Father of the Western
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Tragically in a way, the life of Thomas Ince has been overshadowed by his death.
There has been a great deal of speculation, much of it absurd and sensationalist, about his demise aged 44 in 1924 aboard the private yacht of tycoon William S Hearst, with every kind of conspiracy theory advanced. Hearst’s descendant Patty wrote a book about it in the 1990s which fueled the flames and the 1997 play by Steven Peros The Cat’s Meow and its 2001 film version by Peter Bogdanovich, with Cary Elwes as Ince , in which Hearst fired a bullet in a fit of jealous rage, mistaking Ince for the real villain Charlie Chaplin, well, you may believe that if you will. Ince, depending on who you read or listen to, was shot, he was poisoned – the wilder the claim, the more likely someone was to promote it. Ince’s death came in wake of famous Hollywood scandals such as the murder of William Desmond Taylor (still unsolved) and the Fatty Arbuckle rape/manslaughter trials, so it was all grist to the rumor mill. In fact Ince died of natural causes, a heart attack, not on the yacht, but later at home.
Much more important and interesting was his life, and for lovers of movies, the Western in particular, he was a key figure, a pioneer, and indeed he has been dubbed the ‘Father of the Western’.
Let’s look briefly at that life.
I’m basing my post on a book I’ve just read, a good one which I can recommend, Thomas H Ince: Hollywood’s Independent Pioneer by Brian Taves, in the University of Kentucky’s Screen Classics series, 2012.
Happily for us, about a third of Ince’s film output still survives, mostly in archives rather than released commercially, unfortunately, but still it exists.
Ince wasn’t an auteur, to whom creative artistry was all, and he was pursuing no ideological agenda, though he had his opinions and views; he was first and foremost a businessman. But he was a businessman with vision, and at least half an artist, to whom films were cultural artifacts. He also took part in every stage of the production process, writing or buying scripts, hiring actors, directing the pictures, cutting the films himself, writing the titles, and vigorously marketing the product. Friend Harry Carr compared working with Ince to being in a cyclone. “No other producer who ever lived has worked in such a whirlwind of nervous energy.” No wonder he had a heart attack.
Ince’s parents were born in England, his father a sometime sailor, miner and reporter, his mother a comic-opera singer. Tom was born in 1880, the second of three sons. He was introduced to show business early. “My whole life was concerned with the spoken drama,” he said. He also said, “Personally, I count the years I spent on the stage before I became a director and then a producer as the greatest single factor contributing toward whatever measure of success I may have achieved.” As well as acting, he got experience as a stage manager.
For a time he roomed in New York with stage actor William S Hart – click for our essay on him. Ince also met and fell for actress Elinor Kershaw, and they were married in 1907.
At first Tom Ince thought that only actors who couldn’t succeed on the stage made movies, but the “the specter of the wolf [he was hungry] came into my mind and I began to think more kindly toward the thing I had considered beneath my notice.” His younger brother Ralph had joined Vitagraph as a prop boy, graduating to actor, then director. Tom signed on at the Independent Motion Picture Company of New York for $5 a day, to act as a heavy. He then moved to Biograph, where Elinor was working, and there he earned the princely daily sum of $15. A director was suddenly needed, and Tom got the job. Boss Carl Laemmle (again, click for our look at Laemmle) said, “I saw that he had enthusiasm, and although he had nice pleasant manners, he had guts and decision.” In no time at all Ince was directing the famous Mary Pickford.
But he soon tired of making one-reel melodramas for Laemmle, and he heard the siren call of the Western. The New York Motion Picture Corp had dispatched a troupe to the West Coast, to make Westerns under the brand of Bison, and Biograph had sent DW Griffith to LA too. The NYMP directors offered Ince $100 a week to go but he bravely (or rashly) said he’d think about it, and thus got the offer pushed up to $150. A week later, Tom and Elinor were on a train for California.
So began Ince’s most productive Western period.
Ince said it was all pretty basic at first. “The sets consisted of a few pieces of very bad furniture and one backdrop with a flock of birds supposedly in flight painted on it. When I thought of stationary birds poised in mid-air as the backdrop for a moving picture, I gave way to a moment of discouragement.” Everything was shot outside, even interior scenes. “Table covers and the women’s dresses would blow and flap violently in the gusts of wind” and “when it was cold enough for the actors’ breath to be noticeable on the air, the men were made to smoke throughout the scene and the women cautioned not to open their mouths.”
Ince made a series of one-reel Westerns, “spending money, as I thought then, with reckless abandon” – they cost $300 each.
Pretty well every picture needed an Indian and Ann or Anna Little was kept busy because she specialized in “squaw” parts (she would make it big in 1914 in Cecil B DeMille’s The Squaw Man). Similarly, there was often need of an Indian chief, or also a sheriff or a colonel, and well-known J Barney Sherry was first call. Ince said, “My projection room was the kitchen of my small Hollywood bungalow, and with Mrs Ince’s assistance, I would cut and assemble scenes taken the day before. I would then work until midnight writing scenarios for the following day.” There were seven such pictures in 1911, such as The Winning of Wonega and An Indian Martyr.
