There is a scene in the 1944 thriller, Phantom Lady, where a young woman walks on a dark city street. But she’s not alone; a man – a stranger – walks in her proximity.
Now, if you’re a woman who’s ever found herself walking alone at night while a man walks behind you, you know how hyperaware you become, whether justified or not.
Phantom Lady has a clever twist on this scenario. The scene begins at night, when the woman (Ella Raines) waits outside for unsuspecting bartender Andrew Tombes to finish his shift. Then she follows him throughout the city to his neighbourhood.
She’s stalking him.
Toombes is clearly unnerved, and he occasionally pauses, listening for the relentless click of her heels on the pavement.
It’s a tense scene of Don’t-Mess-With-Me female determination – especially for the 1940s – but, alas, it ends badly for all, a topic for another day.
Presenting (more or less) real women and their voices on screen was something for which Harrison lobbied all her professional life.
The British-born Harrison was the first woman to be nominated for two screenwriting Oscars in the same year (1941, for Foreign Correspondent and Rebecca).
But get this: She was one of three female producers at major studios in 1940s Hollywood, and these three women helped shape the style of film noir.
Also: When she signed with Universal Studios in 1945, she became the second-highest-paid producer on the lot.
Universal wasn’t the only major studio for which she worked, but it was the first one to offer her a producing role when she was Shopping Around the script for Phantom Lady.
The highly-publicized agreement with the studio was “to make mysteries ‘from the women’s angle’,” writes Harrison’s biographer, Christina Lane.
Harrison was, essentially, to become the Mistress of Suspense, a nod to her long and productive association with Alfred Hitchcock.
Here’s the thing. You can’t talk about Joan Harrison without talking about Alfred Hitchcock.
It was he who hired her as a secretary after he signed on with Gaumont-British Pictures in 1933. He taught her about making films, and she became his screenwriter, collaborator, and creative producer – alongside his wife, Alma Reville.
When Hitchcock signed a deal with David O. Selznick and moved to Hollywood in 1939, Harrison went too.
Despite this association, an online search of Harrison’s life displays somewhat misleading or dismissive biographical information. This is why a scholarly look at her life is necessary, which, happily, biographer Lane has recently published.
Phantom Lady: Hollywood Producer Joan Harrison, the Forgotten Woman Behind Hitchcock is the book we film fans didn’t know we needed.
Lane methodically examines Harrison’s life, especially her career in film and television, where, among other things, she was executive producer of Alfred Hitchcock Presents from 1955-1962.
Overall, Phantom Lady, the bio, is an engaging read. It’s an invaluable look at the filmmaking process, and we found ourselves actually taking notes.
Lane gives us the details we want when it comes to a woman battling in a male-dominated arena. For example, she tells us the number of times Harrison had to choose between a screenwriting or a producing credit, even though she worked as both.
The biographer also itemizes the number of projects that were kyboshed because studios didn’t share Harrison’s vision, or were given less-than-satisfactory endings, e.g. The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry.
While Lane discusses Harrison’s love life, she also explores her friendships with other Hollywood women, and her mentoring of young actresses such as Ella Raines and Jane Greer.
We highly recommend this book, especially if you have an interest in writing or producing films. Or maybe you’re simply interested in a woman who embodies the very definition of Determination – much like the main character of the film Phantom Lady.
Phantom Lady: Hollywood Producer Joan Harrison, the Forgotten Woman behind Hitchcock
By Christina Lane
Chicago Review Press