December 1, 2009  |  An Auteurist History of Film
D. W. Griffith’s Competitors: Ince and DeMille

These notes accompany the screening of D. W. Griffith’s Competitors: Ince and DeMille on December 2, 3, and 4 in Theater 3.

By the early 1910s there was a general awareness among film people that D. W. Griffith had brought something new to the medium and broadened the playing field. Rather than be intimidated, many ambitious young men who aspired to be directors followed Griffith’s lead—but also set out on their own path toward success. Thomas Ince (1882–1924) was one of the least intimidated. He shared Griffith’s experience as a not-very-successful stage actor who accidentally stumbled into the medium from which he would make his fortune. Unlike Griffith, however, Ince was highly organized and had a strong business sense. Twice he constructed his own studio, and he gradually fudged the lines between directing and producing, although he seems to have been highly adept at both. The early French film critic Louis Delluc made the distinction succinctly: “Griffith is cinema’s first director. Ince is its first prophet.”

Like both the Ford brothers (Francis, who was Ince’s first big star, and John), Ince was from New England. This, however, did not prevent him from having a seemingly natural affinity for Westerns, film’s most authentically American genre—especially when he owned 20,000 acres of California real estate surrounding his Inceville studio. (I find it interesting that all the great silent movie cowboys—Harry Carey, William S. Hart, and Tom Mix—were also born in the Northeast.) It was almost as if the American vision of the West had been waiting around for a few hundred years simply to join in a symbiotic relationship with the film medium.

Of course, Custer’s Last Fight was made only thirty-eight years after the actual event, and Ince strove for an epic quality and almost documentary authenticity. As I wrote in my book The Western Film (Pyramid Illustrated History of the Movies, 1976), “Although Custer is not as heroically dashing as Errol Flynn in They Died with Their Boots On (1941), Sitting Bull is portrayed as cowardly. The photography and the use of space clearly anticipate (John) Ford’s cavalry films…Sitting Bull’s career is followed until his death in 1890 with a considerable degree of historical accuracy. We see the monument to Custer at the Little Big Horn, and in a flashback (not unlike the closing shots of Ford’s Fort Apache), we see Custer alive again, fighting to his glorious death.”

On the very next page of the same book, I refer to Cecil B. DeMille as the “Buffalo Bill of movie directors.” This is a reference to the broad popular appeal that DeMille sought—and generally achieved—through showmanship and hoopla. Although he started with Westerns and intermittently returned to the genre, he had no genuine commitment to them or their authenticity. His commitment lay in exploiting subjects as divergent as the circus, ancient history, and the Bible, mining his material for sensationalism and sex. With rare exceptions, such as King of Kings (1927), DeMille was a master at superficial entertainment with little artistic pretension. A few of his early films, like The Cheat and The Whispering Chorus (1918), do have an interesting look about them, but DeMille seemed to realize quickly that his gift lay more in spectacle and high production values than in the realm of cinematic innovation. The Cheat was spectacular in its own way, helping to launch Sessue Hayakawa’s ascent to stardom, but it also exploited the taboo sensationalism of racial mixing in a portrait of perversity and corruption. For all his self-proclaimed righteousness and religiosity, nobody ever accused DeMille of having much of a social conscience, especially if there was a buck to be made.

One final reminder about the terrific conference taking place at Yale, December 3–5, “After the Great War: European Film in 1919.”