Friday, November 15, 2019

Ince Boulevard of Broken Dreams in Culver City, Cal.

November 16th is the birth day in 1880 of Thomas Harper Ince, an early film director.

Erin Perez, Guest Blogger, examines the impact of Ince on the history of Culver City and explores the circumstances around his death in 1924.

Photo by Erin Perez

In the month of March I asked Erin about what intrigued her about Thomas Ince.  I said if she wrote it up I would publish it near his birthday.  The backstory on Erin:

"I grew up in the Heart of Screenland, Culver City. My childhood home was at the street corner across from Sony Studios, which once upon a time was the infamous MGM lot and before that, Triangle Studios. Maybe because of where I grew up, I cultivated a fascination with film and film history into a screenwriting/media studies degree from UC Irvine and dabbled in the industry with odd jobs here and there. When I’m not thinking up movie and tv ideas, I’m either going down an internet rabbit hole researching dead Hollywood actresses and actors; cooking and baking the latest Bon Appetit recipes; preparing Dinosaur fossils as a volunteer at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles or I’m creating colorful eyeshadow looks on myself for my job with Sephora. It’s been quite an eclectic life and I wouldn’t trade it for anything."

Erin at work in the Dino Lab at the Natural History Museum

Here is Erin's post:

Ince Boulevard in Culver City, extending no longer than a quarter mile, connects the compact yet  bustling downtown of Culver City with the newly revamped arts district. Turning left at the end of Culver Boulevard will take you onto Washington Blvd towards the metro station area, but continuing straight on Ince will take you to a dead end in a quiet neighborhood.

Ince Boulevard begins with two major film and television sites flanking both sides of the street: the Sony Pictures Animation campus on the east, and the future site of Amazon Studios on the west. Walking towards Ince Blvd, however, you’re most struck by the colonial-style mansion still standing as a gateway for the under construction Amazon lot.

Ince Studio, ca. 1920s
(Image courtesy of the Seaver Center for Western History Research,
Natural History Museum of LA County P-010-0450)

This historic landmark, itself a nod to another historic landmark: Mount Vernon, has been standing in Culver City since 1919, a century old. It is the one of the last remnants of the very first film studio to occupy the same location, Thomas H. Ince Studios, named for the man who helped Culver City earn its “Heart of Screenland” motto. Though instrumental in developing key production operations and being a major player in the early days of moving pictures in the West, Mr. Ince is more known for the mysterious circumstances and gossip surrounding his death, or depending on who you talked to in Tinsel Town, his murder.

Map of Culver City, ca. 1929 (click to zoom)
(Image of Seaver Center GC-1310-0505)

Thomas H. Ince was born in 1880 to a family of English immigrants living in Rhode Island. They later moved to New York City in pursuit of theater work as his parents and siblings were all actors, his father also being a musical agent. His theatrical upbringing and experiences gave Ince a keen sense of how creative productions needed to be run, how they were organized, who did what etc. and which jobs and roles needed to be defined. This mindset for planning and logistics would make Ince one of Hollywood’s greatest pioneers.

Thomas Ince, n.d.
(Image courtesy of the Seaver Center GPF.0425)

Around 1910, Ince began directing pictures for one of the earliest film studios, the Biograph Company, alongside future partner, director D. W. Griffith. He went on to work for Carl Laemmle, who would eventually be the founder of Universal Studios. Ince and his peers were all part of independent film companies that were under siege of Thomas Edison’s Motion Picture Patents Company, a trust that wanted a monopoly on the film market. Around 1911, Ince (and fellow filmmakers), escaping threats of lawsuits, found refuge out in sunny Southern California, where the fair weather  and diversity of scenery just happened to be more conducive for film production than the East Coast.

Out there, Ince found the freedom he needed to experiment and hone his talents. He first rented, then eventually with enough money, bought a 460 acre ranch in the Santa Monica mountains, known then as Bison Ranch in 1912 (currently the Self-Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine). With financial backing from the New York Motion Picture Company (NYMPC), Ince leased another 18,000 acres in the Santa Ynez canyon that stretched from Santa Monica to Malibu. The studio would go on to be known as ‘Inceville’.

