he advanced the idea of working full-time in that capacity to IMP's owner Carl Laemmle. Impressed with the younger man's pugnacity, Laemmle hired him on the spot, sending him to Cuba to make films out of the reach of the Motion Pictures Patent 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. He wanted to achieve the sort of spectacular effects accomplished with minimal facilities that D.W. Griffith had done. This, he believed, could be accomplished only in Hollywood.

In September 1911, in an attempt to convey the appearance of a successful director by wearing a borrowed suit and a diamond ring he had also borrowed from a local jeweler, Ince walked into the offices of Charles O. Baumann at the New York Motion Picture Co. (NYMP), which had recently decided to establish a West Coast studio to make westerns. The ruse worked, and Ince was offered $100 a week to go to California.

"This 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 camera man, property man and Ethel Grandin, my leading woman, I turned my face westward."[1]

In November 1911, they arrived at NYMP's small studios at Edendale (later known as Echo Park). It was during this period that Ince began his first steps to revolutionize the filmmaking process as we know it today. Almost instinctively, he hit upon the formula of carefully pre-planning his films on paper (something even Griffith never did) inventing the use of a detailed "shooting script," which also contained information on who was in the scene, and the "scene plot," which listed all interiors and exteriors, cost control plans and so on, and then meticulously breaking down the shooting schedule so that several scenes could be shot simultaneously by assistant directors.

Inceville - The First Modern Studio

"Inceville" Studios. Santa Ynez Canyon, Calif. (c. 1919)

Ince's aspirations, however, 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 known as Bison Ranch located at Sunset Blvd. and Pacific Coast Highway in the Santa Monica hills, which he rented by the day.[2][3] 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.

Here Ince built his studio, named "Inceville". The studio was the first of its kind in that it featured stages, offices, labs, commissaries (large enough to serve lunch to hundreds of workers), dressing rooms, props houses, elaborate sets, and other necessities in one location. While the site was under construction, Ince hired the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Wildwest Show, including many cowboys, horses, cattle, and a whole Sioux Indian tribe, who set up their teepees on the property. 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.[4] Extensive outdoor western sets were built and used on the site for several years.[5] 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."

Most of the Cowboys, American Indians and assorted workmen lived at "Inceville", while the actors came from Los Angeles and other communities as needed, taking the red trolley cars to the Long Wharf at Potrero Canyon, where buckboards conveyed them to the set.[6]

Ince lived in a house that overlooked the vast studio, the location of Marquez Knolls today. Here he functioned as the central authority over multiple production units changing the way films were made, organizing production methods into a disciplined system of filmmaking.[7] "Inceville" became a prototype for Hollywood film studios of the future, with a studio head (Ince), producers, directors, managers, production staff, and writers all working together under one organization (the unit system) and under the supervision of General Manager Fred J. Balshofer.

Before his time, the director and

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 Battle of Gettysburg (1913), which was five reels long. The film helped bring into vogue the idea of the feature-length film. Another important early film for Ince was The Italian (1915), which depicted immigrant life in New York City. 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 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,[8] giving up this responsibility to such proteges as Francis Ford, his brother John, Jack Conway, William Desmond Taylor, Fred Niblo, Henry King and Frank Borzage . David Shepard in The American Film Heritage said of Ince:

"(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."

He also discovered many talents, including William S. Hart, who appeared in and made some of the best early westerns, beginning in 1914. (The pair later had a falling out over the sharing of profits.)[9] 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 "Inceville" and sold it to Hart, who renamed it "Hartville". Three years later, Hart sold the lot to Robertson-Cole Pictures Corporation, which continued filming until 1922. La Hue writes that "the place was virtually a ghost town when the last remnants of Inceville were burned on the Fourth of July in 1922, leaving only a weatherworn old church, which stood sentinel over the charred ruins."

