Publisher: University Press of Kentucky
Publication date: 12/01/2011
Thomas Harper Ince could not have suffered a more untimely demise. Rumors, conflicting press accounts and confusion swirled over news of his death at the height of his career.
This might have left his contributions to early cinema largely misunderstood and overlooked. Brian Taves hoped to reconcile the truth with the prolific and innovative output of this silent era director by writing Thomas Ince: Hollywood’s Independent Pioneer.
“I had long been interested in Thomas Ince as a figure so often mentioned but so seldom fully understood in cinema history,” writes Taves, a Library of Congress archivist and author of articles and books about filmmaking.
So, he researched the Ince papers from the Museum of Modern Art, movie stills from George Eastman House and surviving films from the collections of the Library of Congress and the University of California at Los Angeles.
The book’s introduction centers on the Hollywood rumors surrounding Ince’s death shortly after his 44th birthday celebration aboard the yacht Oneida, owned by newspaper chief William Randolph Hearst.
Taves corrects inaccuracies that are the focus of the 2001 film The Cat’s Meow. Portrayed by Edward Herrmann, Hearst believes Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard) is involved in an affair with his mistress Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst). Ince (Cary Elwes) dies from a gunshot wound inflicted by a jealous Hearst, who has mistaken him for Chaplin.
According to Taves, rivals and enemies might have ignored the truth as a “convenient way to accuse Hearst of murder or at least a cover-up, while leaving it at a level of rumor to avoid possible libel.”
The Boston Globe and New York Times accepted the conclusion of San Diego’s district attorney that an inquiry into a death caused by heart failure was not necessary.
According to Taves, the portrayal of Ince in The Cat’s Meow “as a washed-up producer lucky to turn out a movie a year” cannot jibe with the fact that fifteen Ince productions were released the year he died.
Friends and associates understood his deteriorating heart condition could have been the result of a dogged work schedule and the intense financial pressures of running a film studio.
Ince directed his first film, Little Nell’s Tobacco, for IMP in 1910. A quick study on directing and technique, he succeeded in the burgeoning silent era through hard work and determination.
After signing a contract in 1911 and setting up in California, Ince shot a comedy, The New Cook, and was turning out two productions every week. With the support of his wife Elinor, Ince would direct and shoot most of the day, return home to his small Hollywood bungalow and edit scenes in the kitchen that also served as a projection room.
Ince had an instinct about audience preferences for Westerns, which led him to construct a studio in Culver City and hire the Miller Brothers 101 Wild West Show, a company of cowboys, Indians, horses, cattle and wagons.
Studio publicity marketed his films with the tagline: “the Ince punch”—a spectacular scene that appealed to the emotions of movie goers and delivered a commercially-viable narrative.
Ince would become known for historical reenactments such as Custer’s Last Fight (1912) as well as melodramas starring heroines such as Enid Bennett and Dorothy Dalton.
Civilization and Hell’s Hinges (1916) are the best known films of his career outside of archival footage, but they represent a fraction of his creativity as an actor, director, editor and producer.
Ince made commercial films about important subjects such as corruption in The Italian (1915), Christian hypocrisy in The Son of His Father (1917) or alcoholism in The Family Skeleton (1918).
He could also produce critically-acclaimed films like Anna Christie (1924) based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Eugene O’Neill.
He innovated continuity and hired writers to collaborate on scenarios. He used two and three-reel film for editing longer movies and built Inceville for location shooting and specialized production departments.
Ince focused on regularly producing quality movies and his innovations would usher in the age of the Hollywood studio system of Irving Thalberg and Darryl Zanuck.
Ince once said of the new media of filmmaking:
We’ve just scratched the surface—it’s a new speech—a new art.
Thomas Ince: Hollywood’s Independent Pioneer by Brian Taves is a worthwhile read and a thoroughly researched account of a largely overlooked career in independent filmmaking.
Category: Nonfiction, Biography