Thomas H. Ince Essay - Critical Essays

Ince, Thomas H.


Ince, Thomas H. 1882-1924

(Full name Thomas Harper Ince) American filmmaker.

A prolific director and producer of the silent film era, Ince is regarded as a pioneer in the motion picture industry and generally credited with streamlining the modern method of studio filmmaking. He is principally noted for his introduction of very detailed, written "continuities"—later known as shooting scripts—into the filmmaking process, an innovation that greatly improved efficiency and quality in Hollywood films. Also among his accomplishments, Ince is thought to have elevated the film genre of the Western to the level of true art with his production of The Aryan. While Ince personally directed many of his features at the beginning of his career, including his early triumph The Battle of Gettysburg, and produced hundreds more, he is generally remembered for his work as the executive producer and creative force behind a multitude of motion pictures, including the antiwar film Civilization.

Biographical Information

Ince was born in Newport, Rhode Island on 6 November 1882. His father was a comedian, and from his youth Ince took acting jobs in vaudeville and stage dramas. Later he defected to the new medium of film, performing for Carl Laemmle's Independent Motion Pictures (IMP) Company and others. Ince directed his first motion picture, entitled Little Nell's Tobacco, for IMP in 1910. After completing several more films for Laemmle and agreeing to direct a series of movies starring Mary Pickford, Ince signed on with the New York Motion Picture Company in late 1911, and began making pictures, mostly Westerns, in Los Angeles. With some hundred shorter films to his credit, Ince began work on his first full-length feature, The Battle of Gettysburg. After completing the film in 1913, Ince ceased the work of direction himself for all but a few projects, delegating this responsibility to such notables as Reginald Barker, Fred Niblo, Lambert Hillyer, William S. Hart, Roland Lee, and Frank Borzage. In 1915, Ince and his business associates formed their own production company, Triangle. The success of his works with Triangle, including Civilization, allowed Ince to build a large studio complex at Culver City in 1916. Ince departed Triangle in 1918 to form his own production company. He eventually joined Associated Producers, Inc. in 1919 and continued to produce a great number of films for the next several years after Associated Producers was absorbed by First National in 1922. In November of 1924, Ince attended a party on the yacht of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst. He was carried off the boat and died of heart failure two days later amid unsubstantiated rumors of scandal and foul play.

Major Works

Critics have found Ince's contribution to the motion picture industry somewhat difficult to evaluate. From 1910 to 1913, when he was still directing his films, he created a series of popularly successful, realistic Westerns, most notably War on the Plains and the well-regarded Civil War picture The Battle of Gettysburg, a film that no longer exists. A collaborator for the majority of his career, Ince's credit on most of his later films is as executive producer. Fulfilling this role, Ince insisted that his directors follow strict shooting scripts, which included detailed commentary on sets, costumes, camera angles, and the various other minutiae of filmmaking, factors which are generally left in the hands of individual directors. Ince is also generally credited with the technical innovations of such films as The Bargain, which features a series of powerful exterior shots of a picturesque Arizona canyon. Again as a producer, Ince is said to have infused the genre of the Western with the grandeur of legend in The Aryan. Considered Ince's greatest production, the propaganda film Civilization dramatizes the evils of war in grandiose spectacle. A submarine commander unwilling to torpedo a passenger ship, the hero of Civilization opens the way to mutiny and precipitates the destruction of his sub. Following his death, his soul travels to Purgatory and to Heaven, where he is redeemed by Christ.

Critical Reception

In the early days of film, many of Ince's motion pictures were immensely successful and lucrative ventures. In the years since his death, critical speculation as to Ince's legacy in the history of film has been the source of considerable contention. Scholars in America have generally acknowledged Ince's business acumen, eye for talent, and innovative systemization of the filmmaking process. A contingent of European film historians, however, have taken a broader view. Led by the influential French critic Jean Mitry, European commentators have viewed Ince as an original artist whose influence rivals that of filmmaker D. W. Griffith. Mitry has remarked, "If Griffith was the first poet of an art whose basic syntax he created, one could say that Ince was its first dramaturgist. His experiments, in fact, were based on the composition of original themes, on the expression of ideas. . . . He was able to guide and discipline his collaborators only because, like them, he was a director, and superior to them."