Triangle Studios

Photograph of original colonnade of Triangle Studios, 1916

By 1915, Ince was very powerful and one of the best-known producer-directors. It is around this time that Harry Culver noticed him making one of his westerns on Ballona Creek. Impressed with his talents, Culver convinced Ince to move his "Inceville" Studios from the beach to Culver City. That same year, Ince left NYMP and on July 19 partnered with Griffith and Mack Sennett to join the Triangle Motion Picture Company based on their prestige as producers. Triangle (from an aerial point of view the property took a triangular shape) built their large studios at 10202 W. Washington Blvd. (present-day site of Sony Pictures Studios). The very first Culver City movie studio began to take shape in the form of a Greek colonnade – the impressive entrance that still stands today fronting Washington Boulevard and is an historical landmark.

With Ince as its vice-president, Triangle announced that it would focus on feature-length epic and quality dramas (with Ince and his partners charging more money for their prestige pictures based on their reputations as producers). It was founded by Harry and Roy Aitken, two brothers from the Wisconsin farmlands who pioneered the studio system of Hollywood's Golden Age. Harry had also been Griffith's partner at Reliance-Majestic Studios, who had also been fired by the Mutual Film Corporation as a result the aftermath of the unexpected success of Griffith's The Birth of a Nation [10] that year, as the film 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 Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, and Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., and produced some of the most enduring films of the silent era, including the Keystone Kops comedy franchise. Originally a distributor of NYMP, Reliance Motion Picture Corp., Majestic Motion Picture Co., and Keystone Film Co. films, 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 these pictures, working primarily as an executive and 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.

Thomas H. Ince Studios

Ince in 1920

For a while, Ince joined competitor Adolph Zukor to form Paramount-Artcraft Pictures. However, he yearned to go back to running his own studio. On July 19, 1918, following 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.

"The Mansion" at Culver Studios today

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 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.[11] 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 Prince Leopold, among much pomp and ceremony.

Ince had only 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 laboratory, generating plant and carpenter shops. There is also a large wardrobe department."[12] Film historian, Marc Wanamaker, wrote that the studio was, until Ince's untimely death in 1924, "a center of creativity and innovation in film production".

Ince's studio publication, The Silver Sheet, 1923

Although he found distribution through Paramount and Metro, Ince was no longer as powerful as he once had been. He tried to regain his status in Hollywood in several ways. In 1919, he co-founded with several other independent entrepreneurs (notably his old partner at Triangle, Mack Sennett, Marshall Neilan, Allan Dwan and Maurice Tourneur) the independent releasing company, Associated Producers, Inc., and served as its president. Associated Producers distributed major producer-directors like Sennett, but could not function on its own successfully. In 1922, Ince's company merged with First National. Ince's production company still made movies that were released through First National until 1924.

Though Ince still made some significant films, the studio system was taking over Hollywood. There was little room for an independent producer and Ince could not regain his powerful standing. 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 his last years Ince drifted away from westerns in favor of social dramas. He 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 movie.

In 1925, after Ince's death, Cecil B. Demille acquired Ince Studios, renaming it the DeMille Studios. Besides DeMille, among those who filmed on the lot were Pathé, RKO, producer Howard Hughes, and Desilu Productions. In 1991, Sony Pictures Entertainment purchased the property as the home for its television endeavours, renaming it Culver Studios, and eventually selling it in 2004 to a group of investors. In his honor, the street intersecting the studios was named Ince Blvd. and there is an Ince Theater planned to be constructed in a parking lot adjacent to Ince Blvd. in the near future.[13][14]

Murder or natural death debate

On Saturday, November 15, 1924, William Randolph Hearst's lavish 280-foot (85 m) yacht, the Oneida, set sail from San Pedro, California heading for San Diego. Among his 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, Julanne Johnston, actor, choreographer and ballet dancer Theodore Kosloff and Dr. Daniel Carson Goodman, Hearst's film production manager. It is ironic that Ince, the guest of honor as it was his 42nd birthday, was late due to a production deal he was negotiating with Hearst's International Film Corporation and the yacht left without him.

Marion Davies greets Ince from deck of the Oneida moored in San Diego. November 16, 1924

Ince finished his business in Los Angeles and 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 on the yacht. Determining that Ince 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, then taken to a hotel where he was given medical treatment by Dr. T. A. Parker and nurse Jessie Howard. Ince informed them he had drunk liquor on the Hearst yacht. Afterward, he was taken to his home in Hollywood where the next day, November 19, he succumbed to a heart ailment.

