Little has been written about June Mathis, a successful screenwriter and production executive from 1915-1927. Mathis began her professional career in 1901 at the age of fourteen by going on the vaudeville originally a light song, derived from the drinking and love songs formerly attributed to Olivier Basselin and called Vau, or Vaux, de Vire. stage in San Francisco. By 1915, she had performed with a number of companies all over the country. Her most notable stint was with Julian Eltinge. After appearing in the Boston Cadets Revue at the age of ten in feminine garb, Eltinge garnered notice from other producers , the leading female impersonator of the times, and for whom Mathis spent four years as lead ingénue. After her stage career, Mathis turned to screenwriting. By 1918, she was the primary writer for Metro Studios, turning out scripts for their major stars such as Alla Nazimova, Francis X. Bushman, Beverly Bayne, and Viola Dana (Letter from Metro–1919). When Metro moved to Los Angeles. in 1919, so did Mathis–as head of their scenario department. Her first project, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse allegorical figures in the Book of Revelation in the Bible. The rider on the white horse has many interpretations—one is that he represents Christ; the rider on the red horse is (1921), would establish her status in the movie industry for the rest of her career (“June Mathis Confers”). Not only did Mathis write the script, but she staked her future on casting the little-known Rudolph Valentino in the lead. For the rest of their short lives, Mathis and Valentino were closely linked, both personally and professionally. She also selected Rex Ingram to direct (Ramsaye 799). In 1922 Mathis joined Goldwyn Studios and immediately gained responsibility for guiding to completion the highly anticipated motion picture version of Ben-Hur. The following year, she became general manager in charge of production. Her responsibilities included approving scripts; assigning the studio’s directors (e.g., King Vidor, Tod Browning, Marshall Nielan, and Victor Sjostrom) to projects; overseeing several productions, most prominently Erich von Stroheim’s Greed; and writing and contributing to several other scripts. But, during this time, her main responsibility, which also drew the most attention from the press and the public, was Ben-Hur. (2) From 1922 to 1924, besides working on the script, Mathis was also in charge of selecting the director and cast, and ordering the costumes, wigs, and beards. When the production subsequently fell apart and her script was rejected, an entirely new team assembled by the newly formed Metro-Goldwyn Studios completed the film. So why consider a rejected script? Mathis’s screenplay and her correspondence related to Ben-Hur demonstrate how the screenplay was part of a pattern of how she redefined masculinity and gender roles in relation to World War I, a pattern that began during the war years and continued through her scripts for Valentino. Latin; see example.] of how a highly successful woman executive’s ideas were dismissed and how she was brought low in part due to the politics to which Leab alluded. With the closing of her production and little attention to her scripts, her vision has been lost. I hope to recover that vision by examining well-established critical attitudes towards screenwriters and melodrama, and then explain Mathis’s ideas by analyzing how her script for Ben-Hur built on the spirituality inherent in the tale’s use of the Jesus story to more clearly assert the importance of spiritual values (Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and mystical) and art (especially that of the cinema) over the futility of Militarism
FROM NOVEL TO STAGE TO SCREEN
Lewis “Lew” Wallace wrote Ben-Hur while serving as governor of the territory of New Mexico. While Wallace presents a classically modeled male-centered tale focused on the wealthy and powerful, women, servants, and people of all races and faiths play positive and important roles. The United States is the world’s third largest country in population and the fourth largest country in area. struggling with the temptations of rampant capitalism and imperialism and the challenges of incorporating cultural diversity. Wallace defined Christianity as a religion with a primary message of love and acceptance set in contrast with Roman values of militarism and oppression. The novel achieved tremendous popularity, and, in 1899, Wallace gave approval to a stage adaptation, produced by Abraham Erlanger, who would later possess final script approval for the Goldwyn Studio effort. Featuring the great innovation of having two teams of horses racing on treadmills on stage, the play was a major success for more than 20 years. Australia, Holland, and road shows to both major cities and small towns throughout The United States and Canada share a unique legal relationship. U.S. law looks northward with a mixture of optimism and cooperation, viewing Canada as an integral part of U.S. economic and environmental policy. (“Experiences”). Efforts to produce a film of Ben-Hur began with the infamous 1907 Kalem version, a ten minute series of major scenes from the novel, each done in long shot from a stable camera, including the chariot race. But its low quality did not dampen public desires at all, especially after the 1912 release of the Italian biblical spectacle, Quo Vadis novel of Rome under Nero, describing the imprisonment, crucifixion, and burning of