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Usually considered the father of the moviemaking studio system, Thomas H. Ince was a true innovator, defining the creative and industrial role of producer, institutionalizing the continuity script, and as early as 1912, constructing the blueprint for departmentalized, factory-like studio filmmaking that would become the town's model. Ince brought discipline and structure to the haphazard film industry, placed great emphasis on hiring technicians with their own specialties instead of tackling all facets of the project on his own; because of this he became one of the most important forces in early American cinema. Upon his arrival to Hollywood in 1912, he built and acquired what became Inceville, a fully-equipped moviemaking facility that became the first modern Hollywood studio. It was there that he helped steer Hollywood toward feature films with the five-reel epic, "The Battle of Gettysburg" (1913), which was since been lost to time. Meanwhile, he formed the Triangle Film Corporation with D.W. Griffith and Mack Sennett, and released some of his most notable films, including "The Italian" (1915), "The Coward" (1915), "Hell's Hinges" (1916) and his most famous production, "Civilization" (1916). He later formed Thomas H. Ince Studios in 1918, which became the Culver Studios later in the decade, but by this time his power began to wane, thanks to the larger studios adopting his methods and using their vaster sums of wealth to gain a more solid foothold. Making fewer movies, Ince oversaw the anti-drug exposé "Human Wreckage" (1923) and the adaptation of Eugene O'Neil's "Anna Christie" (1923). But before he could rebound, Ince died of a heart attack while aboard a yacht owned by William Randolph Hearst, though rumors swirled that the publishing mogul accidentally shot him while aiming for Charlie Chaplin, who was having an affair with Hearst's mistress, Marion Davies. Though no solid proof existed of the accusation, Ince nonetheless became forever associated with 1920s scandal-laden Hollywood despite the many innovations he made that were still being utilized in the 21st century.
Born on Nov. 6, 1882 in Newport, R.I., Ince was raised by his father, John, an actor-turned-theatrical agent, and his mother, Emma, also an actress. Just like his parents, Ince - along with his two brothers, John and Ralph - began acting, making his stage debut at six years old and working in a number of stock theater companies throughout his youth. When he was 15, Ince appeared on Broadway for the first time and worked intermittently in vaudeville, forcing him to take odd jobs like a lifeguard and promoter to get by. Between 1906 and 1910, he made a handful of acting appearances in film, but was essentially an underemployed stage actor when he took his last bit part in a Biograph film in November 1910, where he also met future wife Eleanor Alice Kershaw, who also acted for the company. A month later he was given a chance to direct for Carl Laemmle's Independent Motion Pictures (IMP), where his first film was "Little Nell's Tobacco" (1910). In 1911, Ince took a company of IMP players and technicians to Cuba where he and fellow fledgling director George Loene Tucker made several one-reelers featuring Mary Pickford. Before the year was out, however, he joined the New York Motion Picture Company (NYMP) as a director and in November was sent to Edendale, CA to shoot Westerns for the company's Bison brand name.
Other film companies had also set up smaller facilities in Southern California when Ince arrived - including Mack Sennett's Keystone, which like Ince's Bison, was a subsidiary of Adam Kessel and Charles O. Bauman's NYMP - but Ince's operation led all others in the expansion of production facilities and the quality and quantity of films being manufactured. In 1912, Ince's company took an important step by acquiring the properties and services of the Miller Bros. 101 Ranch and Wild West Show. Not only did this give the Bison 101 film company a stable of talented and authentic cowboy and Indian performers for its Westerns, it also included the acquisition of made-to-order sets, costumes, props and, most important of all, 18,000 acres of land around Santa Monica and the Santa Ynez canyon. Under Ince's guidance, NYMP constructed a vast infrastructure for film production that he dubbed Inceville. The lot included administrative office buildings, multiple glass-enclosed shooting stages, huge standing sets, laboratories, physical plant facilities, hundreds of dressing rooms, commissaries, property and wardrobe warehouses - in short, the first true modern Hollywood studio.
