(Air Date: Week Of 9/7/94)
The career of Joan Harrison is forever linked with that of the great Alfred Hitchcock. The fact that she was, by any terms, a superb writer and a wonderful producer in her own right, is often overlooked by film historians. She began her long career as a secretary, &, by her own account, not a very good one at that. By 1939, she was writing the screenplays for Hitchcock's films (her 1939 screenplay of Daphne du Maurier's "Jamaica Inn" was the first) and she accompanied Sir Alfred to America when he was hired by David O. Selznick to make du Maurier's "Rebecca". Harrison wrote the screenplay for the classic film, which went on to win the Academy Award as Best Picture of 1940. More vintage Hitchcock projects followed: "Foreign Correspondent", "Suspicion" and "Saboteur".
By 1943, Harrison was ready to turn independent producer with a Cornell Woolrich film noir that is still highly regarded today. There are significant differences between "Phantom Lady" and the "wrong films" she had been making with Hitchcock. In "Phantom Lady', the wrong man is sent to prison and his secretary must find proof of his innocence. The secretary, strikingly played by Ella Raines, places herself in one threatening situation after another as her employer waits helplessly in prison. Hitchcock would have found some way to get the guy out, so they could solve the crime together and fall in love. But while "Phantom Lady" is filled with sexual tension, there are no real love scenes, nor, under Robert Siodmak's skillful direction, are any necessary.
Harrison, Siodmak and Raines also worked together on "Uncle Harry", another intriguingly offbeat noir entry, but Harrison was angered by the fact that the studio meddled with the original ending. Less well known, but very worth catching on home video is Andre De Toth's "Dark Waters". This wonderfully dark and atmospheric film noir vehicle, written and produced by Harrison, starred Merle Oberon and two "Phantom Lady" alumni, Franchot Tone and Elisha Cook. "Nocturne", a more conventional noir entry starring George Raft, benefited from tight plotting and the presence of many strong female suspects, including Lynn Bari. In "They Won't Believe Me", Robert Young played games of love & death with Rita Johnson, Susan Hayward and Jane Greer.
Harrison went on to produce films in England, including Jacques Tourneur's "Circle of Danger" with Ray Milland before returning to the Hitchcock fold to produce his long-running television series. As any Nick at Nite devotee will attest, the production values and careful attention to detail for these small screen installments far exceeded many of the theatrical ventures attempted during the same era. If the name Joan Harrison isn't exactly a household name except among die-hard film buffs, her body of work, at least, shows what one gifted woman was able to achieve in a world that is still resistant to women calling the shots .
Copyright 1994 Monica Sullivan
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