This exchange really took place. At a dinner in his Beverley Hills home, Benedict Bogeaus, junkyard dealer-turned-movie producer, declared to his showbiz guests, “We have a woman ‘producer’. I hope it will not offend you.” He was referring to Joan Harrison, who was on board for one of his projects, Dark Waters, along with six male co-producers.
“What’s wrong with women producers?” his wife, Mimi Forsythe asked.
Bogeaus replied, “Nothing, dear, as long as they are producing children.”
It was 1944, and this is the kind of sexism women had to routinely put up with and it was much worse in Hollywood. And it is not much better today—there are still too few women in power in show business. But that is another story—Christina Lane’s book about Joan Harrison, that won the Mystery Writers of America’s 2021 Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Critical/Biographical work, tells of one plucky woman who crashed the all-male party, played the game their way and won.
Trained by Hitchcock
Phantom Lady Hollywood Producer Joan Harrison, The Forgotten Woman Behind Hitchcock, is the first book that recognises the legacy of one of Hollywood’s first female producers, skilled screenwriter (she was the first female screenwriter to be nominated for an Academy award and the first to be nominated twice in the same year for original and adapted screenplay) and maker of many careers. She was trained and groomed by Alfred Hitchcock, but she did achieve a lot on her own after stepping out of his giant shadow.
While Hitchcock’s name is listed among the legends of cinema, the woman who helped him reach there, first in her role as secretary and assistant, and then, as writer and creative partner, has disappeared into the mists of time. For that matter, so has Hitchcock’s wife Alma Reville, who wrote and edited many of his films. People just spout that cliché about a woman being behind every successful man, but seldom give that woman any real credit.
Joan Harrison belonged to a well-off family, was given the best education—at a time when women were not encouraged to go to college and hardly any careers were open to them, aside from teacher, secretary, salesgirl, nurse or governess. Joan strained at conventional expectations parents had of well-bred women—“ town-and-country marriage, a commuting husband, babies and four o’clock tea with the ladies auxiliary of the local sons of Eton”.
Dissuaded by dad
Her family owned a newspaper and she wanted to become a reporter, but was told by her father, “You can go to work if you like, but not in journalism. You’ll harden. You’ll turn ugly. You’ll become rough and tough and masculine. Besides, you will never be a success in a tough field like the newspaper business.”
She was wilting with boredom when a friend sent her the clipping of an ad that read “Wanted Young Lady,” placed by Gaumont-British Picture Corporation, a major film studio in Britain. Joan, rushed to catch a train to London, dressed in her stylish best (she later became known for her always impeccable fashion sense), wrangled her way to the front of a very long queue of hopeful young woman by lying about a sister having a baby, and came face to face with Alfred Hitchcock, a rising celebrity director of British cinema. He gave her one look—a sophisticated blonde—and hired her.
His fondness for blondes was in place even then, and here was one who had seen his earlier films, read crime novels and had actually sat through real court cases (thanks to an uncle who worked at the Old Bailey). He was delighted when they chatted over lunch and found in her a kindred spirit, equally obsessed by crime stories.
Partners in 'crime'
As it turned out, a secretary’s job did not suit her, the “answering phones, taking dictation, or typing up story conference notes,” but what she did have was an “uncanny sense” of what made a good story. Hitchcock could hire another secretary, but where would he find a perfect creative collaborator? Along with his wife Alma Reville, Joan would give shape to many of Hitchcock’s films as he went on to become the master of suspense. Plainly put, Christina Lane writes, “Alfred Hitchcock would not have become ‘Hitchcock’ without her.”
She was always seen with the Hitchcocks, working, socialising or holidaying, and from all accounts, she did not have an affair with the director, or, as women are often accused, “sleep her way to the top”. She did, however, have a string of romances (including Clark Gable on her list of conquests), before marrying, at age 51, Eric Ambler, known as the inventor of the modern-day spy thriller.
Joan was the first woman to become a full-fledged producer at a major studio. Lane writes, “If her story is singular, it is also representative of a wave of female power that was overtaking the industry, one that has been obscured by history. The classical studio era was a golden age for women, who enjoyed key positions as board members, agents, publicists, editors, designers, researchers, story editors, and, of course, screenwriters.”
J E Smyth, in his book Nobody’s Girl Friday: The Women Who Ran Hollywood, writes about Hollywood being a “generation or two ahead of the rest of the country in terms of gender equality and employment. But historians, critics, and the public have largely forgotten this era and persist in seeing the studio system as a man’s world.”
Surprisingly, it was after the women’s movement that females seem to have lost their power in Hollywood. During the years of the two World Wars, when there was a ‘shortage’ of men, women did the work that was in male domain, and baulked when they were told to get back to home and kitchen when the men returned.
Joan Harrison was responsible for tweaking the films (and later, TV series) she worked on, giving more importance to female characters. The heroines in her films were not simpering damsels, but fearless women who took charge, and in the case of the classic Phantom Lady (the first film she produced), saved the male lead from the gallows. She put the Joan Harrison stamp on all the films she was involved with, but was often uncredited for the screenplay.
She was a big supporter of the women’s liberation movement. Lane quotes her saying to an interviewer, “Facts are facts, and equal rights are one of them. It’s inevitable… Just remember, too, women wouldn’t have won if they hadn’t been militant. I myself would prefer to win the battle by other than militant ways, but it is not possible to do this—I say you better get militant.” Her unconventional streak extended to her relations with her Hollywood bosses. “More than twice, she stunned studio chiefs by resigning from a project rather than compromise her creative principles.”
Popular gossip columnist of the time, Hedda Hopper had once described her as a “golden-haired ball of fire with the temper of a tarantula, the purring persuasiveness of a female arch-angel, the capacity of work of a family of beavers, and the sex appeal of a number one glamour girl.”
She was, Lane notes, a female role model, who paved the way for generations of women that followed. At a time when domestic goddesses were idealised, Joan’s advice to women was “Be ambitious, work seven Mondays a week”.
The writer is a Mumbai-based columnist, critic and author