Christians. Negotiations for the rights to produce a new screen adaptation of Ben-Hur took place the following year. However, they were not actually purchased until 1921 by a partnership of Erlanger, Charles Dillingham, and Florence Ziegfeld (Brownlow, 388). June Mathis signed her first contract for working on Ben-Hur on 15 July 1922, Ben Hur wrongly accused of attempted murder. [Am. Lit.: Ben Hur, Hart, 72] See : Injustice Titles”). She remained involved until 22 July 1924, and she is credited on the film as the screenwriter due to her contract although none of her work was used for the completed production. Goldwyn, now headed by Joseph Godsol, used Mathis’s involvement for public relations, activities and policies used to create public interest in a person, idea, product, institution, or business establishment. By its nature, public relations is devoted to serving particular interests by presenting them to the public in the most purposes as much as possible, hyping the fact that her work was considered so valuable they had taken a one million dollar life insurance policy out on her (“Million-Dollar Girl”). Besides screenwriting, casting, choosing the director, possibly selecting locations, and having a say in costuming and make-up, at one point Mathis was even asked to oversee the sailing schedules to Italy. The record of her work evident through the script and other available documents shows foresight, a vision of what she hoped to achieve, and a skillful, but ultimately unsuccessful, attempt to conduct the necessary political manipulations for obtaining her goals. On Ben-Hur her duties were even greater than they had been on The Four Horsemen Name given by the sportswriter Grantland Rice to the backfield of the University of Notre Dame’s undefeated football team of 1924: quarterback Harry Stuhldreher, halfbacks Don Miller and Jim Crowley, and fullback Elmer Layden. . At the same time, she was assigning directors to other projects, writing other scripts such as The Day of Faith, In the Palace of the King, and The Spanish Cavalier, and keeping an eye on the development of Greed. All this at a time when the direction of the industry was towards a greater division of labor and specification of duties. As journalist Tamar Lane would write two years later, “Metro now has three men assigned to the tasks June used to do, and they have their hands full.” To afford the astounding one million dollars for the rights to Ben-Hur, Goldwyn Studios agreed to allow the men who controlled them, Erlanger and Dillingham, final script approval (Brownlow, 388-89). This agreement seems to have established a very cumbersome situation for Mathis, though she apparently believed she could use it to her advantage. Her “Cutting Notes on Ben-Hur” telegram of 26 January 1924 suggests Mathis thought that having Erlanger’s approval for the script would require director Charles Brabin to work towards achieving her vision on the film.
JUNE MATHIS’S APPROACH TO SCREENWRITING
It was within this context of having immense responsibilities for one of the most anticipated films ever, simultaneous involvement with several other productions, and working for a studio poorly prepared to keep up with a changing industry that June Mathis began her work on Ben-Hur. As with most of her screenplays, Mathis was working on an adaptation, and she draws heavily on the well-known novel, often noting that a setting should be constructed “as stated in the novel” (e.g., page 63; scene 217). On 15 April 1923, Mathis published an article in which she stated, “Personally I feel that when I am adapting a book or a play I am only a servant of the author” (“Scenario Writers”). It is not surprising, therefore, that Mathis follows Wallace’s narrative quite faithfully, but makes several purposeful changes. Some serve a practical function. For example, Mathis introduces the Hurs’ servant and custodian of their fortune, Simonides, at the Hur household at the beginning so that the audience gets to know him although Judah does not. Introducing Simonides early establishes his close relationship to the family. Similarly, Thord, the gladiator the intent being to give the dead man armed attendants in the next world. instructor, is introduced while training Judah during his years in the tribune Arrius’s household in Rome. Wallace does not introduce him until his description of the athletic competition just before the chariot race and after Judah left Rome. Mathis also has Judah learn about the chariot race and his enemy Messala’s participation in it from a poster he sees during his first visit with Simonides at his home in Athens. Wallace has him making all these decisions about participating in the race in a moment of inspiration just after saving the wise man Balthazar and his daughter Iras from Messala’s chariot in the Grove of Daphne. the action and help audiences identify characters, and also make Judah Ben-Hur a much more human and believable character, better able to use his intelligence rather than giving in a falling inwards; a collapse. See also: Giving to impulse. In her script, Mathis is clearly drawing on William Young’s popular stage version as well as the novel, which made great sense for commercial reasons. The play’s great success throughout the country over several years made its version of the story familiar to thousands of fans, (4) and Mathis wanted to include elements that made Ben-Hur popular in the theater. Young, for example, also introduces Simonides early in the story and ended the plot on Palm