Thomas Ince’s Bell and Howell 2709, # 241


Originally Purchased By Thomas Ince Studios February 23, 1918


This is the camera that started what is known today as Culver City Studios. There will be several pictures of the camera and a five-minute video at the end of this text. Enjoy.


I actually couldn’t wait to sit down and write about Thomas Ince and this camera, a Bell and Howell 2709, number 241. I have had many, many 2709’s, including William Fox’s camera that started Fox Studios; the camera that was the main prop in Peter Jackson’s “King Kong”; Henry Ford’s personal 2709; and the 2709 that started MGM. All these cameras now reside with some of the world’s most wealthy and powerful people. I am really proud to have been the caretaker of those fine cameras. Now I’m astounded that I have this very special 2709, number 241 to care for. It stops my heart more than any of the others ever did.

I’m so amazed by this camera that I think this writing is going to be written in more of a ‘stream of consciousness’ way rather than in the format I usually employ. Where to begin?

Actually I’m going to start with the man, Thomas Ince. Hence the first part of this camera’s room text is primarily about Thomas Ince. I have to give thanks to Brian Taves, PhD for his help and for his writing the book, “Thomas Ince: Hollywood’s Independent Pioneer.” All I can say is, “Wow, I have become a fan of both Mr. Ince and Doctor Taves.”

In early Hollywood, Thomas Ince was at the top of the very best list.  He remained at the top of the top in the motion picture industry during the genesis period, (1910 through 1915) of Hollywood. When he first started in the industry the term “movie” hadn’t been invented yet. Films were still being called “Animated Pictures” or “Flickers”.

In 1912 Ince bought the four hundred and sixty acre Bison Ranch at the intersection of Sunset Blvd and Pacific Coast Highway. He built his first studio there. It was affectionately called “Inceville”. He then leased another eighteen thousand acres around it for his back lot. His studio made Westerns, hundreds of Westerns. Ince made the first ‘action movies’ there. It was the only lot that had a commissary big enough to feed the hundreds of cowboys and Sioux Indians and lot workers and film crews that were an integral part of the studio’s workings. The crews were actually living right on the lot. Ince’s work was deemed so valuable that the Library of Congress chose two of his films for preservation in The United States National Film Registry. Historically he is one of the most important movie producers to have ever been in the business. (I think that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would have a Thomas Ince Award if he hadn’t died before the Academy was founded.)

Thomas Ince’s career was only fourteen years long. During that time he changed the face of how movies were made. He brought the modern studio concept to the industry and showed all the other studios how to raise their output of movies from one a week to three or more per week. He produced or directed over 800 films. It has been said that no other producer before or after him could even come close to his record of consistency. He was able to release a continuous stream of moneymaking movies that were billed as having that “Ince Punch”. That meant that they had enormous production value. Great dramatic buffalo herd stampedes and aerial cinematography and locomotives and cars and horses. His movies had lots of action.

Although he has been billed as an independent, at the time of his death the Thomas Ince Studios was one of the major studios in Hollywood. As an astute businessman, he saw something about owning a studio that made perfect sense. When he wasn’t in production on one of his own movies he rented the studio out to others. This kept his employees working year round. People that worked with him just loved him. He took care of them and they took care of him. He was very famous for this fierce loyalty to his staff.

Prior to 1912 movies had usually been shot using an outline on a piece of paper held in the directors’ hand. Production was a mess, something akin to herding cats. Sometimes a production would come to a halt while the director tried to think of what to shoot next. Ince invented the idea of breaking down a movie by scenes and then making a shooting script with a real shooting schedule. Thomas Ince made a production line or assembly line out of the haphazard movie business. He also invented many new jobs by assigning specific parts of the production to a single person. The best example of a new job was the female script continuity assistant or “Script Girl”.

Ince directed his first movie in December of 1910. Mary Pickford left Biograph and D. W. Griffith to go to Independent Moving Pictures Co. of America or IMP and Ince became her director. They made their first movie together in Cuba in “Little Nell’s Tobacco” released December 22, 1910. Mary Pickford and Thomas Ince and an entire film company left the USA and went to Cuba to make movies. Carl Laemmle sent them there to get his company away from Thomas Edison and the others in the Patent Trust war.

By 1915 Ince was a partner with D.W. Griffith and Mack Sennett.  They created “Triangle Motion Picture Company” or “Triangle Film Company”. Because of the fine quality of films they produced, this company became very prestigious and asked a rental premium for their films.