Three days after leaving the Oneida, Ince died in his "Dias Dorados" estate in Benedict Canyon, officially of a heart attack.Two days before his death, Charlie Chaplin, Marion Davies and Hearst visited Ince who believed he would soon be well. Dr. Ida Cowan Glasgow, his 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!",[15] headlines that mysteriously vanished in the evening edition. Without further ado, Ince's body was cremated, after which his widow Nell left for Europe.

The first stories in Hearst's 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 immediately went to work. Several conflicting stories began circulating about the incident, often revolving around a claim that Hearst shot Ince in the head by mistake.[16]

The story goes that Hearst suspected that Davies and Chaplin were secretly lovers. 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 Charlie Chaplin in his Autobiography, he wasn't aboard that day and his friend Elinor Glyn told him that Ince had been merry and debonair, but during lunch had been suddenly stricken with paralysing 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. A third version tells of a struggle over a gun below decks between unidentified passengers. The gun fired accidentally and the bullet ripped through a plywood partition straight into Ince's room where it struck him.

Chaplin's secretary, Toraichi Kono, added fuel to the fire when he claimed to have seen Ince when he came ashore. Kono told his wife that Ince's head was "bleeding from a bullet wound". The story quickly spread among the 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. Chaplin denied being there, insisting that he, Hearst and Davies visited the ailing Ince later that week. 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.

Hearst (c.1910)

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 paid off Ince's mortgage on his Château Élysée apartment building in Hollywood. D. W. Griffith said 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 tainted his reputation as a pioneering filmmaker and diminished the way in which his role in the growth of the film industry was remembered. Even his studio could not survive his death. It shut down 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, David Thompson 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 1999 film RKO 281, about the making of Citizen Kane, includes a scene depicting screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz telling director Orson Welles his account of the incident.

A 2001 film directed by Peter Bogdanovich, The Cat's Meow, is based on the rumors. 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.[17] In Bogdanovich's film, Ince is portrayed by Cary Elwes. It was adapted by Steven Peros from his own play.


see Thomas H. Ince filmography


  1. ^ a b "In The Movies - Yesterday and Today" by Thomas H. Ince. "Los Angeles Record" December 3–13, 1924
  2. ^ Motion Picture Studios of California at
  3. ^ "Murder in Hollywood: Solving a Silent Screen Mystery" by Charles Higham
  4. ^ Soares, Andre (2014-01-24). "Inceville: Film Pioneer Thomas Ince’s Studios". Retrieved 2014-02-15. 
  5. ^ "The Real Wild West: The 101 Ranch and the Creation of the American West" by Michael Wallis
  6. ^ [1]
  7. ^ Thomas H. Ince -- Encyclopaedia Britannica []
  8. ^ "The Return of Thomas H. Ince". MoMA. Retrieved 2014-02-15. 
  9. ^ The Backlot Film Festival - History - Thomas Ince Biography at
  10. ^ "D. W. Griffith: Hollywood Independent". 1917-06-26. Retrieved 2014-02-15. 
  11. ^ [2]
  12. ^ "silentgents Resources and Information. This website is for sale!". Retrieved 2014-08-23. 
  13. ^ Eric Owen Moss Architects : Projects at
  14. ^ "Home". Retrieved 2014-02-15. 
  15. ^ Los Angeles Times. November 16, 1924 (morning edition)
  16. ^ "Los Angeles News and Events". LA Weekly. 2013-10-03. Retrieved 2014-02-15. 
  17. ^ French, Lawrence, "Peter Bogdanovich on completing Orson Welles long awaited The Other Side of the Wind for Showtime" (March 9, 2008 interview). Wellesnet: The Orson Welles Web Resource, March 14, 2008. Retrieved 5 January 2013


  • Taves, Brian (2011). Thomas Ince: Hollywood's Independent Pioneer. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky.  

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