June Mathis / © Allan Ellenberger Collection
June Mathis. The name means nothing to most of today’s filmgoers and to the vast majority of self-proclaimed film historians. Yet, nearly nine decades ago June Mathis was, next to Mary Pickford, one of the two most powerful women in Hollywood. “She fairly lives and breathes motion pictures,” reported the New York Morning Telegraph in February 1924, “and if ever a woman had her hand on the pulse of the film industry, it is this indefatigable worker, who not only knows what she wants, but knows how to get it.”
Author Allan Ellenberger, who has written on silent film stars Ramon Novarro and Rudolph Valentino, has agreed to answer a few questions about June Mathis, whose life he has been researching for a future article.
Who was June Mathis?
June Mathis, a short, thickset, rather plain woman with frizzy hair, became one of Hollywood’s most influential women during the silent era. An accomplished screenwriter, casting director, and film editor, Mathis was the only female executive at Metro Pictures — and at one time she was the highest paid film executive in Hollywood.
Born June Beulah Hughes in Leadville, Colorado, on June 30, 1889, Mathis was the only child of Phillip and Virginia Hughes. Although available biographical records usually give her year of birth as 1892, census records confirm the 1889 date. Her parents divorced when she was seven, and while much of her childhood is vague, at some point her mother met and married William D. Mathis, a recent widower with three children. Eventually, June would take her stepfather’s name.
Mathis’s first public incarnation was as a child actor in vaudeville and on Broadway. Her stage credits include the hit play The Fascinating Widow, with the popular female impersonator Julian Eltinge. For thirteen years, Mathis toured in many plays and vaudeville shows.
In 1914, she moved to New York, where she took a writing course and later entered a scriptwriting contest. This brought her several offers to write screenplays until Metro Pictures hired her in 1918. Once there, she quickly worked her way up to becoming chief of the studio’s script department. Her scripts comprised a wide range of films, including [the Alla Nazimova vehicle] Eye for Eye (1918), [the Rex Ingram drama] Hearts Are Trumps (1920), and Polly with a Past (1920) [starring Ina Claire].
When Metro president Richard Rowland bought the rights to [Vicente Blasco Ibáñez’s] popular war novel The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Mathis was placed in charge [of the production]. It was through her influence that the studio hired her friend and fledgling film director, Rex Ingram [left]. However, it was in casting Rudolph Valentino in the role of Julio that fixed both of their careers. Mathis had picked Valentino after seeing him in a small part in Eyes of Youth (1919).
Her next project, The Conquering Power (1921) reunited Mathis with Ingram, Valentino, and Alice Terry, [the leading lady] from The Four Horsemen. Circumstances did not bode as well on this set, as Valentino fought with both Metro and Ingram. The actor moved over to Famous Players-Lasky, while Ingram stayed at Metro. Within the year, Mathis, too, found herself at Lasky, writing two screenplays for Valentino. When Valentino began having troubles there, Mathis signed a contract with Goldwyn Pictures [no longer associated with Samuel Goldwyn] where she had sovereign control.
During her stint at Goldwyn, Mathis supervised [the making of] Erich von Stroheim’s Greed, but [the general perception of her] involvement in this film is unfortunately an inaccurate one. Because of her position at the studio she had to oversee the film’s condensation from forty-two reels to ten. However, she is not the one von Stroheim referred to when calling the editor “a person with nothing more on his mind than a hat.”
Mathis gave instructions for editing Greed in a two-page memo written two weeks before she sailed for Italy to begin work on Ben-Hur. In her absence, Rex Ingram pared it down to eighteen reels, but it was once again edited by Joseph Farnham to its existing ten reels.
Is it true that she was the person responsible for Rudolph Valentino’s success? What kind of relationship did they have?
Until Mathis cast Valentino in The Four Horsemen [above], he appeared mostly in bit parts and walk-ons. Several people have taken credit for Valentino’s success, but it was this bit of casting that launched the Latin Lover’s career. At Metro, and later at Paramount [Famous Players-Lasky’s distribution arm], Mathis was responsible for a string of Rudolph Valentino films including Blood and Sand (1922) and The Young Rajah (1922).
Mathis and Valentino kept a close bond — some even suggested that a romance may have developed, but this is unlikely. In fact, actress Nita Naldi [Valentino’s Blood and Sand co-star] said that Mathis mothered Valentino and that each worshipped the other. Their friendship soured when Mathis’ version of the script for the ill-fated "The Hooded Falcon" failed to impress either Valentino or his wife, Natacha Rambova. [The "Hooded Falcon" project was eventually discarded.]
It was a tearful reunion a few years later, when Valentino saw Mathis at the Los Angeles premiere of The Son of the Sheik (1926).
When Valentino died just a few months later, it was June Mathis who offered his family the use of her own crypt at Hollywood Cemetery as a temporary resting place for the film idol. When, in less than a year, Mathis succumbed to a heart attack, they moved Valentino’s body to the neighboring crypt to make room for Mathis. They have been lying next to each other at [the renamed] Hollywood Forever Cemetery to this day.
June Mathis and the 1925 version of "Ben-Hur." What can you tell us about that?