Sunday, in the Christian calendar, the Sunday before Easter, sixth and last Sunday in Lent, and the first day of Holy Week. It recalls the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem riding upon an ass, when his followers shouted “Hosanna” and scattered palms in his path. , as does Mathis. Wallace carries his narrative through the crucifixion and also includes an Epilogue. Mathis’s use of the stage version is also understandable since she was working closely with its producer, Abraham Erlanger, who claimed that she wrote the first draft completely under his supervision (Kleine, private memo). He also claimed credit for convincing Lew Wallace that Christ could be represented on stage by a beam of light (“Experiences”). Mathis frequently draws on the stage production to define the music for the film’s presentations in major houses: “During this time, when the production is made in the theatre, the music of the play and the words of the songs of Daphne will be played and sung, so that when the picture reaches the smaller houses this [a title with the lyrics] may be cut in” (p. 210; sc. 697). It is clear that Goldwyn and Mathis were considering the Ben-Hur that would play major houses as both an aural and visual spectacle. At various points, Mathis notes that the music or chorus will continue behind several scenes, rising and falling in relation to the action. The conclusion starts with “During this [scene] the music of the play starts with a low chant, and as the procession nears Jerusalem, in the various cuts which follow, the words ‘This is Jesus of Nazareth’ become audible, ending in a final outburst of Hosannas” (p. 495; sc. 1643). The final words of the script, again echoing the stage version, read, “the joyous music swells and the picture ends” (513). Erlanger’s contributions are occasionally evident as when Mathis notes, “This should be a man who is to be made up like the picture of Joseph in Mr. Erlanger’s book” (p, 39; sc. 139). She later writes, “Mr. Erlanger would like to have the sound of the real trumpet in this scene” (p. 87, sc. 297). These brief, specific references to Erlanger indicate that his contributions were brief and precise. Erlanger indicated June Mathis was in control when he suggested that spending $100,000 to have her go to New York. At one point, Mathis notes a change she has made from previous drafts of the script (p. 51; sc. 176), further indicating work which could not have been done entirely with Erlanger’s involvement, especially since she was on the West Coast while he was in New York. Mathis also may have sought input from others on the script, possibly from writing colleague Carey Wilson the screenwriter, cinematography Art and technology of motion-picture photography. It involves the composition of a scene, lighting of the set and actors, choice of cameras, camera angle, and integration of special , editing, lighting, and sets are clearly her own, as were the major decisions on casting, director, crew, and costuming. By the time she left for Italy in 1924, she knew exactly how she wanted the film to look. She told studio executives in a telegram shortly before sailing, “I have this picture cut in my head already” (“Cutting Notes”). In another not uncommon practice, Mathis draws on secondary sources, such as well-known works of art, to build her script and vision of the film. A shot of the wise men crossing the desert includes the note “(after the picture by Dore or Tisso)” (p. 33; sc. 116) and a shot shortly thereafter was to be a “LARGE VERY BEAUTIFUL ARTISTIC CLOSEUP OF MARY (after the paintings of the Madonnas)” (p. 35; sc. 122). Mathis indicates that the shot of the stable should be set “according to prep. 1. As stated or indicated by; on the authority of: according to historians. 2. In keeping with: according to instructions. 3. the famous paintings” with the figures arranged “according to the biblical paintings” (p. 39; sc. 137). The first shot of Pilate was also to show him on his throne “very similar to the famous painting of Pilate facing Christ at the momentous trial” (p. 407; sc. 1338). But Mathis uses these sources for practical purposes as well. For the shots of Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem first scene of Passion cycle in painting. [Art: Hall, 114] See : Passion of Christ , she writes, “(This should be worked as much as possible with curves and bends in the road, so that we do not need so many people to get over the effects of thousands. I have a valuable book of illustrations that will convey exactly what I mean.)”. These examples also lend credence to MGM in full Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc. U.S. corporation and film studio. It was formed when the film distributor Marcus Loew, who bought Metro Pictures in 1920, merged it with the Goldwyn production company in 1924 and with Louis B. Mayer Pictures in 1925. director Fred Niblo’s later question in a letter to .Louis B. Mayer as to whether or not he would have access to all of Mathis’s research (20 May 1924). Mathis’s use of research and attention to detail is clear in her description of a street scene in which she makes a note to herself about Egyptian costumes, carts, and water jars to “Look up this point. (Description in full to be written later.)” (p. 2; sc. 8). Furthermore, Mathis notes that “Throughout production all titles should be spoken in some foreign language, so that no English pronunciation is on the lips to destroy the illusion of biblical times” (p. 31; sc. 107).
