The death of Thomas Ince just after his 42nd birthday party was as improbable as the plot of some of the movies he produced. Born into a show business family on Nov. 16, 1882 in Newport, R.I., Ince rose from failure as a stage actor to become the first film tycoon. He pioneered the system of moviemaking still in use today before he was carried off a yacht owned by newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, allegedly to be hospitalized for indigestion. Ince died several days later and his body was immediately cremated. Even before the funeral, suspicions were mounting. Hearst believed his mistress, Marion Davies, and Charlie Chaplin were having a love affair. Davies and Chaplin were also on the boat, and rumors surfaced that Hearst actually shot Ince by accident, intending to shoot Davies, Chaplin of both.
Ince started in show business at age 6, made his Broadway debut at 15 and formed an unsuccessful vaudeville company. He talked his way into a job with a small independent film company in 1910, and went to Cuba to make movies. But only in Hollywood could he make the films he yearned to make: westerns and Civil War dramas. He borrowed a suit from a friend and a large diamond ring from a jeweler and walked into the offices of the New York Motion Picture Company, which had opened a studio to make westerns on the West Coast. He was hired.
Ince, his young wife Nell and a small entourage went to Edendale, Calif., to make films. There he began to revolutionize moviemaking, inventing the shooting script. He then acquired land and created the first movie studio, called Inceville. It had sound stages, offices, sets, dressing rooms and a commissary. Ince hired a Wild West show, replete with cowboys, cattle and Indians who set up their teepees on the property. The teepees sat cheek-by-jowl with a fake Swiss landscape, a Japanese village, a Puritan settlement, mansions and cottages. Ince went on to organize production methods, putting the producer in charge of the film instead of the director and cameraman. He also invented the five-reel film when two-reels were the standard of the day.
Fires eventually destroyed Inceville, and Ince created Triangle Studios with Mack Sennett and D.W. Griffith. Three years later he founded the studios in Culver City that would become MGM. On that lot would later be filmed such classics as Gone with the Wind, King Kong, Lassie, and Citizen Kane.
Ince sold out a few years later and formed Paramount Pictures with Adolph Zukor, then moved on to form his own studio again. At Thomas H. Ince Studios he made a few memorable films, Anna Christie and Human Wreckage, but he lost power and influence to competing studios.
By 1924 Ince was rumored to be close to bankruptcy. He was said to be interested in a deal with Hearst to rescue his floundering fortunes. On November 16 he boarded Hearst’s lavish yacht The Oneida as a guest of honor – it was his 42nd birthday. Also aboard were Chaplin, Davies, newspaper columnist Louella Parsons and actress Elinor Glynn. They celebrated his birthday at dinner, and sometime afterward he suffered acute indigestion – or so the story goes. A physician aboard the yacht, Dr. Goodman, diagnosed Ince as extremely ill. He was taken ashore by water taxi and by train to Los Angeles. Ince got worse on the train and was taken off it at Del Mar, where he was treated at a hotel. He went home the next day, November 19, and died.
The death certificate said he died of heart failure. But the front page of the Los Angeles Times ran headlines that said, “Movie Producer Shot on Hearst Yacht.” Those headlines soon disappeared, and the Hearst newspapers reported Ince had taken ill at Hearst’s home, San Simeon. A secretary aboard the yacht said he saw Ince bleeding from a bullet wound to the head. Ince’s body was quickly cremated and his wife, Nell, went to Europe.
Rumors proliferated about what really happened: Hearst caught Chaplin and Davies in a compromising position and shot Ince by accident; Hearst poisoned Ince; Hearst hired an assassin to kill Ince; Hearst stabbed Ince in the heart with a hatpin. Adding to the confusion were the lies and denials told by Hearst’s guests – as well as evidence Hearst tried to silence Ince’s wife with a trust fund and Louella Parsons with a lifetime job.
The most plausible theory is believed to be that Ince died from a bullet meant for Chaplin, but we will no doubt never know the truth. The story has lived on, in a mystery written by Hearst’s granddaughter Patty and – appropriately -- in a film called Cat’s Meow.