*Principal Works

Little Nell's Tobacco (film) 1910

A Manly Man (film) 1911

The Aggressor (film) 1911

Artful Kate (film) 1911

Behind the Stockade (film) 1911

The Dream (film) 1911

The Fisher-Maid (film) 1911

For Her Brother's Sake (film) 1911

Her Darkest Hour (film) 1911

In Old Madrid (film) 1911

In the Sultan's Garden (film) 1911

Maid or Man (film) 1911

The Message in the Bottle (film) 1911

The New Cook (film) 1911

The New Cowboy (film) 1911

The Silver Dollar (film) 1911

Sweet Memories of Yesterday (film) 1911

Their First Misunderstanding (film) 1911

The Winning of Wonega (film) 1911

A Double Reward (film) 1912

Across the Plains (film) 1912

The Battle of the Red Men (film) 1912

The Colonel's Ward (film) 1912

The Crisis (film) 1912

Custer's Last Fight (film) 1912

The Deserter (film) 1912

For Freedom of Cuba (film) 1912

The Hidden Trail (film) 1912

The Indian Massacre (film) 1912

The Invaders (film) 1912

The Law of the West (film) 1912

Lieutenant's Last Fight (film) 1912

On the Firing Line (film) 1912

Renegade (film) 1912

War on the Plains (film) 1912

When Lee Surrenders (film) 1912

A Shadow of the Past (film) 1913

The Ambassador's Envoy (film) 1913

The Battle of Gettysburg (film) 1913

Bread Cast upon the Water (film) 1913

The Boomerang (film) 1913

Days of '49 (film) 1913

The Drummer of the Eighth (film) 1913

The Mosaic Law (film) 1913

The Pride of the South (film) 1913

The Seal of Silence (film) 1913

With Lee in Virginia (film) 1913

A Relic of Old Japan (film) 1914

The Golden Goose (film) 1914

The Last of the Line (film) 1914

Love's Sacrifice (film) 1914

One of the Discard (film) 1914

The Despotier (film) 1915

The Aryan [producer] (film) 1916

Civilization [producer] (film) 1916

*Ince collaborated to some degree on nearly all of his films. The Principal Works list includes only those works (except for Civilization and The Aryan) for which he is named as the principal director.


Peter Milne (essay date 1922)

SOURCE: Chapter XV and Chapter XVI, in Motion Picture Directing: The Facts and Theories of the Newest Art, Falk Publishing Co., Inc., 1922, pp. 136-51.

[In the following excerpt, Milne describes Ince's strict film production process and lists several studio directors who successfully used his methods.]

As a general rule there is no love lost between directors and scenario writers. This is particularly the case in the big producing companies where directors work more or less on a schedule, an elastic schedule to be sure, but nevertheless a schedule. In these companies a director seldom has a chance to co-operate with the scenario writer on the construction of a continuity. Sometimes he has complaints on it which are never taken up and discussed due to lack of time. As a result the director blames the scenario writer for the mistakes in the finished picture.

With the case of the directors who have proven themselves in an artistic way, it will be found that the majority of them have much to say about the handling of their stories in continuity form. They either actually co-operate on the writing of the continuity from which they are to work or they claim to discard continuities altogether and work from notes, a brief synopsis or—from the head.

Both the De Milles have much to say about the writing of continuities from which they work. As a consequence when it comes to the actual task of directing they are dealing with their own ideas. It has been related how D. W. Griffith prefers to work without a continuity and his reasons therefore. Frank Borzage is a champion for the continuity synopsis, a running account of the plot, undivided into scenes. Many other directors prefer this method, dividing their pictures into the desired and natural number of scenes during actual work. All such directors claim that to follow a scene numbered continuity through directly results in a mechanical picture. Like the De Milles they claim that to produce such a picture well, they must also have a hand in the writing of the mechanical continuity.

On the face of it the arguments of these directors seem sound. But it is easy enough to take the other side of the question and riddle the arguments completely. The stand can be taken that the motion picture director performs no other functions than those performed by the stage director. And many and many a stage director has turned out productions of artistic worth by merely following the author's manuscript. Few stage directors decline to direct a Shakespearean production for the reason that they didn't have a hand in the writing of the play.

Which brings up the methods employed by Thomas H. Ince, probably the most successful producing-director in the entire field of motion pictures. Mr. Ince is at the head of a number of producing units. He has a certain number of directors making pictures for him. Over the work of these men he exercises an actual supervision. And when a director works for Mr. Ince he does what Mr. Ince tells him to do.

Mr. Ince is one of the veterans of the picture producing craft. He has developed more stars, perhaps, than any other man in the field today. William S. Hart, Charles Ray, Dorothy Dalton and Louise Glaum are the brightest of those he has brought out. And the secret of Thomas H. Ince's greatness, whether he admits it himself or not, is the minute attention he pays to the matter of preparing the continuities of the pictures from which his directors work.

Probably Mr. Ince pays more attention to this preparation of a continuity than does any other producer. In his opinion the greater part of the work of producing a picture has been completed when the continuity is in final shape to hand to the director.

Equipped with the power of visualization to a remarkable degree Mr. Ince and his production manager thoroughly scrutinize the continuity when it is handed them by a member of the scenario department. Every point in the story, and every point in its development at the hands of the continuity writer is discussed. As a rule when the continuity is returned to its author there are a number of alterations and changes to be made. And when these are made Mr. Ince goes over the script again. Sometimes this interchange of ideas is carried on between Mr. Ince and his scenario department for six or eight times before the continuity is in final shape for the director.

