Film Producer Thomas H. Ince Dies After Weekend on Hearst’s Yacht Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Thomas H. Ince, an influential film producer and former actor, died following a yachting trip with William Randolph Hearst, Charles Chaplin, and others. The official cause of death was a heart attack, but persistent rumors about his death remain. Some believe that Hearst shot Ince out of jealousy over a possible affair between Ince and Hearst’s mistress, actor Marion Davies. Others claim Ince was accidentally shot while Hearst and Chaplin were fighting over Davies.

Summary of Event

If D. W. Griffith is recognized as the first great American film director, then Thomas H. Ince is considered the first great film producer. Starting as a film actor during the 1910’s, Ince soon moved behind the camera to direct such early hits as The Battle of Gettysburg (1913), The Coward (1915), and Civilization (1916). He worked exclusively as a producer and built the first recognized film studio—Inceville—along the coast near Santa Monica, California, where he oversaw the production of more than one hundred films. [kw]Film Producer Thomas H. Ince Dies After Weekend on Hearst’s Yacht (Nov. 19, 1924) [kw]Ince Dies After Weekend on Hearst’s Yacht, Film Producer Thomas H. (Nov. 19, 1924) [kw]Hearst’s Yacht, Film Producer Thomas H. Ince Dies After Weekend on (Nov. 19, 1924) Ince, Thomas H. Hearst, William Randolph Kershaw, Elinor Davies, Marion Zinovyev, Grigory Yevseyevich Ince, Thomas H. Hearst, William Randolph Kershaw, Elinor Davies, Marion Zinovyev, Grigory Yevseyevich [g]United States;Nov. 19, 1924: Film Producer Thomas H. Ince Dies After Weekend on Hearst’s Yacht[00360] [c]Hollywood;Nov. 19, 1924: Film Producer Thomas H. Ince Dies After Weekend on Hearst’s Yacht[00360] [c]Murder and suicide;Nov. 19, 1924: Film Producer Thomas H. Ince Dies After Weekend on Hearst’s Yacht[00360] [c]Publishing and journalism;Nov. 19, 1924: Film Producer Thomas H. Ince Dies After Weekend on Hearst’s Yacht[00360] [c]Popular culture;Nov. 19, 1924: Film Producer Thomas H. Ince Dies After Weekend on Hearst’s Yacht[00360] Chaplin, Charles

Thomas H. Ince.

(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In a time when a film’s plot was generally improvised on the set, Ince introduced the idea of the continuity script, where a story is fully written out before filming. Detailed budgets and shooting schedules revealed just how much a film would cost and how long it would take to make. Ince would then turn the script over to a director. After production finished, Ince would oversee the editing of the final film.

As 1924 drew to a close, the once pioneering Ince found himself increasingly an outsider as the film industry consolidated around large studios such as Fox, Paramount, MGM, and Warner Bros. Unlike Inceville, these new studios were owned by national theater chains that both provided the large and continuous capital for film production and guaranteed nationwide theatrical distribution of their films. Ince hoped to solve his problem by forming an alliance with William Randolph Hearst, the premier media mogul of the time. Hearst’s film company, Cosmopolitan Pictures, produced movies starring the talented comedy actor Davies, Marion Marion Davies. Davies also was Hearst’s longtime mistress.

On November 15, 1924, Ince joined Hearst and Davies for a weekend trip to San Diego, California, aboard Hearst’s yacht, the Oneida. The purpose of the trip was to celebrate Ince’s forty-second birthday, though he also hoped to use the time at sea to land the partnership with Hearst and secure his studio’s future. Also on the trip were Davies, comedy superstar Charles Chaplin, novelist Elinor Glyn, a New York reporter named Louella Parsons, and a group of young aspiring actors.

Gossip had been circulating around Hollywood for weeks that Davies was having an affair with Chaplin as well and that Hearst had invited the comedian along so that he could observe Chaplin and Davies up close. It remains unclear what happened, exactly, on the yacht that weekend, but it seems that Ince suddenly became ill on the second night with acute indigestion. Others suggest Ince was shot.

The yacht docked in San Diego, where Ince was removed under the watchful eye of Daniel Carson Goodman, a Hearst employee. Ince was taken to his home in Beverly Hills and died on November 19 from an apparent heart attack (the official cause of death). His body was cremated on November 21. A headline in the Los Angeles Times Los Angeles Times morning edition declared “Producer Shot on Hearst Yacht.” By the evening edition the story had disappeared from the Los Angeles Times but reappeared in Hearst-owned papers with the “official” cause of death.

The rumors of foul play began almost immediately. Further confusion arose over just where Ince had died. One press release claimed he died at Hearst’s Northern California ranch, while another declared that Ince left the yacht in good health but took ill on the train ride home and died in a local hospital. A third and final release said he passed away at home, surrounded by his wife and family. Curiously, none of the yacht’s guests ever stepped forward to clear up these discrepancies.

The whispered rumors persisted. Hearst was thought to have taken a shot at Chaplin after catching him in a passionate embrace with Davies but had struck Ince instead. Chaplin’s secretary was rumored to have spied Ince being removed from the yacht on a stretcher with a bullet wound in his head. Adding fuel to the fire were odd facts, including that Ince’s body was cremated before it could be examined by authorities. The San Diego district attorney called off his investigation after questioning only Goodman, Hearst’s employee.

In the months and years following Ince’s death, his wife, former actor Elinor Kershaw, built a large French chateau on Sunset Boulevard (now the Scientology Celebrity Centre), reportedly paid for by Hearst hush money. Also, the gossip columnist, Parsons, received a lifetime contract as Hearst’s chief Hollywood reporter (a possible reward for keeping quiet about the weekend’s events). Years later, Parsons would claim that she was in New York on the weekend of the yacht trip, a claim that has since been disproved.

Hearst’s defenders insist that the confusion over Ince’s death resulted not from covering up any foul play but from Hearst’s desire to keep his own and Davies’ names out of the newspapers. They also hoped to cover up the use of bootleg liquor (illegal in the era Prohibition of Prohibition) on board the yacht. Defenders point out that Ince was seen by several doctors at his home and died of complications from a bleeding ulcer. Furthermore, they claim that the money for the Sunset chateau came not from Hearst hush money but from funds Kershaw received after the sale of Ince’s studio (she had been a full partner in the studio) to Cecil B. DeMille about a year after Ince’s death. (Ince formed a new studio in 1918 in Culver City, California.) Finally, defenders point out that if Hearst had been angry enough with Chaplin to try to kill him, why, then, did Hearst and Davies maintain a friendship with the comedian that lasted for decades after Ince’s death?

In her autobiography, The Times We Had: Life with William Randolph Hearst (1975), Davies vigorously dismissed any notions of foul play aboard the yacht. She insisted that once Ince became ill, they simply put him ashore in San Diego so he could take the next train home. It was not until they returned to Hollywood that she and Hearst discovered that their guest had died. However, she also maintained that there was never any liquor or guns on board (despite evidence to the contrary) and, even more curiously, she conspicuously omitted Chaplin and Parsons from the yacht’s list of guests for that weekend. Such inconsistencies have led to decades of persistent rumors about Ince’s mysterious death.

Impact

Ince’s death overshadowed his real contributions to the development of film and the Hollywood studio system. His method of production became the industry standard. MGM’s legendary production chief, Irving Thalberg, copied Ince’s production model over the next decade to produce a string of classic films that remain unparalleled. Also, Ince was one of the innovators of the Western film genre, and he created silent-screen stars such as William S. Hart, Billie Burke, and Sessue Hayakawa. Top directors, including Frank Borzage, Henry King, and Fred Niblo, got their start at Inceville.

The death of Ince also signaled the end of the independent producer as a force in Hollywood. With the new studios controlling all the means of production, from idea to distribution, a producer’s only hope was to work within a studio.

Lions Gate Films produced The Cat’s Meow (2001), a film about what might have happened aboard the yacht the weekend Ince died. The film, directed by Peter Bogdanovich, is based on a story by Welles, Orson Orson Welles, who claims he was given details of the fateful weekend by a Hearst relative. Ince, Thomas H. Hearst, William Randolph Kershaw, Elinor Davies, Marion Zinovyev, Grigory Yevseyevich

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Anger, Kenneth. Hollywood Babylon. New York: Dell, 1975. The original, salacious Hollywood tell-all book that includes gossip about scandals and other affairs. Complete with lurid photographs (some quite shocking). A classic work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davies, Marion. The Times We Had: Life with William Randolph Hearst. Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill, 1975. Autobiography detailing Davies’ career in show business and her decades-long love affair with Hearst.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nasaw, David. The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000. Encyclopedic biography of the publishing legend who helped invent the modern media empire in the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Scott. The Film One Hundred: A Ranking of the Most Influential People in the History of the Movies. Secaucus, N.J.: Carol, 1998. A collection of brief biographies of significant people, including Thomas Ince, who developed the motion picture industry. Ince is ranked nineteenth.

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