Thomas Ince

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Thomas Ince

Thomas Ince (1882-1924) played a significant role in the development of the film industry in Hollywood as both a producer and director. He was an originator of the studio system of filmmaking.

Thomas Harper Ince was born on November 6, 1882, in Newport, Rhode Island, into a theatrical family. He was the son of John E. Ince, a comedian who later became a theatrical agent, and his wife, Emma B., an actress. Ince was the middle of three sons; his brothers, John and Ralph, also worked in the entertainment industry.

Worked as an Actor

Ince was put on stage at an early age. He made his stage debut at the age of six. During his childhood, Ince primarily appeared in stock and vaudeville productions as a song-and-dance man. When he was 15 years old, he began appearing on Broadway after debuting in Shore Acres. In 1905, Ince had his own stock company, though it ultimately failed. Ince met his wife, actress Elinor "Nell" Kershaw, whom he married in 1907, when they appeared together in a Broadway Show, For Love's Sweet Sake.

Kershaw was a Biograph girl; that is, she was a signature actress in films produced by the Biograph film company. Ince had appeared in a few films during his acting career, though at the time film acting was regarded as inferior to the live theater. But after his marriage, Ince started to appear in more films through his wife's connections at Biograph. By 1910, he was working exclusively in films, making $5 per day, but was regularly under employed. Ince ended his acting career in that year and decided to become a director.

Ince had appeared in some films for the Independent Motion Picture Company (IMP). In 1910, he was given an opportunity to direct for them. Ince's break came when a director at IMP was unable to complete work on a small film. Ince's work on the film, Little Nell's Tobacco (1910), impressed IMP's owner Carl Laemmle and Ince was hired as a director. During Ince's short tenure at IMP, he and another director worked on several films in Cuba with Mary Pickford.

In 1911, Ince joined New York Motion Pictures (NYMP), leaving IMP because of the opportunities NYMP offered. After directing some films in New York City, Ince moved to Edendale (later known as Echo Park), California in November. There, he wrote and directed westerns for Bison Life Motion Pictures, a subsidiary of NYMP, for $150 per week. Ince's first western was War on the Plains (1912); one of his most successful was Custer's Last Fight (1912), which featured many extras and much realism, including many Indians who had actually been in battle. Ince became known as the "father of the western," completing several hundred one-and two-reel western pictures through 1914. (Almost none of these films remain in existence today.)

Supervised Construction of Inceville

Soon after Ince moved to California, the company bought land and built the biggest movie plant of the time. Ince oversaw construction of the studio, located on 18,000 acres on what is now the Pacific Coast Highway and Santa Ynez Canyon. The studio, known as Inceville, featured stages, offices, labs, commissaries, dressing rooms, props, sets, and other necessities and changed the way in which films were made. Because many westerns were made at Inceville, Ince took the innovative step of putting a Wild West show on his payroll, the Miller Brothers' 101 Ranch Wild West Show, to add authenticity to his pictures.

Ince was also changing the way films were made in other ways. Previously 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. Ince was the first producer-director, though he had to hire other directors to make all the films that needed to be produced. He found many talents, including William S. Hart, who appeared in and made some of the best early westerns, beginning in 1918. (The pair later had a falling out over the sharing of profits.)

Ince contributed to the evolving film production process in other ways as well. In 1913, the concept of the production manager was created. NYMP used George Stout, an accountant, to reorganize how films were outputted in order to bring discipline to the process. Film production became more departmentalized and factory-like, anticipating the studio system of filmmaking that would become the norm in the 1920s. With this model, Ince gradually exercised even more control over the film production process as a director-general. He controlled the conception and execution in an executive sense, letting others direct, write and edit the product.

Ince also exerted control through the way scripts were written. Previously, film stories were loosely defined. Ince helped institutionalize the continuity script, which was more of a blueprint for production. The scripts contained more than just the story, but also many directions for aspects of production. This contributed to a more efficient production process and gave producers greater ability to anticipate and control costs. These kinds of innovations made Ince a very powerful man.

