Thomas Ince, The Civil War and the Silver Screen

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Article written by Mary Mallory

Thomas Ince, sadly more recognized today for his tragic, early death than for the fine films he created, was one of Hollywood’s most successful early film producers. Building his first studio in 1912 at what is now the intersection of Pacific Coast Highway and Sunset Blvd., Ince churned out mostly westerns and Civil War pictures at this location, stories that possessed fine drama along with exciting action. In 1918 he built a fancy, state of the art studio facility at 9336 W. Washington Blvd. in Culver City, which later housed Selznick International Pictures and still stands today as the Culver Studios. Here Ince turned out a wide range of films with high artistic values. In 1924, he turned once again to a story of the Civil War, Barbara Frietchie, one that would allow him to employ many studio buildings as stand ins for Maryland buildings and mansions.

“Barbara Frietchie” was a poem written by John Greenleaf Whittier in 1864, inspired by the legend that the elderly Frietchie proudly displayed the Stars and Stripes outside her home in Frederick, Maryland as Confederate General’s “Stonewall” Jackson’s troops rode by. While there was a real person named Barbara Fritschie in town, she had nothing to do with the incident; another woman in her city actually raised the flag. As the Fritschie family was famous and respected there, the story became attached to them, which they did nothing to disprove or disown. Clyde Fitch’s play of the same name makes the story more romantic by making the heroine young instead of old and adding in romance. John Hopkins University students disproved Whittier’s thesis in a study they conducted in 1923, per a January 8, 1923 story in “The New York Times.”

Ince recognized the drama inherent in the Civil War story, of a town and families divided between North and South, which offered examples of character, courage, and determination. In the film, Frietchie, played by the attractive Florence Vidor, and family support the South. She loves William Turnbull, played by Edmund Lowe, who of course sympathizes with the North. When war is declared, they are separated before they can be married. Over the next several years, they come into contact as Turnbull’s troops come through the city. He is wounded and brought to the home of the Frietchies. Believing him dead, Frietchie honors her lover by flying the American flag from the balcony as General Jackson’s troops victoriously parade by. As the crowd jeers her, Jackson warns that anyone who harms her will die like a dog. Barbara is still shot and she crawls to William’s bedside. Miraculously, both revive, and a wedding ends the film.

As the July 20, 1924 Los Angeles Times points out in a story coming from Ince publicity materials, the film would comprise more than just the facts of the play and poem. “It will, in fact, show various crucial moments in American history, beginning with the landing of the Pilgrims to the period of the Civil War, with the battle of the Monitor and the Merrimac. Primarily, however, “Barbara Frietchie” is a love story, one of the most appealing as related to the history of this country, and as such it is being filmed.” Not only would the film show the pilgrims, it featured scenes of the Revolutionary War and President Abraham Lincoln as well.

To make the story more realistic and cheaper than traveling to the South, Ince erected a residential street to represent Frederick, Maryland. Brian Taves, in his new biography of Ince, notes that the grounds of the studio also represented a Southern village and military camp. The pillared, antebellum looking administration building of the Ince Studio and its surrounding grounds became the Frietchie mansion. The studio played up the use of the mansion in publicity stills sent out promoting the picture, many picturing the building. Some photos show it regally as a fine, Southern home, while others show it under attack. In this off-camera photo, cavalry veterans of World War I play Civil War soldiers, riding up Washington Blvd. on horses as an eager crowd watches the action. The studio plays up the film with free publicity for Culver City residents, locating a large sign noting the production’s name at the front of the property.

Taves states that the film was an important one for the studio, running over ninety minutes and costing almost $175,000. Shooting so much on the lot made strong financial sense in order to reduce costs.

The Los Angeles Times loved the film; reviewer Edwin Schallert in the September 17, 1924 paper called it “…more than entertainment, although it is that in full effect; it is also an animated and highly colorful page of history. To be sure, there is an obvious line of hokum running through the feature, but as it is the source of much humor one can accept it.” Schallert thought Vidor outdid any of her previous performances, adding prestige to her as an actress, giving heft to the picture. He found Lowe fine, and thought that Mark Hamilton, the humorous scapegoat throughout the film, almost stole the feature. Schallert noted as well that the film connected to the present day, as the grandson of the two leading characters returns from the war in Europe, helping “reawakening of patriotic feeling.”

Los Angeles Times gossip columnist Grace Kingsley reviews the film in her story about its October 3 premiere at the California Theatre, pointing out how sophisticated audiences were to movie plots. “It seemed to be the aim of the picture people to wring every drop of drama possible from every situation. Hero and heroine suffer in every way they could be made to suffer before the happy finale, even to our being caused to think (unless we were very movie wise, which we are) that the hero was dead. We knew very well that even if his heart wasn’t beating he would hop up just before the final curtain. And so he did.”

Sadly, this would be one of the last films Ince produced that he would see on screen. Thomas Ince died of stomach problems on November 19, 1924, leaving behind a studio with several films still shooting or in post-production.

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