Inceville, later called Hartville, near Sunset Blvd. and PCH
(Image courtesy of the Seaver Center P-026-21)

Ince made sure his studio was equipped with everything he needed in one location to make multiple films at once: silent stages, printing labs, a cafeteria, prop and costume houses, outdoor sets that took on styles from different parts of the world and various time periods.  He also leased the 101 Ranch and Wild West Show that consisted of 300 cowboys and cowgirls, 600 horses, livestock and an entire 200-person Sioux tribe. The studio went on to produce hundreds of films, including 150 films in 1913 alone, most of which were westerns.

Set still from Money Corral, 1919 showing Thomas Ince sign
(Image courtesy of the Seaver Center P-075-13a-H-3049-45)

As a studio head, Ince formalized many filmmaking conventions, such as defining the roles of producer, editor, screenwriter and production manager (directors and/or cameramen usually wore all four hats at the time). His assembly-line approach to filmmaking not only made production more efficient, it enabled more films to be made at one time and thus be released more frequently. Later Hollywood studios adopted Ince’s techniques.

By 1915, Ince was a respected and popular film studio head. It’s said that Harry Culver, the real estate developer who founded Culver City, spotted Ince shooting a western along the La Ballona Creek and struck up a conversation with him. This eventually led to Harry Culver convincing Ince to build a new studio in Culver City along Washington Blvd. The new studio opened in January of 1916, with a four silent film stages and a Greek revival colonnade. It was known as Triangle studios, due to its shape from an aerial point-of-view. He ran the studio along with Mack Sennett, the famed comedy producer/director and director D.W. Griffith. The Triangle studio lot went on to become the infamous MGM lot and is now currently home to Sony Pictures.

(Image courtesy of the Seaver Center GC-1310-0505)

Ince served as director for Triangle’s sprawling anti-war drama, Civilization, which topped the box office when it was released. But despite this success, and perhaps feeling creatively stifled by two partners, Ince sold his shares of Triangle back to Sennett and Griffith in 1918.

He briefly helped friend Adolph Zukor form Paramount Studios, and then took a loan from Harry Culver to build Thomas H. Ince Studios, the lot currently under renovation for Amazon Studios. As with Inceville a few years earlier, Ince made sure his new studio was equipped with facilities that made the lot run like its own mini city: a hospital, a swimming pool and even a fire department. The studio went on to produce acclaimed social dramas, but Ince’s power and clout had diminished in just a few short years. Other studios with a larger bank roll and more box office successes were squeezing smaller producers like Ince out of the market. In 1919 and 1921, Ince attempted to regain some power and financial support by forming independent producer and distributor associations, but neither could flourish alongside the oligarchical studio system that was taking hold of the movie industry. Ince’s last attempt to secure financial backing for his studio was courting newspaper magnate, William Randolph Hearst.

Hearst’s film production company, Cosmopolitan Productions, needed a studio lot. Ince and Hearst began negotiations for Cosmopolitan to occupy the Thomas H. Ince lot in late 1924. Such a deal would give Ince the money he needed to be his own independent producer and distribute his own films again. Hearst, in an act of good faith, invited Ince on a yacht excursion to celebrate Ince’s 44th birthday. He would pay all expenses for the trip and hash out the details of the deal with Ince as they partied. The decision to board Hearst’s lavish yacht, the Oneida however, would be a deadly one for Ince.

The death of Thomas Ince splits into two stories. One story is a sad, ironic, yet banal end for a man who was only trying to save his career and his legacy as a motion picture pioneer. The other story, however, suggests an equally ironic, yet sensational and thrilling murder mystery.

According the Ince’s wife, his personal doctor and his son (who went on to be a doctor himself), Ince died of natural causes. Ince may have aggravated peptic ulcers with the consumption of champagne and heavy food during his birthday celebrations aboard the Oneida. His death certificate listed heart failure. His son, years later, theorized thrombosis as the cause of death.

Speculative medical theories aside, what is certain is that after just one night aboard the yacht, Ince had to be removed via stretcher the next morning to a hotel in Del Mar. A few days afterward, he passed away aboard a train going back to Los Angeles, accompanied by his wife, his eldest son and personal doctor. Ince fell ill at a time he was supposed to be celebrating not only a birthday, but the possible resurgence of his career. A tragic end for one of Hollywood’s first producers.

