The death of Thomas Ince just after his 42nd birthday party was as legendary as some of the movies he produced. As with many Hollywood legends, it didn’t have much truth to it.
Born into a show business family on Nov. 16, 1882 in Newport, R.I., Ince rose from failure as a stage actor to success as the first film tycoon. He pioneered the system of moviemaking still in use today before he left a yacht owned by newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst. Thomas Ince died several days later, his body quickly cremated.
Even before the funeral, suspicions mounted about his death. The rumor mill churned out the story that Hearst believed his mistress, Marion Davies, cheated on him with Charlie Chaplin. Davies and Chaplin had joined them on the boat, and rumors surfaced that Hearst actually shot Thomas Ince by accident, intending to shoot Davies, Chaplin or both.
He entered the family business at age six, acting and later singing at funerals and weddings. His father, John “Pop” Ince, started out as a vaudeville comedian but then worked as a theatrical agent. His mother sang comic opera under the stage name Emma Brennan or Emma Jones.
Thomas made his Broadway debut at 15 and then formed an unsuccessful vaudeville company. At 28, he talked his way into a job with a small independent film company in 1910. At the time, Thomas Edison’s Motion Pictures Patents Company tried to crush all independent producers. So he went to Cuba with Mary Pickford and Owen Moore to make movies.
But only in Hollywood could Thomas Ince 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. The firm had opened a studio to make westerns on the West Coast. He got the job.
Thomas Ince, his young wife Nell and a small entourage went to Edendale, Calif., to make films. There he began to revolutionize moviemaking. He inventing the shooting script. He then acquired 460 acres 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 Thomas 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.
Paramount, Then Trouble
Thomas Ince sold out a few years later and formed Paramount Pictures with Adolph Zukor. Then he 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, the rumor mill had Thomas Ince edging toward bankruptcy. Supposedly he wanted to make a deal with Hearst to rescue his fortunes.
On November 16 he boarded Hearst’s lavish yacht The Oneida as a guest of honor – it was his 42nd birthday. Chaplin, Davies and actress Elinor Glynn also boarded the yacht. They celebrated his birthday at dinner, and sometime afterward he suffered acute indigestion. He had drunk champagne and eaten salted almonds, forbidden to him because he suffered from a peptic ulcer.
Though allegations of a cover-up surfaced after his death, the real cover-up had to do with his failing health. Ince worked at a killing pace and his co-workers had seen him double over in pain with indigestion. He also suffered chest pains and, toward the end of his life, insomnia.
Death of Thomas Ince
A physician aboard the yacht, Dr. Goodman, diagnosed Ince as extremely ill. A water taxi took him ashore and a train brought him 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. Chaplin’s valet said he saw Ince bleeding from a bullet wound to the forehead.
Rumors proliferated about what really happened: Hearst caught Chaplin and Davies in a compromising position and shot Ince by accident; Hearst poisoned Ince; an assassin hired by Hearst killed Ince; Hearst stabbed Ince in the heart with a hatpin. Adding to the confusion were the lies and denials told by Hearst’s guests.
But before his body was cremated, it lay in an open coffin for an hour for viewing. No one saw that bullet hole in his forehead.
The story has lived on, in a mystery written by Hearst’s granddaughter Patty and in a film called Cat’s Meow.
This story was updated in 2022. If you enjoyed reading it, you may also want to read about Varick Frissell and his deadly film here.
Images: Inceville By Ferd J. Zettler – PBA Galleries, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7655554