She was one of the most influential women in the business of making moving pictures during the infancy of cinema. She was instrumental in launching one of the most storied careers in film. And, just as her professional fame was at its height, she suddenly and tragically died. June Mathis remains, to this day, a fascinating figure.
June Beulah Hughes was born in Leadville, Colorado, in January 1887; hers was a bona fide theatrical family, and her involvement in the industry began with acting and writing for the stage. By the way, Mathis was her stepfather’s surname, which she took immediately upon entering the cinema world. In 1918, she joined the Scenario crew at Metro: within a year, she was appointed chief of the studio’s script department, centering her energies on the Screen Classics division of Metro (which, at that time, was still an independent entity, not yet merged with Goldwyn Pictures, and Louis B. Mayer). In late 1919, Mathis conferred with renowned author Vicente Blasco Ibanez (1867-1928) in bringing his novel, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, to the screen: it was this film, in particular, that launched the supreme popularity of one of its stars, Rudolph Valentino. Mathis and Valentino would continue to work together on films through 1924 (including such classics as The Conquering Power, Camille, and The Young Rajah).
Mathis spent the better part of 1923 concentrating her efforts on a film called Greed, the Erich von Stroheim extravaganza. Her formidable task: edit the completed film from eighteen reels down to ten reels, and then re-write the script. This she did: and the film was a success.
The year 1924 was a momentous one for June, now the screen’s highest-paid female executive. In February, she sailed to Rome to aid in the filming of Ben-Hur (1926), then being directed by Charles Brabin (later to be taken over and completed by Fred Niblo): she served as a writer and on-location studio representative on this monumental film, which was re-made in 1959. In September 1924, Mathis was signed by First National Pictures; this association would only last a scant two years, after which she went free-lance for the balance of her career. In December 1924, June Mathis married director Silvano Balboni at the Mission of St. Cecilia, in Riverside, CA. The two remained married for the rest of her life.
In August 1926, Rudolph Valentino suddenly died at the age of 31. In the prime of his life, and the pinnacle of his stardom, he had thought little of his own mortality: thus, he had no final resting place. His good friend, and virtual discoverer, June Mathis, stepped in and donated one of the two crypts she and Balboni had purchased in the Great Mausoleum in Hollywood Memorial Park (now Hollywood Forever Cemetery). Little did she know that, less than a year later, she would rest beside her young friend.
June Mathis was universally regarded as an excellent writer, a most sought-after talent, and a female whose growth in the male-dominated arena of film was swift and certain. However, on July 26, 1927, Mathis and her mother went to see a performance of “The Squall” at the 48th Street Playhouse. During the live show, June suffered a heart attack: her scream of, “Mother, I’m dying!” interrupted the performance. She was only 40 years old. June Mathis was laid to rest in the crypt directly next to Valentino.
Only a handful of her films are extant, thus a comprehensive contemporary assessment of her career is challenging, at best. However, the fact that she was so intimately involved in some of the most important films of the silent era (The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse; Buster Keaton’s 1920 gem, The Saphead; Greed, and Ben-Hur), makes her a true legend in the history of cinema, and a talent whose great gifts were taken too early.