Thomas H. Ince Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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."