A letter from Kevin Brownlow on Triangle

The film historian Kevin Brownlow (whose initials, K B, echo the name of Ince’s studio Kay Bee) was kind enough to react to a conference given in Stirling on the mode of production at Triangle (see below “The Ince ‘method’…”) and to send the author the following letter we publish here with his consent. I thank him for all this, and also for pointing to two mistakes I made in my Stirling presentation.

Oct 20 09

Dear Marc Vernet;

I was fascinated by your paper  on Triangle, and wish I could sit down and talk with you – and better still, show you some examples.  The very first film I acquired (as an 11-year old collector) was a Triangle-Fine Arts film, and I have been intrigued by Triangle ever since. I met  people who worked for each apex of Triangle and if you decide to extend your subject, I would be happy to send you transcripts of what they said.

DWG; He was generally thought to have supervised the Fine Arts films, yet as you say he was far too busy on what became INTOLERANCE. And some of the films were made at Triangle’s East Coast headquarters on the Clara Morris Estate under the supervision of Allan Dwan. What he did do was to set the cast and crew on the right path by supervising rehearsals. Sidney Franklin told me that when he and his brother Chester made LET KATIE DO IT (1915), at Fine Arts, an excellent kid picture set during the Mexican revolution, Griffith came over and watched rehearsals, adding ideas and generally encouraging the two young men (I think Sidney was 22). Franklin was so impressed he kept DWG’s cigar butt as a souvenir in his safe! He was dismayed when DWG removed one of his best shots because he wanted to reshoot it for THE MOTHER AND THE LAW.

You are right about Ince and the importance of the script. Geo Pratt has written an excellent piece entitled something like SHOOT AS WRITTEN. Griffith appears to have used no script (although his acolytes such as Franklin used scripts as soon as they could). Ince did no directing of complete films from about 1912, although he shot the fire sequence from HELL’S HINGES (1916) and he took over from John Griffith Wray on ANNA CHRISTIE (1924) when the cast complained that Wray was too OTT.

When I worked for the AFI in the late 60s, if you can believe it, there was still an office for Thomas Ince Productions in Los Angeles. It was not even as big as the small office in which I am writing this. On top of a cupboard I found a scrapbook of Maurice Tourneur pictures. Somehow connected with  this little place, a cache of Ince films on l6mm turned up, dating from 1918 – 24. We used to project them in the evenings. We even tried to persuade Louise Glaum to come over (she lived nearby). She was dismissive: ’Why would anyone want to see those old films?’ Anyway, they were fascinating to see – and I gave an impression of what was going on behind the scenes.

Windblown Inceville, packed with cowboys and Indians, had been ideal for the 2-reelers, but it must have been a lot more difficult to make the features. (It was a long haul to Hollywood for supplies.) Yet they produced some brilliant productions such as THE ITALIAN, even if Ince claimed to have written and directed it, as against Sullivan and Barker who actually did. But as you say, the director did not have anything like the importance he gained later on.

When Ince left Inceville in 1918 and moved into the Culver City studio, he changed almost at once into a precursor of MGM. He made the same sort of society dramas -mostly interior – and Andy Hardy-like Americana and ran the studio more efficiently. I believe Mayer and Thalberg revived his system when they took over the studio. Under Ince’s aegis, and during a period of turmoil in the farming community, Charles Ray became a top box office star playing (very cleverly) a country bumpkin.  That was one end of the Ince spectrum. At the other were sadistic and horrifying war dramas like BEHIND THE DOOR which mesmerised audiences who had never seen anything like them.  Yet none of these are included in the ‘classics’ that are revived nowadays. 

MACK SENNETT at the Triangle period seems to have been pretty chaotic, with important films being shelved and pictures being made not so much on an assembly line as in an alcoholic daze. I seem to remember that Sennett personally directed parts of the Mabel Normand pictures before setting her up in her own studio.

You are certainly correct that audiences in the teens responded strongly to names like Griffith, Ince and Sennett, and gave not a damn for Paul Powell or Christy Cabanne. And never would. But the brands within the companies were sometimes equally significant.. Thanks to Francis Ford, Bison-101 became so attractive to audiences that Laemmle bought it (and Ford and co) for Universal.

But directors became more significant  as the fan magazines wrote more and more about them. By the end of the twenties, with names like Neilan, Ingram, De Mille becoming household words, producers became envious of their creativity and began to knock them off their perches. By the early 30s, De Mille was seeking work in Soviet Russia (!), Neilan was an alcoholic making poverty row pictures and Ingram had given up completely.

I was glad the language of your lecture was so fresh and clear. I was relieved that you avoided academic terms (except nominalism and axiological, neither of which I had ever heard before, so do tell me what they mean.) And the lecture was most stimulating.

By the way, Les Artistes Associes was known as United Artists in US and UK – and ‘bomb’ doesn’t mean success in English but the exact opposite i.e.- a disaster.

Very best

Kay Bee (Kevin Brownlow)

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