Thomas Harper Ince was an American silent film actor, director, screenwriter and producer of more than 100 films and pioneering studio mogul. Known as the “Father of the Western”, he invented many mechanisms of professional movie production, introducing early Hollywood to the “assembly line” system of film making. His screenplay The Italian was preserved by the United States National Film Registry, as was his film Civilization. He was a partner with D.W. Griffith and Mack Sennett in the Triangle Motion Picture Company, and built his own studios in Culver City, which later became the legendary home of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. He is also known for his death aboard the yacht of William Randolph Hearst; officially he died of heart trouble, but Hollywood rumor of the time suggested he had been shot by Hearst in a dispute over actress Marion Davies.
Born in Newport, Rhode Island, Ince was born into a family of stage actors. He was the son of John E. Ince, a comedian who later became a theatrical agent, and his wife, Emma B., an actress. Ince was the middle of three sons; his brothers, John and Ralph Ince, were also actors and subsequently became film directors. Ince first appeared on the stage at age six and then worked with a number of stock companies. He made his Broadway debut in 1898 when he was 15 after debuting in Shore Acres. Vaudeville offered work for him, but the work was inconsistent, so he was a lifeguard, a promoter and part-time actor. In 1905 he was hired to work for the Edison Manufacturing Company and formed his own Vaudville company, though with little success. He met his wife, Biograph contract actress Elinor “Nell” Kershaw, when they appeared together in a Broadway show, For Love’s Sweet Sake in 1906. They were married a year later. With his stage career a failure, however, Ince felt he was headed nowhere as an actor. Before long, through his wife’s connections, Ince got a job with Biograph in New York. Although he was working exclusively in films, making $5 per day, he was regularly under employed.
In 1910, a chance encounter in New York with an old employee from his acting troupe led Ince to some work at the Independent Motion Pictures Co. That same year he was given an opportunity to direct when a director at IMP was unable to complete work on a small film. In a precocious moment of bravado he advanced the idea of working full time in that capacity to IMP’s owner Carl Laemmle. Impressed with the younger man’s pugnacity, Laemmle hired him on the spot sending him to Cuba to make films out of the reach of the Motion Pictures Patent Company?the trust that was attempting to crush all independent production companies and corner the market on film production. Ince’s output, however, was small. And, although he tackled many different of subjects, he was strongly drawn to Westerns and American Civil War dramas. He wanted to achieve the sort of spectacular effects accomplished with minimal facilities that D.W. Griffith had done. This, he believed, could only be accomplished in Hollywood.
In September 1911, in an attempt to convey the appearance of a successful director by wearing a borrowed suit and a diamond ring he had also borrowed from a local jeweler, Ince walked into the offices of Charles O. Baumann at the New York Motion Picture Co. which had recently decided to establish a West Coast studio to make westerns. The ruse worked, and Ince was offered $100 a week to go to California.