JUNE MATHIS’S VISION FOR BEN-HUR
Even without its huge popularity, Ben-Hur would have been an attractive property to June Mathis in the early Twenties as a follow-up to The Four Horsemen and Blood and Sand. As in those works, Wallace’s tale provides the opportunities to produce spectacle along with a spiritual anti-war/antiviolence message. The lead was perfect for Rudolph Valentino, Mathis’s first choice, who, along with his frequent costar, Nita Naldi could be sold as any ethnicity. (5) Like Naldi, Valentino was generally cast as a racial “other,” but faced an advantage as a male because his smoldering looks. Often used in combination: fair-complexioned characters, could be used to support Judeo-Christian values of self-sacrifice and spiritual reward. His striking good looks and athleticism made him the perfect action hero, but one who could be transformed into a softer compassionate man. Furthermore, Ben-Hur requires its sensuous hero to ultimately resist seduction. This behavior was important to Valentino’s character throughout Blood and Sand (1921), another Mathis script. Due to contract difficulties, however, Valentino was unavailable (Leider, 237). As Jane Gaines states, in understanding filmmakers, scholars should pay as much attention to the use of genre as to biography (98). With Ben-Hur, Mathis was working in familiar melodramatic territory. To David Mayer, even Judah Ben-Hur is a typical melodramatic character, a mere shell to be manipulated according to the omniscient. Its spectacular plot includes characters who, though often missing and presumed dead, or having no knowledge of their past connections, and despite being separated by hundreds of miles at a time of poor transportation, keep meeting each other at exactly the right times in order to resolve their conflicts or achieve their goals. This world is one in which order exists; characters simply need to find it. The opening of Mathis’s Ben-Hur script is concerned with setting the stage for the film’s premiere as it refers to a “specially designed curtain disclosing a dark stage.” (6) Then, in a device that might typically be associated with the avant-garde, Mathis introduces her major motif through the projector’s beam, God-like and spiritual, enlightening stage and screen. This emphasis on light is present throughout the screenplay in scenes where Mathis makes a point of making sure that an image of the sun, moon, or stars are available in the shot. (7) In the final scene, the projector’s beam sent out onto the screen at the start of the performance is reversed and sent back towards the audience (p. 513; sc. 1722). Mathis writes, “Malluch [Simonides’s servant] arrives with Esther [Simonides’s daughter]. [Everyone] turn[s] and kneel[s] as the light, similar to the effect of the Star of Bethlehem, in the Gospels Star of Bethlehem, name given to the luminous celestial object rising in the sky that, as related in the Gospel of Matthew, led the Wise Men of the East to the manger in Bethlehem where Jesus was born. , moves towards the camera.” The importance of the light is developed in the opening scenes through angels and stars that appear to the wise men who will seek Jesus at his birth. Mathis begins by going back to the Old Testament with a scene of the prophet Isaiah on a mountain. The four best known in Christian tradition are Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, and Uriel. Michael appears to him in a ray of light that slowly shines down from heaven. Then, the angels Jophiel and Raphael show the wise men Balthazar and Melchior stars that first appear in the water below them and then rise into the sky. The angel Uriel, who appears to the wise man Caspar, holds a book which dissolves into a star. In each case, therefore, the angels and stars either literally or figuratively awaken men and lift their eyes to the heavens. The continual gaze towards the heavens and the lights in the sky signify an awakened people anticipating the light that will lift their oppression. Mathis associates the lights from above and below with Christ at the stable in Bethlehem (p. 39; sc. 137-39). She first describes a great rock that conceals the place with light coming from below (sc. 137). The light grows bright from above and comes to meet it. This creates a rainbow to be shown through double exposure over the cave, eliminating part of it and letting in the light from above. Appropriately, the following title quotes the Old Testament Book of Isaiah – an Old Testament book consisting of Isaiah’s prophecies Isaiah Old Testament – the collection of books comprising the sacred scripture of the Hebrews and recording their history as the chosen people; the first half of the Christian : “The people that walk in darkness the mist” darkly have seen a great light. They that dwell in the land of the Shadow of Death; upon them hath the light shined” (sc. 139). Mathis’s opening scenes thus reveal wise men leaving their old traditions in search of a new, and unifying, answer, an apt idea for the post-war era. Balthazar is introduced speaking to his Egyptian countrymen about monotheism religion, a belief in one personal god. In practice, monotheistic religion tends to stress the existence of one personal god that unifies the universe. . Feeling rejected, he walks to an ancient shrine created by the Pharaohs; a light that appears in the water surrounding the shrine forms into a star. Melchior is introduced in front of an ancient rock-hewn shrine built to the Hindu God Brahma, and Caspar is found asleep in front of a Greek temples differed from their Roman counterparts in that the colonnade formed a peristyle around the whole structure, rather than merely a porch at the front; and also in that the Greek temple was not raised above ground level on a high podium, but rather stairs on either end. after a pan down from Olympus. Mathis states the explicit meaning of this motif in her scene of the Palm Sunday marchers, “whose Leader put hope into the hearts of men as a new light to the world,” superceding all previous lights (p. 495; sc. 1642). In the following scene (p, 495; sc, 1643), this light is now originating from the center of the crowd rather than the sky. The film was to end, as stated, with the light encompassing the screen and beaming out towards the audience, thus completing the circular pattern initiated at the start of the script and representing perhaps the only example ever of the projector’s beam being incorporated into a film’s narrative. On another level, Mathis’s suggestion could be that the light that will unify the nations is not only a spiritual light, but the light of the cinema, for which her screenplay is a primary example. D. W. Griffith, among many others, possessed this kind of deep belief in the powers of the cinema at the time to show the truth and provide a new way of seeing. It does not seem like a great stretch to think that June Mathis would have shared such a belief. Beginning the narrative with the prophet Isaiah and ending on Palm Sunday rather than including the crucifixion and its aftermath fulfills several purposes for Mathis. It conforms to the narrative pattern of The Odyssey, emphasizing the long journey home of a young man torn away from his family, the challenges he must face along the way, and his eventual reunion with his loved ones, and it places greater emphasis on a new light to guide humanity rather than on the birth of Christianity. These were crucial post-war themes that Wallace’s work could be used to express. Wallace was mainly interested in asserting the superiority of Christianity and telling the unknown story of its creation from the birth of Christ through its establishment by its followers. Mathis was more interested in providing a reassuring message of order restored with the promise of a bright future through spiritual, non-violent values and the art of cinema. Mathis’s use of angels suggests both her research and an alternative vision of the work. Whether or not she specifically had this knowledge or how she came about it is unknown. But Jophiel and Uriel in particular are obscure figures and their similarity and relevance suggest they were not selected randomly, even though very few viewers would understand these associations. (8) But despite these references and the presence of events from the Bible in the life of Jesus, Mathis’s work provides evidence of a greater desire for religious tolerance and cooperation than promoting Christianity, which again would be an important unifying theme in a post-war world. Mathis’s works from the early Twenties, such as The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Blood and Sand, The Young Rajah (1922), The Day of Faith (1923), A Trip to Paradise (1921), and Hearts are Trumps (1921), consistently used iconography from and references to Christianity, Hinduism, mythology, and mysticism to present themes of spiritual guidance. (9) The chariot race in Ben-Hur provided an opportunity for Mathis to include references to several spiritual traditions. Shots of the crowd show Arabs and Jews separately but united in their support for Ben-Hur and hatred of Rome. As Messala cheats by using his whip on Ben-Hur’s horses late in the race, their owner, Sheik Ilderim, cries from the stands, “May Allah strike thee as thou hast my desert beauties!” (p. 358; sc. 1160). Shortly thereafter, his prayer is answered as Messala experiences his crippling accident. At the same time, as Ben-Hur realizes his impending into his eyes. God has answered his prayer. His score is settled with his enemy” (p. 361; sc. 1173). Characteristically, Mathis follows the race with a title blending mythic determinism with these references to Islam and Judeo-Christianity: “The weaver sits weaving, and as the shuttle flies the cloth increases; the figure grows, and the dreams develop! Of such is the fabric of life” (p. 367; sc. 1196). Mathis’s screenplay unifies these spiritual themes through the motif of light which first comes from the projector and hits the screen at the beginning of the performance, gathers into the star of Bethlehem, and shines back out at the audience at the conclusion. Finally, Mathis’s work shows that she was not only seeking to enlighten her audience spiritually but also socially. When Mathis worked in vaudeville from 1901-1914, it was a haven for the homosexual community. (10) For her last four years on the stage, she was with the extremely popular (and gay) female impersonator Julian Eltinge. In her screenwriting career, she worked for several years with actress Alia Nazimova, who was very active in Hollywood’s lesbian society. Mathis was familiar with alternative lifestyles and worked depictions of sexual permissiveness and wanton behavior into many of her films. This material challenged contemporary social propriety and suggested another area for greater openness in the post-war era. (11) BenHur includes a scene of a Roman party prior to the chariot race that Mathis elaborated on beyond Lew Wallace’s version. Wallace’s passage stated, “from the floor where he had fallen, a youth was brought forward, so effeminately beautiful he might have passed for the drinking-god himself–only the crown would have dropped from his head, and the thyrsus from his hand” (235-36). Messala pays homage to the boy as a representative of Bacchus, and Wallace finishes the chapter with “There was a shout that set the floor to quaking, and the grim Atlantis . By contrast, Mathis’s version reads,
Just at this point a huge dark-skinned slave, bronzed all over to reflect the light and to make him a thing of beauty, enters, bearing upon his back a white boy, who has been painted silver. He is nude but for a jeweled clout, and wearing a wierd [sic] headdress, with cymbals in his hands; he is carried to the table where he starts to dance. This relieves the tenseness of the situation. The Romans sink back upon their couches, and start to sip their wine, and look toward the dancer with interest. Messala still sits, a trifle serious; and after a moment disperses the thought, and proceeds to join in the revelry. (p. 320; sc. 1023).
