In many ways, I could tell you the story of June Mathis, and be done with this project, because she sums it all up. She was a powerhouse of early Hollywood, credited with writing the screenplays of 114 produced films.
Her first produced credit, House of Tears, was released in 1915. Just three years later she was invited to become the head of Metro’s story department, a position the Los Angeles Times called: The Most Responsible Job ever Held by A Woman. She is often referred to as the very first female studio executive -- I think Julia Crawford Ivers might have beat her by a year or two, but the point is that they both held pivotal roles in major studios before they could vote in presidential elections.
She was headhunted by Famous-Players Lasky (which became part of Paramount) before being tempted by a ‘huge salary and offers of autonomous control’ by the Goldwyn Company in 1923. Her job titles include Artistic Supervisor and Editorial Director, which would roughly translate to Head of Development/Executive Producer today. Karen Ward Mahar, in Women Filmmakers in Early Hollywood, explains that Mathis ‘set studio policy and handled continuities (screenplays) and scenarios.’
In February, 1924, the New York Morning Telegraph reported, “She fairly lives and breathes motion pictures, 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.”
June Mathis was known for her “indomitable will and dangerous temper” (Go West, Young Women: The Rise of Early Hollywood), which I think we can safely take as code for ‘doesn’t do what men tell her.’ Indeed, she was famous for pissing off male directors who were known bullies, including Erich Von Stroheim and Charles Brabin. She ultimately met her match in Louis B Mayer, but we’ll get to that.
First let’s talk about Valentino.
If anyone has heard the name June Mathis today (and few have), it’s probably as Valentino’s Henry Higgins. She discovered him, fought for him to be cast in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, then continued to mentor him up until his sudden death in 1926 at the age of 31. There were the inevitable rumours of romance, but no compelling evidence of anything other than friendship.
That said, may I just point out that I love how many rumours of older, powerful women and hot young actors there were in those days. We might roll our eyes if an older, wealthy producer claims to be “just friends” with a gorgeous twenty-something actress, but would we be so quick to make the opposite assumption? The gossip-mongers of the twenties seemed to with alacrity, and I salute them for it.
And that said, they were both part of a set that likely dabbled in a spot of group spin the bottle now and then, if you know what I mean. So romance might not be quite the right word… 😎
There are two intriguing green flags about her championing him.
One, he was Italian. We might not think of Italians of people of colour today, but in the teens and twenties there was a strong streak of anti-Italianism running through American society. Along with the Irish, they were the newest wave of immigrants allegedly work-shy spongers living off hard working American protestants, while simultaneously taking all their jobs. Then, as Prohibition got underway, New York and Chicago became even less fans. With his usual flair for irony, Al Capone himself famously pointed out that he was born in Brooklyn.
All the same, when Valentino first arrived in Hollywood, DW Griffith dismissed him as “too foreign looking” and destined to play bit-part “heavies.” Which is exactly what he did for the first few years.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse was a best-selling novel, its strong anti-war sentiment culturally explosive in the wake of WWI (if you haven’t seen it, it’s on Youtube - highly recommend).
Metro paid $20,000 + 10% of the gross earnings for the rights to the novel, so Mathis fought for the unknown Valentino knowing full well it was a star-maker.
Four years later, a young studio secretary of Italian heritage wrote this to a friend:
I had lunch at the studio with Rudolph Valentino’s publicity man, and he told me all about Rudolph -- what a wonderful chap he is… It makes me feel good to hear all this about a “wop” because you know most of them are spoken about very unkindly.
Representation matters, now as in 1925.
Further, the film arguably created the female gaze in cinema.
As Go West, Young Women puts it:
Hailed as a masterpiece, the Four Horsemen became one of the decade’s most successful films, launching the formerly unknown actor that made plain the transformed landscape of women’s sexual fantasies.
Author Elinor Glyn described his performance as the very human incarnation of the ideal lover, possessing a technique that appeared at once ‘masterful and tender’ and a confidence that radiated that ‘he knew everything about love.’ Essentially, the film introduced the idea that greatness in male lovers in measured by giving women what they want.
Bit worrying that was considered quite so revolutionary, but better late than never, eh, boys?
Critics scoffed, describing him as a “soft, hapless sort of Sheik beside the character delineated [in the book].” This was in response to the fact that in the film, Valentino’s character seduces the heroine with soft kisses rather than rape. Yes, you read that right: a rape that existed in the novel, was cut from the film, not the other way around.
A male writer wrote in Photoplay:
All men hate Valentino. I hate his Oriental optics. I hate his classic nose; I hate his Roman face; I hate his smile; I hate his patent leather hair; I hate his Svengali glare; I hate him because he dances too well; I hate him because he’s the great lover of the screen… too apt in the art of osculation.
I really want a T shirt that reads “too apt in the art of osculation.”
Having been behind several of the decade’s biggest hits and creating the world’s first male sex symbol, June was unceremoniously dropped from the newly formed MGM and forgotten by history. Why, you ask? Well that’s a story for next time.