April 7, 2012 9:02:45 AM
If you are like me, you know of Thomas H. Ince as a prolific movie producer from the silent era but mostly famous because of reports of his scandalous and covered-up death in 1924 on the yacht belonging to William Randolph Hearst. Now I have read Thomas Ince: Hollywood's Independent Pioneer (The University Press of Kentucky) by Brian Taves, and I know better, and I am glad of it. Taves is an archivist with the Library of Congress, and at the very beginning of this book, surprisingly the first full-length biography of this Hollywood innovator, he shows how ironic it is that Ince should be recalled because of lurid stories about his death. Ince was a worker, intimately involved in all facets of the new art of making films, and it was his addiction to work more than any naughtiness that hastened his death. Ince was busy making films, not scandal, and it is fitting that this biography treats his business and artistic dealings in detail, for those, and not fictions about his death, are important parts of the larger story of movies.
Well, first the scandal that was no scandal, although it has been "verified" in such sources as Kenneth Anger's famous gossip-fest Hollywood Babylon and the 2001 Peter Bogdanovich film The Cat's Meow supposedly based on Ince's death. The stories say that Hearst and Ince were in longstanding negotiations for joint ventures, and that Ince was staying on Hearst's yacht Oneida. Hearst was infuriated by Charlie Chaplin's attentiveness to his lover Marion Davies, and mistaking identities in some sort of murky dark, shot Ince when he thought he was aiming at Chaplin, and then there was a huge conspiracy to cover up the murder. It is astonishing how nonsensical this all is in light of the bare and unhidden facts that Taves reports. Ince was burly and stocky, Chaplin was slight, and the two would hardly be confused. Hearst and Chaplin remained friends for years until Hearst could no longer stomach Chaplin's politics. Columnist Louella Parsons (among a yacht full of other guests) was supposedly a witness and a source for the story of the shooting, but she was not even in California at the time. Most importantly, there is exactly no evidence that Ince was shot by Hearst or anyone else. Official police and medical reports from the time make no reference to wounds of any type. There was no cover-up except for the one Ince himself had conducted about his health problems, some of which had become public by 1916. He had ulcers and angina, but tried to keep such things quiet because he was an independent producer, and he wanted to be seen as a sound investment for lenders and for those who would be distributing his pictures. Conspiracists have also cited his being cremated as an indication that an unknown person or persons nefariously ensured thereby that no one would ever find out what really killed him. However, Ince and his wife had settled on cremation long before. It was not the usual thing, but it fit in with what seems to have been Ince's only personal oddity, his belief in theosophy.
Taves makes a completely convincing argument that Ince's overwork caused his death at 42. He had been a bustling force all his life. His parents were character actors and light comedians, and he was quickly on the stage, the "spoken drama" as he called it, distinguished from the silent dramas that would make his name. He had little education. He endured the vagaries of different traveling troupes. One slow summer, he took a job as a swimming pool lifeguard at a hotel, although he could not swim. In 1910, when he was twenty years old, a friend became an assistant director of a movie company in New York, and invited Ince to be an actor. Ince was reluctant, feeling that movies were somehow beneath the real theater, but he signed up for a production at $5 a day, and got a job as a stock actor. Whatever Ince did, he learned to do rapidly and he had a knack for gaining important skills easily. He quickly understood that movies were a far more pliant medium than the stage, with new options for stories and for locale. It was not long before he moved into directing; he knew he was too short to be a leading man and that working as a character actor had limited opportunities. He signed a contract in 1911 to direct movies in California, and soon was making two movies a week. He would shoot during the day, and then return to his Hollywood home and edit scenes in his kitchen, helped by his supportive wife Elinor. He was to go on to direct, edit, write, or produce over 800 movies.
Taves credits Ince with introducing into films activities and themes we take for granted now. He somehow knew that there would be an American interest in Westerns, and he made plenty of them, often using the Miller Brothers 101 Wild West Show to provide cowboys, Indians, horses, and wagons. He took advantage of the uninhabited California countryside for his outdoor settings. He built the first self-contained movie studio; it was called Inceville. Actress Billie Burke recalled the studio as an environment no one had ever seen the likes of: "The magnitude of the place fairly took my breath - it was a city in itself. On one side I saw a typical London street; across the way a picturesque stretch of the Swiss Alps; a replica of the New York Stock Exchange; a view of Broadway from Times Square; a crooked Scottish street; a bazaar-lined lane, such as one would see at Cairo." Ince was one of the first filmmakers to use Native Americans and Japanese in ethnic roles, rather than just using white actors to simulate them; he would make movies that had such players in the main roles. He moved movies from the usual two reels to the longer five or six reels. To keep up with things as films got longer and more complicated, he championed detailed shooting scripts, including the necessary new concept of continuity. He knew how important writers were, and hired good ones. He made the Civil War a common theme for the movies. He had a good sense of balance of what would be an artistic picture and what would be a profitable one. He became famous for the "Ince Punch," a spectacular scene of natural or man-made chaos which would climax a melodrama and gather its story threads.
Taves closely follows the moves in Ince's career. He tells us plots of the important films, their costs, and their grosses. He tells us Ince's yearly gross income and how much he paid in taxes. This fits perfectly for the life story of a businessman who also had a brilliant feel for narrative and style, but it is hardly the standard stuff of show-business biography. That's just as Ince would have wanted it, and he would have been angry that Taves had had to spend so many initial pages debunking what is wrongly his lurid place in history. Ince said of his own role in movies: "We've just scratched the surface - it's a new speech - a new art." He would be amazed how far movies have come, but anyone who loves movies will be amazed at just how far he was able to take them in his own time.
4. A Stone's Throw: Waving flags COLUMNS