Mathis’s more specific description of male nudity and homoerotic elements suggests she intended these to be noticed, and she knew that not everyone in the audience would condemn these actions. MATHIS’S STRUGGLES AND THE COMPLETED FILM While my argument is that June Mathis’s work on Ben-Hur reveals her talent and knowledge of filmmaking, her vision for this film, and much about the filmmaking industry at the time, I am not asserting that her script represents a great piece of writing. I believe it does reveal that she was a skillful professional and helps explain why her influence in Hollywood was great throughout much of the Twenties. But, criticisms of her work are easy to find and have various degrees of merit. Sometimes, they may be more indicative of attitudes towards her as an influential woman struggling to achieve her goals within a male-dominated system than of the quality of what she actually wrote. Abraham Erlanger valued Mathis’s BenHur script, but others at the time did not. One of the first directors offered Ben-Hur was King Vidor, who turned it down after reading the script (although which draft is not known), which, he said, reminded him of the simple film version (apparently the Kalem) he had seen as a child (King Vidor Collection). But he also wrote that the final (MGM) production contained the same faults. Considering the outstanding quality of Vidor’s silent films (The Big Parade , La Boheme , The Crowd ), his Ben-Hur may very well have been more creative than either the Mathis or the completed 1925 production. As for MGM director Fred Niblo, on 24 May 1924, he wrote to Louis B. Mayer that the script seems to not have paid attention to the opening and conclusion of Mathis’s script in comparison with the novel. The bulk of the screenplay follows the novel faithfully, and perhaps Niblo had little time to notice the differences in Mathis’s version as he rushed to rescue the floundering project. The final word on Mathis’s script had already been stated in the telegram from producer Joseph Schenck to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Chief Executive Officer. The highest individual in command of an organization. Typically the president of the company, the CEO reports to the Chairman of the Board Marcus Loew (May 7, 1870–September 5, 1927). He noted that Mathis had approved the script for Greed, which was far too long, as was her work on Ben-Hur. Loew followed Schenck’s advice and fired Mathis, director Charles Brabin, lead George Walsh (both selected by her), and many others who had been involved with the production. Niblo’s comments on Mathis’s script and the film he ultimately produced clearly show that the new production team had a much different vision of the project. But while Mathis’s script is lengthy, she had consciously constructed it that way in order to preserve her vision of the work and cut off any protests over how she wanted it shot. Thus, she was also anticipating saving time in the filming and editing. In her 26 January 1924, “Cutting Notes on Ben-Hur” telegram to Goldwyn Vice-President Abraham Lehr, Mathis wrote, “I did not attempt to cut on this until I had seen Mr. Erlanger as he had okayed the other continuity version, and I did not wish to have the Goldwyn people run into legal complications until I have seen him and discussed it, with the logical explanations, of which I think I can convince him.” Therefore, Mathis was already anticipating cutting the script “by at least 300 scenes,” as a telegram from Goldwyn Vice-President Edward Bowes (b. 14 June 1874, San Francisco; d. 14 June 1946, Rumson, New Jersey) was an American radio personality of the 1930s and 40s whose Major Bowes’ Amateur Hour was the best-known amateur talent show in radio during its eighteen-year (1934-1952) run on NBC and CBS. on 30 January promised (“Ben Hur’). But she also believed the length would give her some leverage through Erlanger over director Charles Brabin. She notes in her telegram:
This picture is heavily scene numbered, but I have played safe with numbers and scenes, knowing Mr. Brabin’s dislike to taking close-ups, and feeling that once the script is okayed by Mr. Erlanger, he will agree to take close-ups without discussion which would take up time, and of course time is the most important item I can name.The “scenes” by which silent film scripts were organized were very flexible. They could include as little as a shot or as much as a lengthy interaction between two or more characters. Mathis, therefore, could have made her script appear much shorter by combining a number of close-ups spread across several scenes into one scene. However, by not doing so, she believed that having Erlanger’s approval of the script would force Brabin to take the close-ups and thus keep the production moving. It would also give the film the quicker pace she wanted. Some of the cuts she was considering would have reflected her “Concern with too many CUs of long-robed men in early part dragging.” She then suggests to “Cut scenes 1080 to 1107 of this sequence after Grove of Daphne with chariot race–cutting a lot of action and footage, and getting straight to chariot race, utilizing one title in Simonides’ stall [his area for watching the race] that is in the previous sequence. This will eliminate big expense.” Mathis’s concerns for the pacing of the film and saving time and money during the production are evident again at the end of her telegram:
All these same close-ups and numbers will help us to eliminate footage later on, as they are written for cutting and not for directorial drama, … and with a picture of this character, one must stop long walks and slowness of movement, or else we will have a very slow moving thing. This can only be eliminated in photographing many scenes, so that action can be broken up in cutting. And when all is said and done, even though the tempo of the scene action may be slow, the picture will move and not be draggy. There are also many close-ups which may not be used in the final cutting, and of course, many of them will be taken all in one, without extra camera set-ups. This will take film but not extra time, and will form a sort of insurance.Mathis, therefore, shows that her lengthy script was not a result of merely following the novel as closely as possible, but of planning to obtain as many dose-ups as possible to save time during the filming and provide great flexibility during the editing. Mathis was to discover, however, that