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Orange County Register (30/Aug/1994) - Film pioneer leaves legacy of first-rate filmmaking



Film pioneer leaves legacy of first-rate filmmaking

A film pioneer, unknown to most of the public but highly regarded in Hollywood during her prime, died this month.

At a time when women were systematically excluded from top moviemaking jobs other than screenwriting, editing and costume design, Joan Harrison was a successful producer of quality films from the late '30s onward.

Her career started in 1935, when the Oxford-and Sorbonne-educated young Englishwoman answered a London newspaper ad for a secretary placed by Alfred Hitchcock. The filmmaker, at work on "The 39 Steps" at the time, soon recognized her extraordinary abilities, and Harrison began contributing to script development and then co-writing screenplays (including "Jamaica Inn," "Rebecca" and "Suspicion").

In the mid-'40s, Harrison left Hitchcock's employ to work as a producer at Universal, where she supervised films remarkable for their intelligence and style. Starting with an early example of film noir, "Phantom Lady" (1944), she collaborated again with that film's director, Robert Siodmak on "Uncle Harry" (1945), a melodrama/murder yarn featuring fine performances from George Sanders and Geraldine Fitzgerald.

Among other projects were three films starring and directed by Robert Montgomery (including the Ben Hecht-Charles Lederer scripted "Ride the Pink Horse"), a first-rate thriller directed by Jacques Tourneur ("Circle of Danger") and "They Won't Believe Me," featuring Robert Young in the image-altering role of the villain.

It would be hard to overestimate this achievement. Universal was getting by on Abbott and Costello pictures at the time and was not in the business of "quality" filmmaking. Add the period's atmosphere of sexism — generally worse in Hollywood than in, say, the theater — and you get an idea of what Harrison was up against.

She recognized good material and knew how to assemble the talent that would get maximum effect from it. When she returned to Hitchcock's employ in the '50's, it was to produce his television show, "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," and so became responsible for one of the best drama series in television history.

She continued producing television shows in England but faded from public view after the '60s. But she has left us a substantial legacy of first-rate filmmaking and a wonderful example to women who would try to break into the producing game.