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The Guardian (06/Sep/1994) - Obituary: Joan Harrison

(c) The Guardian (06/Sep/1994)

Obituary: Joan Harrison

Feminists often have cause to criticise Alfred Hitchcock's films for their misogyny, but Hitch never failed to treat his wife, Alma Reville, and Joan Harrison, his "valuable ideas woman", as equals. How Harrison, who has died aged 85, became a top screenwriter and producer reads more like a Joan Crawford movie than a Hitchcock one.

Although the Guildford-born Joan Harrison was educated in classics and languages at Oxford and the Sorbonne, she started work at pounds 3 a week in a London dress shop, while learning shorthand and typing. In 1935, she landed the job of Hitchcock's secretary due to her fascination with crime. Because "I was probably the worst secretary Hitch ever had," she was rapidly promoted to reading scripts and making synopses. As Hitchcock hated to read, Harrison would feed him ideas orally.

She eventually got a screen-writing credit on Jamaica Inn (1939), Hitchcock's last British film, before going with him to America the following year to write the screenplay (with Robert E Sherwood) for Rebecca. Harrison continued to supply the "woman's angle" in the scripts for Foreign Correspondent (1940), co-written with Charles Bennett and the novelist James Hilton. In 1944, Harrison moved away from Hitchcock, writing the screenplay for Dark Waters, under the direction of Andre de Toth. This Gothic tale has much in common with Harrison's previous work for Hitchcock, focusing on a woman in jeopardy. In the same year, Universal Studios permitted her to produce Robert Siodmak's atmospheric "night city" picture, Phantom Lady. The first person Harrison employed was the art director to set the tone of the film, and she persuaded Alan Curtis to play the framed murderer without make-up because "a hero looks more heroic if he looks like a human being".

When Time Magazine asked the "blonde, pretty and chic" Harrison how she differed from other Hollywood producers, she replied: "I use my sex." Harrison's second production was Uncle Harry (1945), also directed by Siodmak, and featuring George Sanders as a meek poisoner, but she resigned from the studio when a cop-out ending - it was all a dream - was imposed by the front office.

After the box office failure of Circle Of Danger (1951), another British film with a Hollywood star (Ray Milland), Harrison retired stating that "we women have to work twice as hard to be recognised in this business," thus abandoning her ambition to produce "a film made entirely by women". Nevertherless, Hitchcock lured her back to produce his TV series from 1955 to 1963. In 1958, she married the spy story writer Eric Ambler.

Joan Harrison, born June 20, 1909; died August 14, 1994