Then Ince persuaded his New York bosses to hire the Miller Brothers’ 101 Ranch Wild West company, at $2000 a week. Millers and Bison would ‘merge’ to become 101 Bison. There was a troupe of cowboys, fifty Indians, horses, a stagecoach, a herd of buffalo, wagons, tepees, everything a director of Westerns might need. Some of the Indians were real Sioux, who were wards of the government and spoke no English. Ince had to go through an Indian agent to assure their care and schooling.
To justify the expense, Ince started making longer, two-reel pictures, and these quickly became the standard. Writer Taves says, “These appealed to a higher class of theater patrons who disdained previous examples of the genre.” Ince’s first two-reeler was War on the Plains (1912), featuring full-blooded Sioux William Eagleshirt, with the popular Harold Lockwood (who had often starred with Mary Pickford) in the lead. It was so successful that NYMP announced that henceforth it would only make two-reel pictures.
War on the Plains starred Francis Ford (Jack Ford’s older brother; click for our essay on him). Ford and Ince would follow that with The Heart of an Indian, The Invaders and the spectacular three-reel Custer’s Last Fight (with Frank Ford as Custer), which used over a thousand Indians. Ince regarded Ford as “without doubt one of the most finished of all the pioneer film performers” and Ince and Ford eventually collaborated 97 times. Soon Ford was doing extra duties, placing cameras, scouting locations and so on, and in no time Ince persuaded his managers back East to set up a separate unit with Ford in charge, to double the output of Westerns.
At first it was all very ad hoc. The director would get an idea, go out with his cast and start to shoot, his one notion being to keep the action going, but eventually everything would grind to a halt while the director racked his brain for the next shot. Ince saw this was wasteful and started writing scenarios, planning all the action beforehand and then sticking to it. Each scene was numbered and notes made, down to camera positions. It was the first sign of what would become his methodical, systematic and almost production-line approach to making films, which would so influence the industry.
Ince put out no fewer than 55 Westerns in 1912, more than one a week, featuring Ford, Ford’s lover Grace Cunard, Anna Little, J Barney Sherry, Harold Lockwood, Ethel Grandin (the wife of director and Ince-colleague Ray Smallwood), and also the young Art Acord. The pictures did extremely well, outselling Biograph’s with DW Griffith, who stuck stubbornly to one-reelers.
This success enabled Ince to acquire the lease on 18,000 acres of Santa Ynez Canyon, near where today Sunset Boulevard crosses Pacific Coast Highway, and here grew up the studios and facilities known as Inceville. Photoplay opined that these locations gave Ince’s pictures “a large, iron-muscled masculinity.” So there. Kalton Lahue thought that “Ince’s westerns had been different from the very beginning” and “Tom’s uncanny sense of the visual led to sweeping panoramas of the plains and mountains.” Film Fancies declared, “The world has gone wild over the 101 Bison pictures.”
In June 1912 New York Motion Picture merged with several smaller outfits to form the Universal Film Mfg. Co. but the component parts subsequently squabbled over shares, there was legal action, including over the ownership of Inceville, and Carl Laemmle emerged as the boss of Universal, which was awarded the use of the Bison 101 brand. Laemmle bought New York Motion Picture out, and the two went their separate ways. NYMP launched its own brand of Western, Broncho. Ince became Vice-President.
Ince didn’t falter. He rapidly became known for his narrative flair and what was called the “Ince punch”, a spectacular big scene such as a flood or a storm. But he always saw story as the key ingredient. His severest criticism was, “It wanders.” Ince thought that “most descriptive writing is valueless for screen purposes” and “plays of clever dialogue, like Wilde and Shaw are noted for, are of slight use to the motion picture producer. What he wants is action.”
‘Westerns’ included Civil War dramas, of which Ince made many. Actor Charles Ray recalled, “We used to wear Northern and Southern uniforms, alternately, charge upon ourselves and change uniforms and charge back.” Taves says the Civil War pictures had spectacle, stark realism and a hint of pacifism, which became stronger as World War I approached. The 1913 $75,000 budget 5-reel film The Battle of Gettysburg is now tragically lost but the detailed script still exists, giving such detail as facial expressions to be adopted and dialogue for the actors to mouth. As Taves remarks, “It was the system championed by Ince, rather than the alternatives of Griffith or the stage, that became dominant in movie production.”
All the time, Ince was ‘hands on’, cutting eight thousand feet of film a week, choosing the music for each film, writing the intertitles (he was the first to use ‘art titles’) and busying himself with every detail of movie production.
“Thomas H Ince presents” appeared above every title and became a guarantee of quality. Picture-Play Magazine ran a six-issue serial on his life story.
Francis Ford began to chafe at Ince’s ‘appropriation’ of his work, as he saw it, and his lover Grace Cunard urged him to demand more credit. In 1913 he left, and joined Laemmle at Universal.
Gradually, Ince directed less and less, concentrating on production, and a number of directors took charge of the day-to-day filming, Charles Giblyn, Scott Sidney, Reginald Barker, Raymond B West, Burton King and more.