After negotiations with the producers of the Ben-Hur stage play [Abraham Erlanger owned the property, along with fellow theatrical impresarios Charles Dillingham and Florenz Ziegfeld], Goldwyn Pictures bought the screen rights to General Lew Wallace’s religious tale. Mathis, who had previously been with Metro and Lasky, was now Goldwyn’s head scenarist. Not only would Mathis adapt the screenplay, she would also be in charge of the production. Her first decision was to make the film in Italy.
Following a nationwide search to find the lead, producers decided on Mathis’ choice, George Walsh [left], and on her pick for director, Charles Brabin. Neither choice was popular with the public or with some in the film industry; however, [the fact that the studio accepted her demands] proved how powerful Mathis was at the time.
When the Ben-Hur film company arrived in Rome, production quickly got off track. Even though Italian labor was inexpensive, [costs escalated because] labor disputes delayed the building of sets. Not only were the sets and costumes not ready, but the actors just sat around or took advantage of the down time to make small tours of Europe. To make matters worse, Mathis, who was to supervise the production, was told not to interfere with Brabin on the set, except to approve or reject changes to the script. [Far away from studio interference, Brabin had seized the reins of the production.]
Nothing appeared to go right. The sets cost a fortune but still looked cheap. With the script incomplete, money wasted, and the moral of the company at an all-time low, it appeared that Ben-Hur would be the biggest fiasco that Hollywood had ever seen.
During all of this, Metro, Goldwyn, and producer Louis B. Mayer were making plans to merge their film companies. The first point of order for the new studio, now known as Metro-Goldwyn [and not long thereafter, as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer], was to try to save the fast-sinking Ben-Hur.
As head of the new studio, Louis B. Mayer told Marcus Loew, the chief executive of Metro-Goldwyn’ parent company, Loew’s Incorporated, that he would take the job only after the removal of June Mathis, Charles Brabin, and George Walsh. Mayer also insisted on the rewriting of Mathis’ script. These demands meant that they would have to start from the beginning.
Mayer’s replacement for Brabin was director Fred Niblo, who felt the assembled cast was the most uninteresting and colorless he had seen, and placed the blame directly on Mathis. The changeover was complete by substituting Walsh with Ramon Novarro, in addition to the unceremonious firing of Mathis; Bess Meredyth and Carey Wilson were brought in as her replacements.
In statements to the press, Mathis blamed the Ben-Hur problems on Charles Brabin. She asserted that all control of the picture was taken away from her by Brabin, adding that she could no longer associate herself with the film.
What happened to her when she returned to Hollywood after the "Ben-Hur" fiasco?
During the few months that she was in Rome, Mathis met and fell in love with Silvano Balboni, an Italian cameraman hired to work on the film. Mathis returned to Hollywood in August 1924 with Balboni in tow, and married him the following December. Regardless of what occurred on Ben-Hur, Mathis continued to find work. Shortly after returning from Rome, she signed with First National where she scripted several Colleen Moore [right] films including Sally (1925), The Desert Flower (1925), and Irene (1926).
After two years, she left First National over limits placed on her and signed with United Artists. Her one screenplay for them, The Masked Woman (1926), was directed by Silvano Balboni.
On July 27, 1927, Mathis and her grandmother were attending a performance of The Squall at the 48th Street Theatre in New York. During the last act, Mathis suddenly rose with her hands pressed against her breast and screamed, “Mother, I’m dying.” Carried outside to the alley, she died of a heart attack. Mathis was thirty-eight years old.
During her eleven-year career as a screenwriter (1916-1927), June Mathis was responsible for more than 100 screenplays.
June Mathis is now little more than a blip in film history. Why has this extremely important woman been mostly ignored by film historians?
The biggest reason is the passage of time and the lack of interest by some film historians in anything before Marilyn Monroe. It will be eighty years this year since Mathis name was last connected to a new film release, and with a few exceptions [when it comes to studying the importance of] film pioneers we seem to suffer from long-term memory loss.
On the other hand, while it’s true that only hardcore film enthusiasts recognize June Mathis’s name today, she has not been totally ignored. For instance, when there is a discussion of early Hollywood — and the topics of Valentino, Ingram, or such film classics as The Four Horsemen — how can you not mention June Mathis and her contributions to film history?
In your estimation, apart from Mary Pickford have there been other women in Hollywood — or are there any now — that were/are as powerful as June Mathis was in her heyday?
Without a doubt there have been several women among Mathis’s contemporaries of the 1920s who yielded various levels of power. These would include writers Frances Marion [above right, with Mary Pickford], Bess Meredyth, and Anita Loos, and of course directors Lois Weber and Dorothy Arzner, among others.
For some reason, shortly after the coming of sound, women lost much of the influence they had during the silent era. The only women that wielded any power to speak of were gossip columnists Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, who, while not directly running a studio, could influence the powers-that-be.
While still not a majority, today it’s not unusual to see a woman in a position of authority or even running a studio. Examples include former Paramount chairman Sherry Lansing; Amy Pascal, Chairman of Sony Pictures; Anne Sweeney, president of Disney-ABC Television; Gail Berman, president of Paramount Pictures; Stacey Snider, co-chairman and CEO of DreamWorks SKG; Nina Tassler, president of CBS Entertainment; Dana Walden, president of 20th Century-Fox Television. And of course, there’s media mogul Oprah Winfrey, Chairman of her own Harpo, Inc., and host of the highly rated Oprah talk show.