The building of Inceville signified not only the increasing size of the nascent film industry but also institutionalized a new method of film production. Before 1912, production - as practiced, for example, by the Motion Picture Patents Company units, or even IMP's company that Ince had taken to Cuba - usually centered on a director and his camera operator leading a small band of actors and craftspeople in the improvisatory shooting of one-reel narrative. Ince's new model, however, placed production power in the hands of a central producer - namely himself. By mid-1912, Ince found the output of his company exceeding what he could personally direct, so he split his personnel into two units, with Francis Ford directing those films which Ince did not handle himself. Within the next few years, the number of directors working for Ince expanded, with a number of talents surpassing Ford, including William S. Hart, Frank Borzage, Jack Conway, Raymond B. West, Reginald Barker and Fred Niblo. In 1913, the need for greater control over the expanding production process invited other significant changes at Inceville. NYMP hired an accountant, George Stout, as a production manager - another Ince innovation - and allowed him to reorganize the Ince operation into systematically controlled departments with strict divisions of labor.
Ince became officially director-general, an executive who directed, wrote and edited little himself, but exerted greater control over the conception and execution of film production - in short creating what became the duties of a modern producer. His principle mechanism for keeping films on budget and giving creative instructions was his insistence on detailed continuity scripts. Rather than merely provide directors with rough scenarios or let them work without any script, Ince delivered a pre-planned, shot-for-shot blueprint of each film - what became later known as a shooting script. A staff of scenario editors assisted Ince in constructing each film on paper: scenes were numbered and broken down by shot and camera set-up, instructions on smaller details, such as camera speed, lighting effects, acting styles and post-production procedures like tinting, special effects and title cards, were also indicated. Presenting his directors with such scripts weeks in advance of shooting allowed for greater efficiency, and the resulting profitability led the major companies which rose to prominence in the teens to adopt similar practices. By 1913, others were technically directing his company's films, but the label "Thomas H. Ince Presents," which appeared on the title cards, remained accurate given the vast amount of personnel supervision the producer gave each film.
The Ince name became associated with well-constructed action dramas and consistent popular appeal. But whatever his contribution to the art of filmmaking, Ince's career remained more significant for its marked entrepreneurship and constant involvement in the shifts of power that took place as the American film industry made its transition from Patents Company domination in 1912 to vertically integrated Hollywood studios of the 1920s. During this decade in which companies merged, competed, diversified, invested and expanded, Thomas Ince remained one of the industry's chief power brokers. With the diversification of his company into three new brands - Kay Bee, Broncho and Domino - Ince began to produce not only Westerns and action dramas, but a variety of subjects, most notably a popular series of Japanese idylls, including "The Wrath of the Gods" (1914) and "The Typhoon" (1914), the latter made an instant film star of Sessue Hayakawa and his wife Tsuru Aoki. He also produced anti-German historical propaganda films to aid the WWI effort, such as "The Despoiler (1915)," "Claws of the Hun" (1918) and "The Kaiser's Shadow" (1915). Significantly, he was steadily increasing the length of his productions, most notably with the successful five-reel release of his epic "The Battle of Gettysburg" (1913), which helped speed the industry's move to feature-length films. The epic film was since lost, with only a mere 60 seconds of footage surviving the ravages of time.
By 1915, Ince was recognized alongside D.W. Griffith as film's most prominent producer-director. With Griffith and associate Mack Sennett, Ince formed the three powerful elements of the Triangle Film Corporation, a major new production-distribution-exhibition company with capital holdings of $5 million. Mutual's Harry Aitken took on the role of president and attempted to create the nation's first vertically integrated film corporation, with Ince and his former employers Bauman and Kessel holding posts as vice presidents. To enhance production values, the original Inceville studio - which had been ravaged by a number of fires - was sold and a new half-million-dollar facility was built in Culver City, CA. The new lot initially featured five stages, some one thousand employees, and expanded creative departments. Triangle's strategy was to offer prestige pictures of feature length and, through the strength of their producers' reputations, charge greater prices for their films. Ince responded with productions like "The Italian" (1915), William Hart's "Hell's Hinges" (1916) and his trademark expressive epics like the Civil War drama "The Coward" (1915) and his most famous production, "Civilization" (1916).
Despite some impressive success from Ince, Triangle soon dissolved. Its distribution company had successfully recruited W.W. Hodkinson, founder of the powerful Paramount distributorship who had been forced out by Adolf Zukor, and the company was in the process of leasing a chain of first class theaters. But internal mismanagement at Triangle, along with the huge losses incurred by Griffith's "Intolerance" (1916) and the huge salaries paid to theatrical stars who did not attract film audiences, added up to financial failure by 1918. Even in the face of Triangle's major failure, Ince remained a strong force in film production, though at this time his power was in decline, particularly in light of other studios adapting his methods. In 1918, he formed his own production company and with financing from Harry Aitken, again moved to a second lot in Culver City, the first having been sold to Sam Goldwyn. His new production office was a white colonial mansion modeled after George Washington's Mount Vernon, which in later years became a familiar sight as the logo for David O. Selznick's films. Although his films continued to make considerable profits, his output slowed to several features a year as he was forced to compete against vertically integrated studios, which had grown far more powerful than independent producers like Ince.
In 1918-19, Ince briefly distributed through rival Paramount and then Metro. But he attempted to re-enter the top echelon of the industry by coordinating the founding of Associated Producers, Inc. in October 1919. Ince became president of this national distribution firm that had the partnership of several major producer-directors, including Mack Sennett, Allan Dwan, Maurice Tourneur, Marshall Nielan and George Loane Tucker. Associated Pictures failed to compete with Paramount and merged with another major, First National, in September 1922. The independent Ince production company released its features through First National. By the early 1920s, the Ince Company was being edged out of the studio system which was rapidly becoming known as Hollywood. He did attempt to compete on other levels, however, and in 1921 he and other producers combined with banking interests to form the Cinematic Finance Corporation, an effort to make production loans available to producers with a proven track record. Following the death of film star Wallace Reid by drug overdose, Ince and Reid's widow produced "Human Wreckage" (1923), an anti-drug exploitation expose on the subject of addiction. In a bid to regain falling prestige, Ince bought the rights to Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie and released a high-class adaptation starring Blanche Sweet in 1923.
Although his producing prowess was surpassed by the grander-scaled, star-laden film studios of early Hollywood, Ince was still a major independent producer when his name once again received worldwide publicity and unfortunately inextricably tied to scandal for eternity. Already scandalized by the Fatty Arbuckle trial and other so-called sins of Hollywood, the film community was further traumatized when Ince fell fatally ill while on a yachting trip with newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst and his movie star mistress, Marion Davies. He reportedly suffered from acute indigestion and was taken to shore by Dr. Daniel Goodman - a guest of Hearst - in a water taxi when the yacht was off the coast in San Diego. Once on shore, Ince was put on a train bound for Los Angeles, only to be removed when his condition worsened. He was taken to a hotel in Del Mar, where he received further treatment by another doctor, before he completed the trip back to Hollywood. Ince died the next day on Nov. 19, 1924 from a heart attack. He was only 42 years old.
But before he was even laid to rest, whispers soon materialized that Ince in fact took the potshot intended for Charlie Chaplin, whom Hearst suspected of having illicit relations with Davies. Several versions of the story circulated, the most popular being that Hearst found Chaplin and Davies in an embrace and drew a gun; Davies' screams drew Ince from his bed and he took a bullet meant for Chaplin. Circumstantial evidence cropped up, including a mysterious headline in the Los Angeles Times that declared Hearst shot Ince, only to disappear in the evening edition. With the Hollywood rumor mill in high gear, facts of the various stories changed and the truth of what really happened were never known. Ince's death, however, officially remained a heart attack, while the film industry closed its doors on the story. So iconic was the tale, however, that over 70 years later, director and cinephile Peter Bogdanovich told his own version of what may or may not have occurred on the yacht in his feature homage "The Cat's Meow" (2001), starring Cary Elwes as Ince. "As for the real Ince, his name would sadly remain associated with the Hollywood scandals of the 1920s rather than for his pioneering contributions to the production practices of modern studio filmmaking.
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Editing (Feature Film)
Joined Independent Motion Pictures Company
Left IMP; joined New York Motion Pictures
Founded Inceville film studio (California)
Co-founded Triangle Film Corporation (with Harry Aitken, Mack Sennett and D W Griffith)
Left Triangle; formed own production company (Culver City CA) which eventually became physical plant for MGM
Co-founded independent releasing company Associated Producers, Inc.
Associated and First National merged