The clashing indigestion/heart failure reports of his death however only fueled the rumors of a far more tragic end: William Randolph Hearst, the man who would have been responsible for helping Ince and his career, the man responsible for the fateful birthday celebration in the first place, was also the man responsible for his death. Gossip spread after Ince fell ill and spread even more after his passing, that Hearst himself had shot Ince in the back of his head aboard the yacht. But why?

Hearst’s beloved, beautiful and funny mistress, the comedienne and actress Marion Davies, the reason for Hearst’s Cosmopolitan Productions in the first place, was also aboard the yacht that fateful night, along with some of her friends, fellow actresses and acclaimed comedian (and infamous womanizer) Charlie Chaplin. Hearst formed Cosmopolitan Productions with the sole purpose of funding Marion’s films and making her a star in Hollywood. And it worked. Marion was dubbed “Queen of the Screen” by a theater owners convention in 1924, as her period pieces/costume dramas were top of the box office. Hearst pushed Marion to do lavish historical dramas, somewhat against her wishes. Marion wished to do more comedies to show her versatility as an actress, but Hearst wanted her to be taken seriously in Hollywood as a dramatic actress. Marion’s friend, and according to many reputable sources, secret lover, Charlie Chaplin, was encouraging her at the time to do more comedies.

Perhaps Hearst knew about Marion’s affair with Chaplin at the time of the yacht excursion and invited him along the trip to keep a closer eye on both Marion and Chaplin. Or perhaps he knew nothing of their affair, and merely invited Chaplin, another independent filmmaker, to help woo Ince into letting Hearst fund the new Thomas H. Ince studio. And perhaps during the course of the night, Hearst learned of the affair and let envy and possessiveness over-take him. But still, why would the blind rage of a cuckolded rich man leave Ince dead and Chaplin unscathed?

Side by side photos of Chaplin and Ince demonstrate several physical similarities: fair skin, wavy brown hair and similar nose. Hearst, perhaps in a fit of jealousy, had tried to kill Chaplin from taking away his girl, but mistook the man he was helping, Ince, instead.

Most of these rumors spread from several sources. The Los Angeles Times reported on Wednesday morning following Ince’s removal via stretcher from the yacht as an accidental shooting. But the headlines never reached the evening edition. Had Hearst, one of the most powerful men in print, silence the Times from reporting what had actually occurred?

Louella Parsons, the famed gossip columnist for Hearst’s paper, The New York American, was also aboard the yacht. Hearst may have invited her to cover his deal with Ince, but if the shooting had occurred, Parsons ultimately helped cover the scandal instead. There was no mention in her column about Ince or his death. Parsons’ syndication also just happened to expand at this time, as well as her contract being made life long. Was it hush money to prevent one of the murder’s witnesses from telling the truth?

The strongest speculative support for the murder angle came from Chaplin’s secretary, Toraichi Kono. He said that when Ince was removed from the Onieda by stretcher, he allegedly could see blood oozing out from a bullet wound on Ince’s head. Kono has been noted by Chaplin biographers as being a diligent administrator, keeping all of Chaplin’s affairs in order, managing the movie star’s schedule and finances. It’s hard to believe that a meticulous man like Kono could be mistaken about what he witnessed that morning in Del Mar, or that he would spread gossip.

Hearst in later years vehemently denied the rumors that he had accidentally killed Ince, as did Ince’s widow. But such an outrageous story, true or not, could not be squashed out of pop culture. Ince’s death and the Hearst murder angle was given its due in the infamous book, Hollywood Babylon, which recounts old Hollywood scandals. Patty Hearst, Hearst’s own granddaughter, recounted the scandal is her fictitious novel, Murder At San Simeon. Later, Peter Bogdanovich turned Ince’s death into the renowned film, The Cat’s Meow, starring Kirsten Dunst as Marion Davies, Cary Elwes as Ince and Edward Hermann as Hearst.

Ince’s cinematic legacy may not be as remembered or revered, in public consciousness in comparison to his fellow contemporaries, but the film industry to this day operates with the structure and methods developed by Ince over a hundred years ago. His studios in Culver City still stand. And his name is honored within the “Heart of Screenland” with a small, but major street.
Erin Perez

Thomas H. Ince, n.d.
(Image courtesy of the Seaver Center)
Thank you Erin!  Lastly, Ince worked with actor William S. Hart on many of Hart's silent westerns.  Today the William S. Hart Museum is a part of the Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County.