Phantom Lady: Hollywood Producer Joan Harrison, the Forgotten Woman Behind Hitchcock (2020)
Phantom Lady: Hollywood Producer Joan Harrison, the Forgotten Woman Behind Hitchcock (2020) Christina Lane
Chicago Review Press
Hardcover, 384 pages
(includes photos, filmography, notes, selected bibliography, index)
I wish someone would’ve thought to interview audience members as they departed theaters after watching any Alfred Hitchcock movies from Jamaica Inn (1939) to Saboteur (1942), covering five films*. Such an interviewer might ask, “Can you tell me, who is Joan Harrison?” Would people recognize the name, the fact that she co-wrote those films? (Harrison also worked uncredited on other Hitchcock films**.)
You could apply the same question to any fan of the television show Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-1962), which Harrison produced. You might also ask about any number of other movies and TV shows she co-wrote or produced. The point is, not enough people - then or now - have given Joan Harrison the recognition and credit she deserves. Christina Lane’s new book Phantom Lady: Hollywood Producer Joan Harrison, the Forgotten Woman Behind Hitchcock corrects that oversight with a revealing look at a major talent as well as a fascinating person, and how she navigated the ins and outs of both the movie and television industries.
It’s worth noting that we should not be too tied to the book’s subtitle. Yes, Harrison is the forgotten woman behind Hitchcock, but she also emerged from that shadow to stand firmly on her own. This is a story that’s needed to be told for decades.
Even before she met Hitchcock, Joan Harrison was a keen observer of life in the London suburb of Guildford, Surrey, where she grew up. Every observed moment of tension, turmoil, tragedy, and horror - especially those experienced by women - were filed away in a mind looking for an outlet to express them.
Harrison landed a secretarial job with Hitchcock at one of those magic moments in time, a crossroads promising a new career for Harrison and a change of direction for Hitchcock. After directing several films for British International Pictures, Hitchcock was growing frustrated with the studio’s insistence on churning out easy-to-consume movies rapidly, regardless of their quality. After reuniting with Michael Balcon (with whom he had worked during the silent era), Hitchcock was eager to focus on films with greater production values, movies that would attract audiences in America as well as in Great Britain. During the production of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), Harrison was able not only to observe Hitchcock at work, but also to meet a wide range of actors, writers, and artists, learning the ropes in the best way possible. And Hitchcock learned very quickly that Harrison was wasting her time in a secretarial position.
As Harrison’s story ideas and contributions began to be taken seriously, she soon found herself in a triumvirate with Hitchcock and his wife Alma. (The exploration of this trio and their work could’ve produced a fascinating volume on its own merits.) What exactly did Harrison bring to the table during these meetings? The idea that, in the lives of everyday women attempting to navigate their way through marriage, motherhood, and career responsibilities, lies something hidden: a boldness in the midst of fear and danger. Whether they realized it or not, audiences would see this idea played out even in the non-Hitchcock films Harrison worked on, such as Phantom Lady (1944), The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1945), They Won’t Believe Me (1947), Ride the Pink Horse (1947), and others.
Harrison was also drawn to controversial and provocative source material. Her battles with the Production Code, both with and without Hitchcock, are detailed here, some of them in ways that may surprise you. Yet, with each battle and every step along the way, Harrison was learning more and more about what audiences really wanted and how to give it to them.
Part of what some audiences wanted (even if they didn’t always recognize it) was equal representation. If women were being called to take on different roles during the war, why didn’t we see that reflected in the movies? With Phantom Lady, for example, Harrison allowed its female protagonist Carol “Kansas” Richman (Ella Raines) to become the detective, seeking to discover who really murdered her boss’s wife while he (Alan Curtis) sits helplessly in prison. This is no Nancy Drew adventure. Kansas uses a logic far different from what audiences had come to expect from hardboiled male detectives. She also provides a different focus, attitude, conviction, and methods in her quest for the truth. Just try to image a male detective trying to get information out of drummer Cliff Milburn (Elisha Cook, Jr.) as effectively as Kansas does in the film’s most famous scene.
Yet Harrison wasn’t working all the time. She had opportunities to pursue a few affairs of the heart (or just flings?) with stars like Clark Gable, and had a hand in helping shape the careers of Ella Raines and others. Harrison was about as far away politically from Robert Montgomery as you could get, yet they worked together on several projects, including the film noir Ride the Pink Horse. Harrison eventually ventured into marriage, but how did it turn out? And did she have more than a professional relationship with Hitchcock? I’ll leave that for you to discover as you read the book, yet know that author Lane refrains from sordid gossip and salaciousness. Phantom Lady is a very welcome volume that should find a home with any movie fan.
* Jamaica Inn (1939), Rebecca (1940), Foreign Correspondent (1940), Suspicion (1941), Saboteur (1942)
** Young and Innocent (1937), The Lady Vanishes (1938)
Photos: Chicago Review Press, Christina Lane, Newsday