To the film devotees who are aware of her, Joan Harrison was the beautiful blonde who was hired as director Alfred Hitchcock’s secretary in 1933, when she was only 26. Quickly proving to be the worst secretary he ever had, she was promoted to script reader and story editor, eventually winning an Academy Award nomination for co-writing the 1940 best-picture winner, Rebecca. Harrison struck out on her own to become one of the few female producers in the studio system of the 1940s, spending the next decade making noir films—including the 1944 genre favorite Phantom Lady—before rejoining Hitchcock to produce the television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.
In this version of the story, it was Hitchcock who made Harrison; when doing research for my book Phantom Lady: Hollywood Producer Joan Harrison, the Forgotten Woman Behind Hitchcock, I discovered that Harrison and Hitchcock were much closer to being creative equals. Early on in Hitchcock’s career—he was still a London-based director when they met—Harrison was already serving as both creative producer and line producer, managing the day-to-day.
Keys to the Hitchdom
As early as Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes and Jamaica Inn—both filmed between March 1938 and January 1939—Harrison was vital to every stage of the production process, from story selection, script development, casting, and scheduling to censorship battles, marketing, and audience previews. It was her job to ensure the “big picture,” and when it came to the small details she was indispensable. As he negotiated a possible move from the British film industry to America in the summer of 1938, Hitchcock insisted that Harrison accompany him. “Hitchcock says that this girl has worked with him for years and is invaluable to him in connection with his ‘peculiar system’ of writing, his shooting schedule, camera angles, etc.,” one agent noted in an internal memo.
Apart from his wife, Alma Reville, and daughter, Patricia, Harrison was the only person to accompany the director when he made his permanent move to Hollywood nine months later. To keep her by his side, Hitchcock secured Harrison a 20-week contract to work on his American debut, Rebecca, and extracted a guarantee from super-producer David O. Selznick that she would be attached to any future films.
“Hitchcock says that this girl … is invaluable to him in connection with his ‘peculiar system’ of writing.”
Collaborating with him on nearly a dozen films and, later, overseeing his television series, Harrison played a fundamental role in Hitchcock becoming Hitchcock—in shaping the director’s commercial brand and stylistic signature. Who can forget the dry and droll presence of the man she called “Hitchy” stepping into a silhouette of himself to the tune of “The Funeral March of a Marionette” on his TV show? To this day, no director has been better marketed to the public.
Harrison’s story teaches us the lesson, as relevant today as ever, that even when women are given credit, they are usually defined through the men with whom they work. For far too long, she has been seen as the apprentice who “liberated” herself from the great director, only to dutifully return to the fold. She has been treated as an addendum to the Hitchcock story. In truth, she was one of its authors.
When will we re-write the script and begin to define important men through the women who helped shape them?
Christina Lane’s Phantom Lady is out now from Chicago Review Press