Joan Harrison emerges from Hitchcock’s shadow in ‘Phantom Lady’

Film historian Christina Lane pays tribute to the trailblazing producer Joan Harrison, the woman behind Alfred Hitchcock.

Courtesy of Chicago Review Press
“Phantom Lady: Hollywood Producer Joan Harrison, the Forgotten Woman Behind Hitchcock” by Christina Lane, Chicago Review Press, 384 pp.

The barrier-breaking career of film and television producer-writer Joan Harrison is notable for its mix of good fortune and dogged persistence.

Lacking any connections to the film industry in the United States or her native England, Harrison found her way into the business through sheer happenstance: A friend showed her a newspaper ad for what turned out to be a secretarial job for legendary director Alfred Hitchcock. 

Harrison parlayed the job with Hitchcock – which, at first, involved such tasks as opening mail and answering the telephone – into work as a producer-writer on his most distinctive films of the late 1930s and early ’40s. Later she asserted her independence by producing her own series of memorable movies for other directors.

Harrison’s staying power in Hollywood can be attributed to her strong-mindedness in an industry that, then as now, seldom made opportunities readily or easily available to women behind the scenes. Despite the imprint she left on the films that bear her name, Harrison has never been the subject of a book-length biography, until now. Film scholar Christina Lane has written “Phantom Lady: Hollywood Producer Joan Harrison, the Forgotten Woman Behind Hitchcock” both as a tribute to Harrison and also as a testament to the large shadow cast by famous directors in Hollywood, especially if they are male.

While acknowledging Hitchcock and Harrison’s creative work together, Lane does not gloss over what can only be described as an at-times toxic work environment. Hitchcock could behave boorishly towards Harrison, notably during an incident in which he read off-color passages from James Joyce’s novel “Ulysses” with the intention of breaking through her seemingly steely demeanor. Lane makes no excuses, writing, “His orchestration served no apparent purpose but to provoke a one-sided emotional striptease, intended for his erotic gratification.”

Harrison was accustomed to overcoming obstacles placed in her path. Although born into a family that published a weekly newspaper, Harrison was discouraged when she expressed interest in newspaper work and she was also met with surprise when she announced her intention to go to college. Harrison persevered on the latter front – she attended Oxford and the Sorbonne – but found few professional outlets for her enthusiasm for storytelling, particularly stories that had an element of mystery. “All I’m after for twenty-four hours a day is a good story,” she said.

The position Harrison won based on that newspaper ad – secretary to Hitchcock, who was then best known for churning out such reliably unsettling entertainments as “The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog” (1927) – could hardly have sounded like a dream job, but, as a fan of the director’s movies, she recognized its possibilities.

And, in Harrison, Hitchcock had seized on a second woman collaborator on whom he would depend for help in assembling the puzzle pieces – script, casting, visual design – that made up his iconic films. Along with Harrison, Hitchcock also relied on the taste and talent of his wife (and only occasionally credited collaborator), Alma Reville. 

Although women in Hitchcock’s mature films are often frustratingly passive – think of the way Grace Kelly exists on the periphery of most of the action in his masterpiece “Rear Window” (1954) – the female characters in his films made with Harrison usually have depth and dimension. 

It’s an impressive list: Harrison received credit as a screenwriter on a shelfful of Hitchcock’s best films, including “Jamaica Inn” (1939), “Foreign Correspondent” (1940), and “Rebecca” (1940) – the latter two of which netted her Oscar nominations – but that job title somehow seems insufficient. A memo that made the rounds in the office of Hitchcock’s talent agent emphasized the nonpareil role of Harrison, described as “invaluable to him in connection with his ‘peculiar system’ of writing, his shooting schedule, camera angles, etc.”

In Lane’s artful telling, Harrison was a kind of cinematic utility player, responsible for reworking scenes to accommodate the last-minute casting of Madeleine Carroll in “The 39 Steps” (1935) and pressing producer David O. Selznick to allow her to bring out stronger, less meek qualities in the heroine in “Rebecca”; Harrison even lobbied for the casting of the headstrong Margaret Sullavan in the title role over Joan Fontaine, who ultimately starred.

Yet, despite the prominence of Hitchcock in this book, Lane does not dwell unduly on his role in Harrison’s life. Instead, Lane devotes chapters to the films Harrison produced outside of his shadow, including the boldly conceived and brilliantly executed film noirs “Phantom Lady” (1944), the source of the book’s title, and “Ride the Pink Horse” (1947). Although these movies are not as well known as her work with Hitchcock, Harrison broke serious ground with them. Actress Carol Lynley said, “But for Joan, I don’t think we would have had Gale Anne Hurd, Kathleen Kennedy, or Amy Pascal.”

In the late 1950s, Harrison again entered Hitchcock’s orbit thanks to her work producing the television series “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” Hitchcock may have been the star, but Harrison, as usual, was the one who shined. “The show was beautifully run,” said Norman Lloyd, also a producer on the series. “It was a dream, which is why it was seen as an honor to work for her.”

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