Ince was important enough in his time that he was invited as a frequent guest to San Simeon, Hearst’s Castle and aboard William Randolph Hearst’s yacht Oneida.




This is a picture of Marion Davies on the deck of the Hearst yacht, Oneida. She is welcoming Thomas Ince aboard for his belated birthday party. I find this a most wonderfully joyous and yet a very sad picture. At that point Miss Davies and the rest of the guests on board were unaware of the tragedy that was to come.

 She appears to be so excited to see Thomas Ince. She is so very fashionably dressed, topped off with her yachting cap and is holding a double armload of colored helium balloons. As she was one of the world’s favorite and most famous actresses, being greeted like this must have thrilled Thomas Ince. However, the party was short lived.  To everyone’s disbelief, Ince had a heart attack that evening on the Oneida and three days later he died at his home in Beverly Hills.  His death was mourned by all of Hollywood.


This is a copy of the original Bell and Howell factory sales record card. D. W. Griffith was very famous, Thomas Ince was very important.

Now we go on to the camera.


Bell & Howell cameras are still considered the steadiest camera ever made. 2709’s were called “rock steady” for a reason. This is because the camera had fixed pilot pins. The pilot pins are the guide pins onto which the film is pushed. They keep the film in exactly the same place frame after frame. All other cameras had moving pilot pins that were withdrawn from the film so the pull down claws could move the film to the next frame. The mechanism could deteriorate, causing the pins to lose tolerance. In the Bell and Howell movement the film was pulled off the fixed pins, pulled down one frame and then pressed back onto the pins. It was often called the “clapper” movement because of the noise it made. Bell and Howell called it the Unit I shuttle.

It was this clapping movement that eventually killed the careers of Bell and Howell cameras. When sound movies came in, this clapping movement was just too noisy and couldn’t be made quiet enough to shoot movies with sound. However, Bell and Howell cameras were the Rolls Royce of their day and continued to shoot second unit and “B” roll for many years after sound came in.

This particular camera had a very long career. Its last days were spent working at a title house where it made the opening and closing screen credits for many John Wayne movies. It worked up into the 1960’s.



This is the factory badge on the camera left side door with the serial number stamped in it. I can’t begin to speculate on all the movies this camera has shot. I can’t imagine what places it has been to or what famous and important people have worked with it.  Just knowing that this camera worked the Ince Studios lot on a daily basis is thrilling.




The ability to change the shutter angle on a 2709 was a wonderful tool. The only problem was that the operator had to read the tiny numbers inside the small window on the camera right side. This large shutter wheel adaptation is one of the best and most practical after market changes ever made to a 2709.



This sidefinder is so very rare I can hardly contain my excitement over it. The factory Bell and Howell side finders were very awkward to use. They stuck out past the side door that had to be opened in order to load film. Every time the operator opened the door he had to actually take the viewing tube off the sidefinder, causing real delays. Also, the image on a stock finder was about the size of a 35mm frame of film and was upside-down. It wasn’t possible to look through the factory sidefinder while shooting, as the crank was on the other side of the camera. Hence this after market finder was a wonderful change. For more on this finder see the video at the bottoom of the page.



There are very few of these cameras still in existence. As with all cameras that had any career length, this camera was modified to do it's job better and better as time went on. Fortunately this camera managed to escape the modification that was applied to so many 2709's, many of which had the whole front milled off flat and had what was called a single lens "hard front" put on to replace the four lens turret.

There is a set of four matched Cooke Speed Panchro lenses on the camera. The owner had to have been a director of photography that really cared about this camera. Cooke Speed Panchros were the top of the line lenses and actually still sell for quite a bit more than a thousand dollars apiece. This camera will shoot today.




The camera body still has its original factory high gloss black baked on enamel finish.



The Akeley GYRO head was a very important tool for people who wanted to shoot action movies. With a regular gear head, a cameraman needed three hands in order to pan and tilt and crank the camera. Carl Akeley developed the Akeley GYRO head for use in filming animals on the move, in Africa. It was quickly recognized as a head that could be used for shooting horse chases, car chases, stampedes and other scenes where the camera needed to follow high-speed action accurately. Watch the video and listen to the gears whine. Because of the noise they produced this head and the Bell and Howell 2709 were almost instantly made obsolete with the development of sound in the movie industry.



From here lets take a photo tour around the camera and then watch the video.












The Video: