This post was written as part of the late-film blogathon, an event created by David Cairns, proprietor of Shadowplay, the internet's finest film blog, to encourage greater consideration of the often-neglected later works of cinema's greatest directors, producers, writers and actors. I don't have anything on them, but here's a piece about one of their brothers.
The Ince brothers, John, Thomas and Ralph—the sons of Victorian vaudeville performers—were a pretty big deal in early Hollywood. Between them, they acted in or directed more than 500 shorts and feature-length silent pictures, most of which were produced by their own companies.
Thomas Ince, the middle brother, is the only one of the three to be remembered to any significant degree, and that's mainly because he was (supposedly) shot dead by William Randolph Hearst while Hearst was trying to kill Charlie Chaplin. However, before he died, in 1925, he had built the first modern movie studio—complete with stages, back-lots with permanent street sets, processing labs and an on-site colony of cowboy and Indian extras—and established many of the conventions of Hollywood’s industrial system, from the use of detailed shooting scripts to the notion of having the producer, rather than the director, as the person in charge of every stage of the film.
Ralph, the youngest brother, was considered to be a better director than Thomas and was also hailed as “the greatest actor of the Ince family”. He made frequent appearances in the early gossip columns, fighting over women, punching inquisitive reporters and getting in various other newsworthy scrapes (including being knocked out by a robber using chloroform and, on another occasion, having a three-inch fishing hook embedded in his skull). He died in a car crash in 1937, while making a film in England.
The oldest Ince brother, John, born in 1878, was considerably less well regarded than Thomas the genius and Ralph the hellraiser. He directed a number of two-reelers for Thomas’s studio, and a dozen or so longer melodramas with titles such as, Should a Woman Tell?, few of which attracted much comment at the time and none of which appear to have survived. He starred in a good deal of his own films, and in many other people’s. His most noteworthy leading role was in Fate (1921), a film about a sensational real-life murder in which the real-life murderer, Clara Smith, played herself:
In the publicity material, Clara Smith praised John’s acting, saying, “Mr Ince so strikingly resembles Mr Hamon and is so realistic that I have many times been on the verge of fainting as the dreadful events were re-enacted.” Nevertheless, the film bombed.
After Thomas Ince died, John opened a studio of his own. He had produced only a handful of films by 1929, the year his wife divorced him, his studio burned down and he lost all his money in the Wall street crash. That raft of tragedies put John in an even more disadvantageous position than the other stars of twenties who were beginning to struggle with the rise of sound cinema and made it almost impossible that his career would survive. Sure enough, it didn’t. John began the thirties with modest supporting roles in talkies starring actors whose fortunes were waning a little less quickly than his, like John Barrymore, Tom Mix and Bebe Daniels. Within a few years, he was reduced to one-line roles like this doting father bidding his son farewell in One Year Later (1933):
Typical of his appearances in the period of his decline is this brief turn as a doctor in a scene in Star of Midnight (1935), in which he quickly treats William Powell for a bullet wound. He says only, "I don't think the hip should trouble you again" before leaving the scene:
In You Can't Take it With You (1938), filmed the year Ralph died and John became the last living Ince brother, he appears in a crowd of Lionel Barrymore's neighbours (he's second from the left):
By the forties, John was reduced to appearing in uncredited roles in B-movies like The Panther's Claw (1942):
He's the policeman on the right.
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) was one of John's last films. He had a non-speaking role as a security guard whom we briefly glimpse shaking Fredric March's hand when he returns to work after the war:
His final appearance was in Gun Cargo (1949), which is described by one commenter on the IMDB as "an unwitting, dimwitted masterpiece of rank filmmaking, a shocking assault on the senses, and one of the most godawful adventure dramas ever committed to celluloid". John can take none of the blame for the film. He appeared in footage shot a decade earlier and, in any case, had been dead for two years by the time it was released. He died in 1947, at the age of sixty-eight.
Sources: Logansport Pharos-Tribune, 14 July 1921; Oakland Tribune, 3 May 1925; Fresno Bee, 1 July 1927; Waterloo Daily Courier, 28 July 1930; Casa Grande Dispatch, 15 Dec 1932; Fresno Bee, 12 April 1937; Port Arthur News, 29 April, 1930; Portland Press-Herald, 11 April 1947.