Screenwriter and Producer. Nationality: British. Born: Guildford, Surrey, England, 20 June 1909. Education: The Sorbonne, Paris; Oxford University, B.A. Family: Married the writer Eric Ambler, 1958. Career: Secretary; 1935—began working as Alfred Hitchcock's secretary; 1939—first film as writer for Hitchcock, The Girl Was Young; accompanied Hitchcock to the United States; 1944—first film as producer, Phantom Lady; 1953–64—producer of the TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents; 1964—cofounder, Tarantula Productions. Died: 14 August 1994.
Films as Writer:
The Girl Was Young (Young and Innocent) (Hitchcock)
Jamaica Inn (Hitchcock)
Rebecca (Hitchcock); Foreign Correspondent (Hitchcock)
Dark Waters (de Toth)
Films as Producer:
Phantom Lady (Siodmak) (+ co-sc)
Uncle Harry (The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry) (Siodmak)
They Won't Believe Me (Pichel); Ride the Pink Horse (Montgomery)
Once More, My Darling (Montgomery)
Your Witness (Eye Witness) (Montgomery); Circle of Danger (Tourneur)
By HARRISON: article—
Studio Review, November 1950.
On HARRISON: articles—
Chaplin (Stockholm), December 1968.
Obituary, in Los Angeles Times, section A, 24 August 1994.
Obituary, in Boston Globe, 25 August 1994.
Obituary, in New York Times, section D, 25 August 1994.
Obituary, in Washington Post, section D, 25 August 1994.
Obituary, in Variety (New York), 29 August 1994.
Obituary, in Time, vol. 144, 5 September 1994.
Current Biography, vol. 55, October 1994.
Obituary, in Classic Images (Muscatine), October 1994.
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Those who think that there were no women producers in the old Hollywood studio system have perhaps never heard of the remarkable Joan Harrison. A wise woman who always made the most of her opportunities, the young Harrison took a job as secretary to Alfred Hitchcock, a reduction in salary and status from her former position in an advertising department of a London newspaper. ("I am probably the worst secretary Hitch ever had," she once told Modern Screen magazine.) Working for Hitchcock in the British film industry, she took her opportunity to invade every department, and learned all aspects of the business, so that when her opportunity to become a Hollywood producer came along, she was more than prepared. In her eight years with Hitchcock, she collaborated with him on several of his best screenplays: Rebecca, Foreign Correspondent, Suspicion, and Saboteur among them. Ultimately she returned to work with him as the producer of his acclaimed TV series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
Harrison's mark was made in various types of crime films, particularly those which featured a woman in jeopardy. She had always been interested in criminal cases, and had followed many of England's more colorful examples through the courts of London. (She married the famous spy genre author Eric Ambler.) Her first film away from Hitchcock in Hollywood, as writer and associate producer, was Dark Waters, directed by Andre de Toth. It established the Harrison style in that it was a story about a young woman (Merle Oberon) caught in a Gaslight situation, being driven mad by a group of false relatives. Harrison's first feature as full producer was the much respected low-budget film noir Phantom Lady, directed by Robert Siodmak, starring Ella Raines as a fearless secretary bent on proving her boss did not actually murder his wife. These two excellent small pictures illustrate what would always be true of Harrison's work: she was a totally competent producer capable of making stylish mystery films from the woman's angle. They also illustrate a handicap she was never able to overcome in terms of critical acceptance. Having learned her lessons well from Hitchcock, she seemed forever destined to remain in his shadow. In addition, her solo productions are almost all directed by men like de Toth and Siodmak, who, like Hitchcock, are well-known for a personal vision. Thus, it was not only difficult to identify what might be her touch, but no one seemed willing to try to do so. Perhaps the outstanding thing that can be said for Harrison is that the films she produced were often complimented for "being in the Hitchcock tradition." This meant that she had learned her lessons from the master well, and that she was capable of putting that stamp on her movies. All of Harrison's films have these qualities in common: excellent women characters, who are frequently intrepid in theirresponse to danger and death; a low-key, subtle suggestion of violence rather than overt blood and gore; and elegant production values, with handsome sets and modish costumes.
A thoughtful woman who always utilized what she had learned in her experience with Hitchcock, Harrison commented on what made an effective suspense thriller by saying, "There is a difference between violence and action. The two are not synonymous. This is a very important point to consider. Displayed violence, blow-by-blow account violence is irresponsible, unnecessary, and unworthy of creativity. Action, on the other hand, cannot be totally implied or merely suggested. For whodunits, no action is pretty bloody dull. Many persons equate in their minds action and violence. They speak of one when they mean the other. Each is an individual property, and suggested violence is much more interesting. I see no point in plunging a dagger in someone's chest and the viewer watching this unfold. One should see the dagger in the hand of the manipulator and then shift—the horror that results! This way is suspenseful and the audience gets involved."
Although her list of films is small, it displays subtle, tasteful suspense work in well-photographed, stylish films. It is also unique because few women achieved her status. Commenting on her unusual role as Hollywood's top female producer in the 1940s, Harrison remarked, "We women have to work twice as hard to be recognized in our own fields. But today there is more recognition of women's talents than ever before. Those women who want a career can certainly have one." The most obvious thing to say about Harrison's career is that what is remarkable about it is that it exists at all. Her work, however, is of a level of taste and intelligence that qualifies her as something more than an oddity or a footnote, and certainly has earned her the right to be seen separately from, if not equal to, Alfred Hitchcock.