But what really marks Ince out as such a force in the Western movie was his collaboration with his old pal from New York, Bill Hart. Hart came out to California for the stage version of The Trail of the Lonesome Pine and he visited Inceville, which he found very agreeable. “The very primitiveness of the whole life out there, the cowboys and the Indians, staggered me,” he said. “I loved it. The West was right there!”
Hart was certainly not the first big Western star. Gilbert ‘Broncho Billy’ Anderson was hugely popular and he went right back to The Great Train Robbery of 1903, and Tom Mix, too, was a leader in the field by 1910. They were both acting in and directing their own Westerns well before Hart. But they were largely making one-reel shorts, often comic, and Hart had a different approach. He was earnest and keen on authenticity, and in 1914 with Ince he made his first feature, The Bargain, a 7-reeler, no less, directed by Ince colleague Reginald Barker. It also featured J Barney Sherry, as well as Fritz, Hart’s horse (Ince thought Fritz too small, which upset Hart). This motion picture, selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”, is a key film in the history of our noble genre. It was shot around Williams, Arizona and Hart persuaded Ince to let him go up to the Grand Canyon to film quite a few scenes there. Certainly the settings are impressive, and DP Robert Newhard (his first Western; he would become a Hart/Ince regular) and, uncredited, the great Joseph H August, did a fine job. August, future John Ford cameraman, had in fact begun as a wrangler at Inceville, and switched to cameraman duties in 1912.
Other major Westerns followed, many of which have been sadly lost. Most followed the pattern of The Bargain, featuring Hart as a ‘good bad man’, a devil-may-care gunman redeemed by the love of a good woman. On the Night Stage (which does exist, review coming soon) in 1915 was a 5-reeler with Hart as a stage robber who decides to go straight. It was one of seventeen Westerns Hart appeared in during that year. See, for example, the 2-reeler Knight of the Trail.
Ince was already beginning to wonder if the vogue for Westerns wasn’t waning. He also tried to get Hart to move to directing, feeling that at 51 he was perhaps a shade old to be playing young cowboys but Hart wanted to be in front of the camera, not behind it. They compromised, with Hart both starring and directing, but relationship between producer and star became somewhat strained.
1916 was the year of the big picture Hell’s Hinges, perhaps Hart’s most famous Western. Taves says this film was “less a western than a religious parable” and he has a point. That year too Hart did the 5-reel The Return of Draw Egan, which is perhaps my own favorite Ince/Hart oater, partly because it is less moralistic in tone and more overtly ‘Western’. There’s also a good dash of humor, and the picture seems to take itself a little less seriously.
Taves says that at this time “Hart’s acting became more subdued and his directing more assured.” Photoplay at the time commented that “his prestige grows apace throughout the country, and deservedly … A piece like Wolf Lowry [a 5-reeler released in May 1917; considered a lost film, a print was constructed via partial copies] is optic literature.”
In 1917 Hart also did such pictures as the 5-reelers The Narrow Trail and The Silent Man (I suppose he was necessarily silent in a non-talkie) and in 1918 we got nine Hart Westerns, such as the 5-reel Blue Blazes Rawden, but by this time Ince was anxious to leave the Western behind and Taves says that “the two men were barely on speaking terms”. There were arguments over expenses. Lambert Hillyer, the regular Hart director when Hart wasn’t directing himself (they worked 25 times together) claimed that Ince and Hart “were never friends and always at dagger points.”
Ince made a good deal with Paramount, which gave Hart a lot more money and also more autonomy, but it didn’t seem to help. There were only four Ince/Hart Westerns in 1919 and Wagon Tracks was the last. Hart’s contract with Ince ended, and he formed his own company. Ince pretty well abandoned the genre.
He did facilitate Maurice Tourneur’s lavish The Last of the Mohicans in 1920, which cost $150,000 and he did consider a Fenimore Cooper-ish ‘Western’ called When Trails Were New, though abandoned the project.
Ince produced two other vaguely Western pictures in the 1920s, the five-reel comedy The Sunshine Trail, starring Douglas MacLean and Edith Roberts, and the adventure/romance Soul of the Beast, with Madge Bellamy, both in 1923. He was also working for a time on a big Western, The Last Frontier, an Iron Horse-ish picture about the building of the trans-continental railroad, but never completed it. After Ince’s death, footage was incorporated into a minor film released by PDC in 1926 starring William Boyd, and Jack Hoxie as Buffalo Bill, and directed by George B Seitz, but all the railroad part was gone and it was a ‘generic’ Western.
After his death, Quality Amusement Corp released a picture, Custer’s Last Fight (1925) cobbled together from Ince’s 1912 movie and footage possibly shot for The Last Frontier. But really for Ince the post-Hart period was Western-free.
Nevertheless, Thomas H Ince had made 170 Western movies, shorts and features combined, he revolutionized Western movie making and he deserves the accolade ‘Father of the Western’.
Tom Ince died in November 1924, aged only 44.