Digest>Archives> May/Jun 2013

The Inceville Lighthouse & the 1st Modern Movie Studio

By Timothy Harrison


You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
This undated image of the Inceville Lighthouse ...

A number of years ago when Lighthouse Digest subscriber Mike Oliviere showed us an old postcard of a lighthouse at California’s Inceville Moving Picture Village, we assumed that the lighthouse structure was built for a specific movie. But further research indicates that it was built as part of the first modern movie studio that by 1912 encompassed over 18,000 acres of land and was known as the Bison Ranch located in the Santa Monica Hills and surrounding area.

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
Thomas H. Ince (Nov. 6, 1882 – Nov. 19, 1924), ...

The man behind the creation of this epic movie set was Thomas H. Ince who was born in 1882 in Newport, Rhode Island. He first appeared on stage at the age of six and made his Broadway debut by the time he was 15. In 1911, in an attempt to convey himself as a successful director by wearing a borrowed suit and diamond ring he talked himself into being hired by a New York producer to direct movies.

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
Vintage post card image of the Inceville ...

However, when the Motion Pictures Patent Co tried to crush all independent film companies, his boss sent him to Cuba to make movies. It was while he was in Cuba that he directed William E. Shay, Mary Pickford, J. Farrell MacDonald, and Jack Harvey in the 1911 silent movie The Lighthouse Keeper.

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
This street view shows why it is believed that ...

According to the only review of the movie that we were able to find in our research, the film was an unconvincing melodrama of romantic rivalry that takes place in a small fishing village. It seems that the lighthouse keeper’s daughter, played by Mary Pickford, is being courted by two men. When one of the men’s advances get out of hand, the other man, played by William Shay, comes to the rescue. Naturally the two fall in love and get married.

The movie’s dramatic conclusion has the newlywed’s fishing vessel caught out at sea in a storm. Then, in an effort to cause the vessel to crash on the rocks, the drunken rival attempts to extinguish the lighthouse, and a fight to the bitter end ensues between him and the lighthouse keeper.

The movie critic stated that the movie lacked a suitable location for filming, which makes no sense, considering that there is a spectacular lighthouse located in Havana’s harbor. The critic went on to say that there were no scenes that showed the characters in the movie with the lighthouse, only a straight horizontal scene of some lighthouse stairs. The critic stated that the only scene of the lighthouse was a “thoroughly unconvincing paper mache cut-out” of a lighthouse with a light in the lantern.

After spending only four months in Cuba, Thomas Ince made his way to California to make movies the way he wanted to make them - without outside control. This led to his founding and building of Inceville Moving Picture Village, the first of its kind full-fledged movie set where a number of different theme movies could be filmed. Perhaps from his experience with The Lighthouse Keeper that he made and filmed in Cuba, Thomas Ince made sure his new movie set contained a real lighthouse.

However, most of the movies Thomas Ince made on the 18,000 acres were westerns, and many of them starred famous western actor William S. Hart. Thomas Ince built a house that overlooked his vast studio, and his movies often had casts of hundreds, if not thousands. Reportedly, his 1921 movie, Custer’s Last Fight, included many of the Native Americans who actually fought in the original battle against General George Armstrong Custer.

However, it is unclear how many, if any, movies the lighthouse at Inceville appeared in. Reportedly, Thomas Ince wanted the lighthouse designed after a lighthouse in Scotland, so it might have appeared in a movie that would have had a Scottish theme.

In a financial dispute with William S. Hart, Thomas Ince sold Inceville to Hart. Thomas Ince then moved his operations to Culver City and Hart renamed Inceville as Hartville where Hart came to film his own movies at the site. However, after several fires heavily damage the area, Hart sold the large studio property to Robertson-Cole, which continued filming there for a short time. But other locations became more profitable, and the studio’s acres of buildings fell into ruin and decay. Again, it is unknown if the lighthouse was used in any movies that were filmed there during the time of the last two owners.

It was later written that “The place was virtually a ghost town when the last remnants of Inceville were burned on the Fourth of July, 1922, leaving only a weatherworn church, which stood sentinel over the charred ruins.” However, the person who wrote that probably mistook the lighthouse for a church, because other written accounts stated that because the lighthouse was made of stone it was the only structure to survive the fire. Those same records indicate that the lighthouse stood until the 1940s when it was demolished.

Interestingly, only two years after the fire destroyed Thomas H. Ince’s Inceville, he died at the age of 42 on board the yacht of William Randolph Hearst in what has been billed to this day as one of Hollywood’s greatest unsolved mysteries. Although his death was officially ruled as natural causes, many acclaimed people of the time, as well as many historians today, believe that Ince was shot, probably accidently, by Hearst in a dispute over actress Marion Davis. Those same people widely believe that Hearst, one of the most powerful men of his time, used his power to cover up the shooting.

The mystery surrounding the death of Thomas H. Ince may never be solved, just as the mystery may never be solved of how many movies the Inceville Lighthouse might have appeared in - if any.

This story appeared in the May/Jun 2013 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

All contents copyright © 1995-2024 by Lighthouse Digest®, Inc. No story, photograph, or any other item on this website may be reprinted or reproduced without the express permission of Lighthouse Digest. For contact information, click here.

to Lighthouse Digest

USLHS Marker Fund

Lighthouse History
Research Institute

Shop Online

Subscribe   Contact Us   About Us   Copyright Foghorn Publishing, 1994- 2024   Lighthouse Facts     Lighthouse History