His own origins were theatrical. He had been in stock and vaudeville for some ten vears before he entered the infant film industrv, probably through the agency of his wife, Eleanor Kershaw, who was an actress in Griffith's company. luce was briefly at Biograph before moving on to Independent to direct. From 1911-14 he directed several hundred one- or two-reelers. But he seemed less interested in the product than in the marketing of it. He joined the New York Motion Picture Company and went to California to make Westerns, hiring a W ild West show for authenticity and liming up land for a celluloid range. The “Western” as a spectacle owes much to luce’s labor as did William S. Hart whose films luce supervised. In 1914 he directed his first feature, The Battle of Gettysburg—and. probably, his last, for he plunged into production and supervision.
In 1915, with Griffith and Sennett, he formed Triangle, the clear forerunner of United Artists. Ince himself produced The Coward (15, Reginald Barker) and Civilization (16). which, reputedly, he codirected with Barker. Civilization was as much a success as Intolerance was a failure. It is set in a mythical country, deals portentously with the threat of war, and is dedicated to "the mothers of the dead." Nothing suggests that Ince thought or felt deeper than such blatantly rabble-rousing sentiments. Nor that he was shy about seeing himself as the benign patron of civilization.
In the last years ol the war, he continued to produce William S. Hart movies, and his stable of directors included Barker, Irvin Willat, Frank Borzage, Arthur Rossen, Victor Schertzinger. and Jack Conway. He left Triangle in 1918 and produced films for Adolph Zukor to distribute. In 1919 he joined with Sennett, Maurice Tourneur, Allan Dwan, and Marshall Neilan in Associated Producers. Ince continued to be released through Zukor until late in 1921—producing such films as Beau Revel (21, John Griffith Wray); The Bronze Bell (21, James Horne); The Cup of Life (21, Rowland V. Lee); Mother o Mine (21, Fred Niblo); and Passing Thru (21, William A. Seiter). When he broke with Zukor, Associated Producers went over to First National, and in his last years Ince maintained his “personal supervision” on The Hottentot (22, Horne); Skin Deep (22, Lambert Hillyer); Anna Christie (23, Wray); Bell Boy 13 (23, Seiter); Her Reputation (23, Wray); A Man of Action (23, Horne); Scars of Jealousy (23, Hillyer); Soul of the Beast (23, Wray); The Sunshine Trail (23, Horne); What a Wife Learned (23, Wray); Barbara Frietchie (24, Hillyer); Christine of the Hungry Heart (24, George Archainbaud); Idle Tongues (24, Hillyer); The Marriage Cheat (24, Wray); and Those Who Dance (24, Hillyer).
Ince contributed something else to Hollywood legend—the mystery of his death—and it is prob¬ably the aspect of his career that is most interest¬ing now. In November 1924, William Randolph Hearst threw a yachting party on his boat, the Oneida, sailing off the southern California coast. The passengers included Marion Davies, Chaplin, Ince, Elinor Glvn, and the young Louella Parsons. Ince was taken off the yacht at San Diego. He died two days later, and the official cause of death was given as heart failure following what had been severe indigestion. But rumors sprang up that there had been drinking on the boat, that shots had been fired, that Chaplin (and/or Ince) had made a pass at Marion Davies. It is one of the great Hollywood enigmas still, in that richly scandalous moment of the early 1920s. And surely it is beyond solution now.
Should Ince be treated as a director, or as a producer? Or is his relevance simply a matter of the historical contrast he offers with D. W. Griffith? Ince is not a name that rings many bells today; yet, he had a very active career and, in the early 1920s, was thought of as one of the most important, and self-important, of men. It was Buster Keaton, in The Playhouse (21), who mocked luce’s overweening claim to story, production, and direction on films that were made by his company. Keaton’s joke seems to have made ostentation retract, and research discovers few full-length films that Ince directed on his own.
Nevertheless, he was a pioneer in the way he insinuated himself into film production and set about organizing it. In addition, in 1916, he built new studios at Culver City that were to become the basis of the MGM complex (his second home—just down the street—would later he the home of David O. Selznick, and thus a famous logo image). “Thomas H. was my Ince-spiration,” said Keaton of The Playhouse. But, in fact, Thomas IIs shameless self-aggrandizement seems the original of a brand of ambition central to American films. In that sense, he was the first tycoon, more businesslike than Griffith and much more prosperous. He died in early middle age, and it is possible to surmise that he might have become one of the moguls of the 1930s.