Then when the director finally does receive the manuscript he finds some such order as this stamped across its face: "Produce this exactly as written!" This, however, is not the arbitrary demand of an autocrat. If the director sees a place where a change will work some good to the story he has the privilege of placing the matter before Mr. Ince himself. But for the most part the Ince continuities are so thoroughly gone over before placing them in the hands of the directors that few if any changes for the better suggest themselves.

Therefore when the Ince director starts to work on the picture he is carrying out the ideas of the continuity writer and his chief to the most minute detail. His is the business of directing the picture, not of creating it in the broadest sense of the words.

Now according to other directors who insist that such a method of procedure produces mechanical results, is responsible for a work lacking in inspiration and all the finer qualities that go to make a picture, and degrades the director into the position of a mere clerk, Mr. Ince's pictures would be the worst the art has to offer. The fact that they are the most consistently meritorious that the art has to offer would seem to refute the arguments brought up by these others completely.

So what is the answer? Griffith produces good pictures after his method. Borzage and a number of others produce good pictures after the same methods, or methods practically the same. And Mr. Ince, hands his director a continuity divided strictly into scenes, each camera angle is numbered and for a purpose, for the director to go out and make all these camera angles, these scenes, just as Mr. Ince ordered him to.

The answer is, after all, quite simple. Mr. Ince has capabilities matched by no other director in the producing art. One of his capabilities may be matched here and there but never all of them by another individual. Thus Mr. Ince and his scenario department are the creators of Ince pictures. The directors he employs carry out his ideas. And these directors, while the above...

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Thomas H. Ince (essay date 1925)

SOURCE: "The Challenge for the Motion Picture Producer," in The First Film Makers, edited by Richard Dyer MacCann, The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1989, pp. 110-14.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1925, Ince expresses his desire for clarity, continuity, intensity, and above all realism in motion pictures.]

We are living in an age when the white light of criticism is turned upon accepted and established standards in all phases of life. The old order of things has passed, and all over the world worn-out traditions and methods are toppling. We are in the grip of another renaissance, a revolution of ideals. Like the phoenix of mythology, the new world order is...

(The entire section is 1993 words.)

George Mitchell (essay date 1960)

SOURCE: "Thomas H. Ince Was the Pioneer Producer Who Systematized the Making of a Movie," in Films in Review, Vol. XI, No. 8, October, 1960, pp. 464-84.

[In the following essay, Mitchell details lnce's life and career as a film director-producer.]

Thomas H. Ince, one of the more important of the pioneer filmmakers and one of the most interesting of the early producers, was only 43 when he died, suddenly, in 1924.

Today film historians are divided in their estimates of him. Some dismiss him as merely a commercial producer, who contributed nothing of lasting significance. Some praise his contributions to scenario construction and film editing,...

(The entire section is 8826 words.)

Jean Mitry (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: "Thomas H. Ince: His Esthetic, His Films, His Legacy," in Cinema Journal, Vol. 22, No. 2, Winter, 1983, pp. 2-17.

[In the following essay, which was first published in 1965, Mitry evaluates Ince as an artist rather than as a businessman or technical innovator.]

If D. W. Griffith can be called the earliest poet of an art whose basic syntax he elaborated, then Ince can be said to be its earliest dramatist.

Indeed, his explorations of the medium dealt far more with plot construction, with original subject matter and with the expression of ideasallowances being made for the means at his...

(The entire section is 7331 words.)

Janet Staiger (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "Dividing Labor for Production Control: Thomas Ince and the Rise of the Studio System," in Cinema Journal, Vol. XVIII, No. 2, Spring, 1979, pp. 16-25.

[In the following essay, Staiger argues that although Ince may be seen as an innovator in the film industry his improvements generally reflect the adoption of scientific management and the division of labor to the process of filmmaking.]

Thomas Ince was a classic case of a stage actor who, during a brief period of unemployment in 1910, turned to the fledgling movies as a source of income.1 Yet his long-term impact on filmmaking would be very great indeed. Working first for IMP and then Biograph, he...

(The entire section is 4348 words.)

Further Reading


MacCann, Richard Dyer. "Ince and Hart." In The First Film Makers, pp. 61-114. Metuchen, N. J.: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1989.

Collection of essays on Ince's filmmaking technique by various contributors, including the actor-director William S. Hart.

Pratt, George C. "Thomas H. Ince." In Spellbound in Darkness: A History of the Silent Film, pp. 143-75. Greenwich, Conn.: New York Graphic Society Ltd., 1973.

Includes a brief biographical sketch of Ince, along with commentary on the films The Bargain and Satan McAllister's Heir produced by Ince. The balance of the article reproduces a detailed shooting...

(The entire section is 98 words.)