Friday, November 19, 2010

The Death of Thomas Ince

It is telling that the best-produced things ever made in Hollywood are its scandals; then again, scandals cannot be slashed by the censor's blue pencil, trashed by meddlesome studio executives, or even have their storylines obfuscated by the work of many hands (from writers to directors to actors) without making them better. Unlike films.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketThe 'death/murder' of Thomas Ince is not just one of the more delicious examples of Hollywood scandal, but it was also one of the first, and the more myth accrues to it the better it gets. No writer - and certainly no director or actor - could (or would dare to) make up such a thing...

Our story opens in 1924, aboard a yacht, called the Oneida; the yacht is owned by a fabulously wealthy newspaper publisher of some renown named William Randolph Hearst. It's sailing the California coast on this particular weekend is in honour of the 42nd birthday of Thomas Ince, a well-known director of silent films; also onboard are Hearst's lover Marion Davies, actor Charlie Chaplin, newspaper columnist Louella Parsons, author Elinor Glyn and film actresses Aileen Pringle, Jacqueline Logan, Seena Owen, Margaret Livingston and Julanne Johnston. All is going splendidly until...

Hearst sees Ince canoodling with Davies. Shots ring out, Ince slumps to the floor, and Hearst's publicity machine goes into instant overdrive in order to smother the scandal at its source. Chaplin's silence can be bought; there's already more dirt on him than a coffin lid. Parsons received a lifetime contract with Hearst News ensuring she can scribble her drivel for an obscene paycheque for the rest of her life, becoming the most powerful woman in Hollywood in the process. Marion Davies only needs another cocktail, another line of blow, and another wheel barrow full of jewellery to shut her up.

Still, though, the rumours began to spread, and no one seems to know why; it's not like actresses gossip or anything... No, as a plot element that would be too far-fetched.

15 years later, when Orson Welles was planning his masterpiece Citizen Kane, he began asking around about Hearst, and claims that's when Herman J. Mankiewicz told him the story. Thirty years after that and the story resurfaced in Kenneth Anger's hilariously slanderous Hollywood Babylon, and thirty years later again the events of that fateful weekend served as the basis for both a 1996 book entitled Murder at San Simeon by Hearst's granddaughter - a scandal-maker in her own right named Patty Hearst - and finally a movie by Peter Bogdanovich (Welles' favourite ass-kisser) called The Cat's Meow (2001) in which Ince was played by none other than Cary Elwes.

True or not, the story is so much more entertaining than the fact that Ince went into the weekend with severe indigestion, and may have just had a heart attack and died; that is just the sort of banal drivel one has come to expect from Hollywood - only with more explosions, maybe a car chase and, oh yes, plenty of CGI!
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