Harrison, Joan (c. 1908–1994)

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Harrison, Joan (c. 1908–1994)

British movie producer, screenwriter, and scenarist who worked for Alfred Hitchcock for several years. Born Joan Mary Harrison in Guildford, Surrey, England, on June 20, 1908; died on August 14, 1994, in London, England; daughter of Walter and Maelia (Muir) Harrison.

Joan Mary Harrison was born in Guildford, Surrey, England, on June 20, 1908, the daughter of Walter Harrison, a newspaper publisher, and Maelia Muir Harrison . Her father's success in publishing placed the family in moderately well-to-do society, and Harrison received a solid education in a private school in Kent. She studied literature, philosophy, languages, and political economy in preparation for taking her proper place in English society. With a year at the Sorbonne and a B.A. from St. Hugh's College at Oxford, Harrison had hoped for a position at one of her father's newspapers. Her parents objected to the idea, feeling this career was inappropriate for a young lady of her standing and urging her to marry and settle down. Harrison had other ideas and after several months of staying at home, she left to make her way in London.

For the next several years Harrison worked at a variety of jobs including copywriter at the London Press Exchange, freelancer for magazines, and secretary to several writers. In 1933, she had a stroke of luck when she interviewed for a secretarial position with movie director, Alfred Hitchcock. Later in her life, she admitted she was not a very good secretary, but she proved her worth, moving quickly from secretary to script reader.

Harrison experienced a turning point in her career in 1937 when she collaborated on the screen adaptation of The Girl Was Young. Her hard work paid off in 1939 when she received her first screen credit for work on the adaptation of Daphne du Maurier 's Jamaica Inn. In the spring of 1939, Harrison accompanied Hitchcock to Hollywood as an important member of his staff. During her time with Hitchcock, Harrison worked on du Maurier's Rebecca (1940), followed by Foreign Correspondent (1940), a film for which she wrote her first full script, Suspicion (1941), and Saboteur (1942). Harrison gleaned valuable experience from Hitchcock which she would draw on in the future.

A knowledgeable woman, aggressive and firm, Harrison was ready to move her career forward by 1941. She left Hitchcock to concentrate on screenwriting and for the next two years experienced a series of disappointments. Her first effort, a film originally designed for Charles Boyer, met with various setbacks and never materialized; her adaptation of The Sun Is My Undoing (1941) was badly handled during its transference to the screen and only vaguely resembled her work. Just as she was considering leaving freelance work, she encountered a mystery novel The Phantom Lady and was invited to write the script. At a time when mysteries and detective novels were the domain of men, this was a rare opportunity. Although initially reluctant because of her recent bad experiences, she presented Universal Studios with her ideas for the film and stood firm. The studio was impressed by her resolve and offered her the role of associate producer, a rare offer for a woman, which she quickly accepted.

Joan Harrison took her role as associate producer at Universal seriously. She worked closely with her directors and maintained contact with every department that had any responsibility for the film's production. She showed foresight, common sense, and a good sense of organization, taking each step of production in its proper order. She spent an unprecedented $60,000 on Franchot Tone, her star, "on the theory that unusual casting brings a different flavor to [the] picture." She then went for simplicity and naturalness in costumes and makeup. The Phantom Lady received mixed reviews. In praise of the film, critics wrote of Harrison's handling of emotions below the surface and her clever use of lighting and silence to build suspense. Others found the film tedious, with odd and disturbing effects.

Nevertheless, Harrison continued to move her career forward. She worked as associate producer on Dark Waters, a melodrama starring Merle Oberon originally published in the Saturday Evening Post and adapted by Harrison and Marian Cockrell . The movie received praise from The New York Times as a "killer diller of a thriller."

Throughout her long and successful career, Harrison worked on many pictures, including Shadow of a Doubt, Ride the Pink Horse (1947), and Circle of Danger (1951). Most of her work was on mysteries and dark thrillers, where she applied the lessons learned during her days with Hitchcock. An attractive woman, she was frequently asked why she remained behind the camera rather than in front. She responded that she was not an actress, that her job was "to make cops and robbers more exciting than Dorothy Lamour ."


The Day [New London, CT]. August 25, 1994.

Rothe, Anna, ed. Current Biography 1944. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1944.

Judith C. Reveal , freelance writer, Greensboro, Maryland

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