With the global pandemic keeping us all in our homes now is a great time to take up a book! I’d been hearing about Christina Lane’s biography on Hitchcock’s collaborator Joan Harrison for awhile. As Lane mentions, Harrison was a figure who generally merited a one-sentence mention in Hitchcock biographies at best and was completely excised at worst. Phantom Lady does a great job of not strictly telling Harrison’s story but, more importantly, how Harrison used her life experience to infuse film with more nuanced portrayals of women in a time where they were shaped by men. Skewing more heavily on film analysis than biography at times, Phantom Lady is truly a must-read for fans of film theory, particularly with regards to women.
Joan Harrison came from a writing family, her father running a regular newspaper in London. It’s said that Joan came to her father demanding a job but didn’t get it, kickstarting her journey towards Alfred Hitchcock. Lane’s text sets up Harrison’s family background and returns to it from time to time, but Phantom Lady doesn’t truly come into focus until Harrison meets Hitchcock. Lane doesn’t just explore Harrison’s own relationship to Hitchcock and his films, but how the Master of Suspense was already being guided by women, most specifically his wife Alma Reville. Reville has been cited now as a major influence on Hitchcock’s stories, a fact that went unrecognized at the time. But by positioning Reville alongside Harrison showcases a group of marginalized women who were on the fringes of shaping stories, even if their voices were silent.
Of course, it’s always hard to talk about Hitchcock and not mention what we know about his treatment of women, off the screen. But when it comes to Harrison so much is unknown. Lane says it’d be ridiculous to assume Hitchcock didn’t hit on Harrison, but she maintains the two never had an intimate relationship, a fact as undisputed in her eyes as the awareness that Harrison was more than a secretary. This is the first of many instances of Harrison’s life where we’re forced to rely on conjecture and it can be frustrating for biography readers who want stone cold facts. Much of Harrison’s personal life is muted with Lane positing that Harrison might have been gay. If you’re looking for more of a straightforward biography of Harrison’s life and death, you might find Phantom Lady wanting.
That being said, much of what Lane’s true focus is can be found in Harrison’s work which is infinitely fascinating. Starting with Hitchcock’s features like The Lady Vanishes (1938), Jamaica Inn (1939), and continuing with Rebecca (1940), the book looks at the touches Harrison put to the stories to give the female characters more depth. These would bear more fruit once Harrison struck out on her own, creating unique features like Phantom Lady (1944) or Ride the Pink Horse (1947), or the early female-led drama series Janet Dean, Registered Nurse (1954). All of Harrison’s films saw female characters display intelligence and sensitivity. Lane takes a laser focus towards analyzing the specific films Harrison worked on, deconstructing their use of characterization and plot to showcase why they’re so vital to cinema history.
It’s even more frustrating to read about the numerous projects Harrison couldn’t get made in Hollywood. Despite her being one of the only female producers working in the studio era of Hollywood, her femininity caused many of the men in power to underestimate her and, in many instances, take her movies away from her outright, recutting and assembling them into something that didn’t resemble her original feature. Her attempt to collaborate with Dorothy Arzner is especially hard to hear as it would have marked the first time a female directed worked with a female producer. Several other produced features of her were reconfigured in ways that are disheartening but, unfortunately, not surprising considering the times.
Phantom Lady is the reason I read biographies, to learn about people who history hasn’t found an interest in documenting. Joan Harrison’s life may be a bit murkier than you’d like, but her work is immortal and Christina Lane beautifully captures it.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.