she had no leverage with her chosen director, Charles Brabin. He had sailed for Rome on 29 September 1923. When Mathis finally arrived the following February, “she was informed that under no circumstances would she be permitted to interfere with Mr. Brabin on the set” (Brownlow 393). Niblo states in a 21 July 1924 letter to Louis B. Mayer, “Brabin and Mathis got at swords points the moment they both arrived here, with the result there were two factions, the Brabin crowd and the Mathis crowd, pulling against each other. From what I hear they both ran wild in extravagance. They were weeks and weeks in North Africa making a few feet of desert stuff that took up thirty or forty reels of film that cannot be used.” Francis X. Bushman, who played Messala, later recalled, Charlie Brabin was a lovely fellow, and we were very dear friends…. He was the storyteller superb–he could describe the most marvelous picture in the most beautiful language, but he’d never do it. I was with him at Anzio for several days, and all the time he was telling stories and drinking wine. I didn’t realize that out on the beach he had hundreds of extras roasting and doing nothing. (Brownlow, 393). It’s no wonder that Brabin never got to the close-ups Mathis was counting on. During his time on the job, Brabin shot over 300,000 feet of film. But it was almost completely worthless. On 10 September 1924, Mayer cabled Niblo, “Saw Brabin stuff tonight certainly congratulate you on wisdom discarding every inch.” Making the film closer to Hollywood would have also helped control the project. Throughout the Teens, however, the idea that any film of Ben-Hur had to be made in Italy seemed to become almost a cultural imperative. (12) The successful production of The Eternal City in Italy at that time may have also motivated the idea of filming there. The Goldwyn company sent vice-presidents J. J. Cohn and Edward Bowes to Italy to decide on the practicability of the project. Ultimately, they decided on it and Erlanger agreed (“Ben-Hur”). Mathis may have also played an important role in this decision. But her script indicates a great amount of material that could have been filmed at the studio, and it is not hard to imagine that the entire production could have been planned for domestic completion right from the start. For example, for a scene in the galley, Mathis writes, “This is going to be very difficult to break up as shooting arrangement of the actual galley is somewhat different from the stage set” (p. 111; sc. 385). Later, for the start of the chariot race, she writes, “FADE IN FULL SHOT OF THE ARENA Shooting in the direction of the gateway, and taking in the area which is masked in the pillars, to form a composition which will give the effect of a huge arena, and yet at the same time not mean so much building” (p. 338; sc. 1080). For the first shot of the massive Joppa Gate, Mathis writes, “Worked if possible with glass or miniature top.” On 20 January 1923, Carey Wilson sent Mathis a memo about a possible location “thirty-seven miles from San Diego. Wilson also let her know where she could get further information and photos of the location. It seems, therefore, that Mathis was strongly considering filming in and near the studio, which would have been a very wise move. In other areas, such as obtaining costumes and wigs, Mathis’s work was not effective of Mathis’s casting. In his 20 May 1924 letter to Mayer, he states, “The cast to me, with perhaps one exception, is the most uninteresting and colorless that I have ever seen in a big picture. There is not one outstanding personality. They were all selected by Miss Mathis with the same judgment that she selected George Walsh. I believe Ben Hur should be recast almost entirely.” Niblo, however, did not get his wish. Three of Mathis’s choices for principal roles, Bushman, Nigel deBrulier (Simonides), and Carmel Myers (Iras), remained in the film. at his’s choice of George Walsh for Ben-Hur was the most controversial. The announcement of his selection was met with great indifference. Motion Picture Classic showed their ambivalence when they published the news on a single page featuring two pictures of Walsh in Roman costume and a brief paragraph in very small type which read, “What magic Miss Mathis used we do not know, but they finally decided to let George do it. Perhaps these poses helped their decision. He looks like Ben Hut anyway” (“Final Choice”). Whether or not Walsh could have carried the role with the help of a talented director and efficient production will never be known. He later said, “[June Mathis] just felt I was the ideal one. She had picked Valentino for The Four Horsemen, against the objections of a lot of big shots. But she was absolutely right on that one, and she figured she was the same with Ben-Hur” (Slide). But the MGM people did not care for him. A 23 September 1924 letter to Niblo from either Mayer or Irving Thalberg states, “As for George Walsh–well, the truth is, when I saw the reels, we were going to release it in bond, so that we would not have to pay the duty, but I felt it was too valuable a record to let it slip out of our hands, and we paid the duty and took it in” (Letter). This account conflicts with Walsh’s, who claimed to never have worked a minute on the film. He also claimed that MGM treated him terribly: “They had [Ramon] Novarro under contract, so they decided that he was their own boy…. I was the last to find it out. I was handled very, very cruel” Final responsibility for the disastrous Goldwyn production of Ben-Hur cannot be given to any individual. Similarly, the production of June Mathis’s script for Ben-Hur with George Walsh in the title role would not necessarily have been successful or notable. But it does seem that after two years of work, Mathis tried for as long as possible to have some influence over the film. On 21 July 1924, Bess Meredyth, Carey Wilson’s assistant on the MGM script, wrote to Louis B. Mayer from Rome, “Miss Mathis leaves tomorrow and we’ll all breathe more freely I think.” When she arrived home, Mathis told the New York Morning Telegraph may refer to:
The idea that June Mathis did have a specific vision of Ben-Hur, one which emphasized spiritual and anti-war values and the art of cinema as unifying forces, seems clear from comparing her script with the Lew Wallace novel and the 1925 MGM film. Carey Wilson’s script for the MGM production was greatly condensed from the Mathis version. The opening material including all of the angels, the emphasis on light including the projector’s beam, and the inclusion of various spiritual traditions during the chariot race are all missing. Wilson and Niblo substantially reduced the roles of most of the supporting characters such as Iras, the powerful Sheik Ilderim, Balthazar, the Roman Arrius, who adopts Ben-Hur, and the Hur servants Simonides and Amrah. By contrast, they introduce Esther much earlier than Mathis did and have the young Ben-Hur meet her right from the start. They also increase her importance by having her discover that Ben-Hur’s mother and sister, imprisoned by the Romans early in the film, are still alive at the end, but suffering from leprosy or Hansen’s disease (hăn`sənz), chronic, mildly infectious malady capable of producing, when untreated, various deformities and disfigurements. . It is she who goes to find them and bring them to Christ for healing rather than the servant Amrah, as in the novel and Mathis version. Esther’s searching for mother and Tirzah at the end, and then braving the crowd, which had every right to stone them, in order to bring them to Christ, makes her a stronger character than in Mathis’s version, where she only has to endure Judah’s infatuation with Iras until he finally comes to his senses. Mathis’s Esther conformed to the model of the melodramatic heroine who triumphed through suffering while the Wilson version takes a step towards the modern woman who goes after what she wants. Jesus is also much more important in the Wilson-Niblo version. In the second half of the film, after the chariot race, Wilson and Niblo draw heavily on Christ’s sayings in the New Testament for their intertitles and show him teaching and performing miracles. Ben-Hur continues ready to lead an army in revolt until almost the end of the film. As Jesus bears his cross to Calvary, Judah calls out, asking if he should lead his army forward. A voice comes to Ben-Hur saying that the Savior did not come to condemn but to bring peace. In spite of its reduced emphasis on Esther and Jesus, however, Mathis’s version places a far greater importance on the feminine Victorian values of spirituality than Wilson’s. The MGM film concludes with the crucifixion and the earthquake that the Bible says occurred when Christ died, causing the Temple to collapse and kill several people nearby. In the final shot, Ben-Hur stands on the patio of his palace, his mother and sister in his arms, filling his father’s lost place as lord of his estate. He tells them Jesus “is not dead. He will live forever in the hearts of men.” The crosses of Calvary, still visible in the background, might be seen as blessing this picture of restored patriarchy and material riches. After returning from Italy, June Mathis moved to First National Pictures, re-uniting with her former boss at Metro, Richard Rowland (“June Mathis Signs”). In December, she married a cameraman she had hired for Ben-Hur, Sylvano Balboni, and helped promote him to director in 1926 (St. Johns). In 1925, she helped Collen Moore who became Hollywood’s top female box-office attraction, writing for her the comedies Sally, The Desert flower may refer to:
Desert Flower and We Moderns. She also produced the screenplay for one of Corinne Griffith’s best films, the comedy Classified. In 1926, fans voted Mathis the third most influential woman in film history, finishing only behind Mary Pickford and Norma Talmadge (Spargo). That achievement is a testimony to the prominence of someone who was neither an actress nor a director and who, over the years, has had her memory erased from film histories. In this regard, Mathis shared the fate of many other talented women in American silent film who were almost completely forgotten for the next sixty years or more. Some, such as writer/directors Marion Fairfax, Ida May Park, and Julia Crawford Ivers have yet to receive any critical attention, (13) due in part to the patriarchal bias of the male film critics who dominated the field for most of the twentieth century. From the time of her death until the 1980s, Georges Sadoul’s erroneous comment that Mathis butchered Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1925) was practically the only mention of her in film scholarship. In reality, Mathis strongly supported Stroheim and her editorial suggestions were minimal and precise. (14) But Sadoul’s remark is still having an impact even on a feminist scholar like Mahar, who repeats his charge. Part of the responsibility for the disappearance of women artists from silent film history, however, also comes from their own attitudes. Despite their professional success, their attacks on patriarchy in their works, and their depictions of strong and righteous women, they frequently saw themselves in supporting roles. Mathis herself published a piece in 1921, in which she argued that in the ideal filmmaking situation a male director works with a female writer, or a male writer with a feminine sensibility (“Harmony”). Male/female creative “teams” were prominent during the silent era. (15) But some men blatantly exploited their female partners. Anita Loos was an acclaimed American screenwriter, playwright and author. She is considered one of the most renowned screenwriters of her era alongside June Mathis and Frances Marion who wrote many Fairbanks scripts and the novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, spent most of her life dedicated to her husband and collaborator John Emerson who was the 17th Mayor of Calgary, Alberta. Her close niece Mary Anita Loos refers to Emerson as “[t]he man who had added his name to her work, had taken her wealth, and had in every way undermined her” (Beauchamp, 260). But when asked why she stood by him, she blamed her great success with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes for ruining him (Beauchamp, 182). Whatever the reasons for their obscurity, June Mathis and the other women writers of the silent film era need to have their work critically examined not simply to bring them recognition but also to produce a better understanding of women’s perspectives and our cultural heritage. June Mathis’s work on Ben-Hur, understood within the context of her oeuvre, reveals that she was a woman of talent and vision. Hers would have been a Ben-Hur that promoted enlightenment and female influence rather than violent spectacle and a restored patriarchy. These ideas are as valuable today as they were in her time.