In the early days, Ince primarily produced westerns and action pictures. By 1913, he was identified with quality, diverse pictures that appealed to a wide audience. In 1914-15, Ince was still working for NYMP, which by this time had three production umbrellas for their various products, Domino, Broncho, and Kay Bee, as well as a new distribution company, Mutual. 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. This 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.

Founded Triangle Film Corporation

In 1915, Ince was very powerful and one of the best known producer-directors. He left NYMP and formed Triangle Film Corporation with other prominent filmmakers including D.W. Griffith, Mack Sennett and Harry Aitken. Triangle was a production-distribution-exhibition company, one of the first vertically integrated film companies. Ince was a vice president. Triangle focused on epic and quality dramas that were feature length. Ince and his partners charged more money for their prestige pictures based on their reputations as producers.

Though Ince had many credits as a director in this time period, he really only supervised the production of most of these pictures. Ince was working primarily as an executive and producer, but he still directed some films. One of his most important and famous pictures as a director was Civilization (1916). This pacifist work was set in a mythical country and dedicated to the mothers of those who died in World War I. Civilization competed with Griffith's famous epic Intolerance and beat it at the box office at the time. Ince directed his last film in 1916, though he continued to write scripts for other people's pictures. Overall, Ince's career as a director did not lack critical controversy. While some believed that he was an mediocre hack, others felt that he was an artist of the shadows.

Before 1918, Triangle was dissolved as a company. While trying to remain vital as a distribution company, financial mismanagement led to failure. Ince then formed his own production company in 1918. This company was located in Culver City, where he built a new Inceville after selling the first one. (This Inceville later became physical plant for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.) While his films made money, there were only a limited number of features produced per year. While Ince found distribution through Paramount and Metro, he was no longer as powerful as he once had been.

Ince tried to regain his status in Hollywood in several ways. In 1919, he co-founded the independent releasing company, Associated Producers, Inc., and served as its president. Associated Producers distributed major producer-directors like Mack 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. This company made loans to producers who already had been successful, but only accomplished its goal in a limited sense. Ince made a few last important films. One was a prestige version of Anna Christie (1923), based on the novel by Eugene O'Neill. He also produced the significant Human Wreckage (1923) which was an early anti-drug movie.

Died in Mysterious Circumstances

Shortly before Ince's death, he attended a party/yachting trip on newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst's yacht, the Oneida. The party was given for Ince's birthday as well as the signing of an important film contract. The contract was for the production and distribution of the films of Hearst's mistress, Marion Davis, an actress. What actually happened aboard the ship is unknown. Some believe there was a cover-up and that Hearst accidentally shot Ince when he was aiming at another guest, Charlie Chaplin. But Ince also suffered from ill health, including ulcers and angina pectoris. Others believe that Ince just fell ill with acute indigestion or because of a heart attack. After being removed from the yacht, Ince died in his own bed at his new elaborate home in Benedict Canyon on November 9, 1924. His wife and two sons were with him when he died. Ince was only 42 years old. The official cause of death was listed as heart failure. Cecilia Rasmussen of the Los Angeles Times wrote that "All Nell ever wanted was for her husband to be remembered as the pioneering filmmaker he was, the man who turned movies from a 'toy into an art."' It was not to be.

The circumstances of Ince's death tainted his reputation as a pioneering filmmaker and diminished the way 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 passed. 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 Hollywood had he lived, 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."


American National Biography: Volume 11, edited by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, Oxford University Press, 1999.

Austin, John, More of Hollywood's Unsolved Mysteries, Shapolsky Publishers, Inc., 1991.

Katz, Ephraim, The Film Encyclopedia, Harper Perennial, 1998.

International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers-4: Writers and Production Artists, edited by Grace Jeromski, St. James Press, 1997.

100 Years of American Film, edited by Frank Beaver, MacMillan, 2000.

Thomson, David, A Biographical Dictionary of Film, Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.


Daily Telegraph, April 3, 1997.

Films in Review, October 1960.

Los Angeles Times, April 4, 1999. □

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Thomas Ince

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