June Mathis's Classified: One Woman's Response to Modernism

By Slater, Thomas J. | Journal of Film and Video, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

June Mathis's Classified: One Woman's Response to Modernism


Slater, Thomas J., Journal of Film and Video


In an essay published in January 1992, Patricia Mellencamp offered the following criticism of feminist film theory:

Over time, seeing oneself as the seen rather than the seer, as the desired or repudiated object or victim rather than the subject, may not have been empowering, and might have fostered an interior colonization. We have learned more about male desire than women's lives. It's time to change our focus, to let what Virginia Woolf called "the bright eyes that reign influence" look elsewhere. (23)

Mellencamp's solution to this problem was "to locate what has been lost [or forgotten] for women-their work" (19, brackets hers).

As an example of one woman whose work has been forgotten, Mellencamp focused briefly on Lela Simone, a sound editor with the Arthur Freed Unit at MGM in the 1940s and 'SOs. Simone was an apparently tireless and talented worker who was exploited as a secretary and hostess but given little recognition for the crucial contributions she made to Freed's successful productions (17-18).

June Mathis. who worked as a writer and producer at Metro, Famous Players-Lasky, Goldwyn, and First National from 1916 to 1927 (the year of her death), has suffered a similar fate in film history. During her brief career, Mathis often wielded enormous influence. Best known as the woman who 'discovered" Rudolph Valentino, produced and scripted The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse ( 1921), and did the same for the original production of Ben-Hur (1925), Mathis was voted the third most influential woman in the history of the motion pictures in 1926 (Spargo). These achievements alone suggest that Mathis's obscurity has been particularly undeserved. Here I wish to argue that Mathis deserves attention for her ideas as well. I will first summarize Mathis's career and achievements and define the artistic vision evident in her work through her reliance on melodrama. I will then focus on one of her films, an obscure 1925 comedy entitled Classified, in order to elaborate on some of her strengths and weaknesses as a writer with a nineteenth-century vision working within a modem consumer culture.

"The Most Powerful Woman" in Pictures

In November 1925, Motion Picture Magazine offered a front-page answer to the question "Why Are There No Women Directors?" The reason women "fail[ed] to qualify," the publication said, was probably because of the matter of physical strength. The strain of picture production usually wears out the strongest man in a few years. The casualties even among men of the most robust physique and nerve force is appalling. It is a devastating pace. It would have to be a superwoman to stand up under the strain.

("Why?")

Six months later, the New York journal Film Fun reported:

June Mathis, scenarist, has a lazy life. All she has to do just now, for instance, is to cut and edit "The Viennese Medley," editorially direct "Irene," Colleen Moore's new offering . . . look after "The Far Cry," . . . see to the screen treatment and continuity of Corinne Griffith's new attraction, "Mlle. Modiste," and several other productions, meet and talk to 40 persons a day, attend all the conferences held by the executive departments which have to do with production, write and prepare continuities herself and find time to run out on the sets to watch the work progress. Ho, hum, it's a dull life!'

Considering this description, the theory put forth in Motion Picture Magazine to explain why there were so few women directors seems particularly ludicrous.

Mathis never directed a film, although it is likely that she never pursued the possibility very rigorously.2 As writer, producer, and editorial director, she was already in an excellent position to promote her ideas. Furthermore, her duties at First National were not new for her. In April 1923, Photoplay had pronounced her "probably the most powerful woman in the motion picture industry today" ("Studio News"), and The Blue Book of the Screen had described her as "the only woman studio manager extant. …

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