Moving the Margins to the Mainstream: June Mathis's Work in American Silent Film
The study of June Mathis's life and career reveals the challenges and opportunities for women during Hollywood's silent era, the great achievements of one extremely energetic woman, and the ways that marginalized communities could find expression in silent films. Discoverer of Rudolph Valentino, Goldwyn production manager, and original Ben-Hur producer, Mathis's collaborations with various artists and performers throughout her vaudeville and Hollywood careers provides a basis for understanding how her work helped push the boundaries of gender definitions and sexual behavior in the movies. Through her twelve years of struggle in Hollywood, fueled by her background in vaudeville, her knowledge of life, and her associations with many kindred spirits on the margins of the industry, June Mathis helped push the limits of that system. The question of how to read her films is great. To what degree was her use of melodrama a means of conforming to studio demands, and to what degree was she using it to present her own ideas? Her daring to promote Valentino as a leading man during a period of rampant xenophobia provides a key for reading her films on multiple levels. When we place Mathis's films within the historical, social, and cultural contexts of their times, they can be seen as a palimpsest, suggesting a myriad number of social, spiritual, and sexual attitudes and desires. Her films were works that, as Stewart Klawans states, "were challenging the status quo. In a society where commerce dominated all human relations, including the sexual and artistic." After discussing Mathis's work with Julian Eltinge, Alla Nazimova, Valentino, and Erich von Stroheim, and the social relevance of melodrama, I will discuss how her work on Blood and Sand (1922) challenged the dominant codes of masculinity in the 1920s.
Keywords: Women Filmmakers, Silent film, American film industry, Screenwriting, Authorship, Popular Culture, Gender Studies, Melodrama in film
Dr. Thomas Slater
Professor, Department of English, Indiana University of Pennsylvania