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The Times (02/Sep/1994) - Obituary: Joan Harrison

(c) The Times (02/Sep/1994)

Obituary: Joan Harrison

Joan Harrison, one of the first women producers in Hollywood and long-time creative associate of Alfred Hitchcock, died in London on August 14 aged 83. She was born in Guildford in June 20, 1911.

Joan Harrison was unique among Alfred Hitchcock's professional associates behind the camera, in that she was the only one who approximated to the ideal of the "cool blonde" that he loved to deploy in front of the camera. She always said that when she first went to be interviewed by him for a secretarial job in 1935, she wore a hat because her mother told her it was essential for a meeting with such an important man. She had no feeling of whether she was doing well in his eyes for the first few minutes. Then he very politely asked her if she would mind taking her hat off, and shortly thereafter the job was hers.

Her delicate (but perhaps fundamentally steely) blonde good looks were, of course, not the only reason. Her father was editor of the Surrey Advertiser, and from early childhood she had always fancied for herself a career as a journalist. She had studied English literature at Oxford and French literature at the SorBonne, so her French was excellent. She was clearly well qualified, even over-qualified, to be a film director's secretary.

Nor did she remain just a secretary for very long. Hitchcock was beginning work on The Thirty Nine Steps, and after giving her a few days to become accustomed to the routines of the studio, he encouraged her to sit in on script conferences, not only to record them, but also to contribute ideas of her own. From then on she was involved in every aspect of Hitchcock's productions, working as his personal assistant and also becoming a close family friend, frequently going on holiday with Hitchcock, his wife Alma and their daughter Patricia. In 1939 she received her first formal credit as a writer on a Hitchcock film, Jamaica Inn, and when, shortly afterwards, Hitchcock went to Hollywood for the first time to direct Rebecca for Selznick, it was only natural that she would go along as part of the team.

Inevitably, when Hitchcock arrived in Hollywood with the glamorous Ms Harrison in tow, there was intense speculation about just how personal an assistant she was to him. The answer, according to all parties, seems to have been that there was intense affection and high professional regard between them, but nothing more. She was reputed, however, to have attracted as many admirers as anyone in front of the cameras at that time, perhaps most famously Clark Gable. On a professional level she continued to work with Hitchcock as a scriptwriter on three of his next four films, Foreign Correspondent (1940), Suspicion (1941) and Saboteur (1942) and was undoubtedly the associate whose story sense he trusted most after that of his own wife.

In 1942 Harrison felt that it was time she should strike out on her own and, with Hitchcock's slightly hesitant assent and ultimate best wishes, she went off to become an independent producer. Her first project was The Phantom Lady (1944), a very modest psychological thriller which was to become a classic film noir, directed by the German emigre Robert Siodmak and based on a story by William Irish (Cornell Woolrich) who was later to be a Hitchcock favourite and author of the story on which Rear Window was based. The great sucess, critical and commercial, of this shoestring production gave Harrison a firm basis for her subsequent activity as a producer, and a chance to show how much she had learnt from the years with Hitchcock.

One of the things she had learnt was to recognise valuable associates and stick to them. Her next film, Uncle Harry, was also a film noir, also directed by Siodmak. In 1947 she produced another very successful film noir, Ride The Pink Horse, which featured and was directed by Robert Montgomery, a big star but a relatively untried director. This combination worked so successfully that her two subsequent films, Once More My Darling (1949), a comedy, and Eye Witness, a thriller made in England, were both directed by Montgomery. Her last film as an independent producer, Circle Of Danger (1951), also made in England, was another thriller, this time directed by an old hand at film noir, Jacques Tourneur.

By now Hollywood was entering the television era, and Lew Wasserman, Hitchcock's agent and head of the powerful MCA, had the notion that "we ought to put Hitch on the air". The ham in Hitchcock was rapidly persuaded that he should mastermind a series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and personally introduce each episode on screen.

Clearly he needed to put together a new team, and in 1955 he lured Harrison back to be his associate producer for television, with prime responsibility for selecting the right kind of story material. It has been suggested that one of her lesser-known films, They Won't Believe Me (1947), played an important part in Hitchcock's decision, since it represented just the balance of suspense, irony and black humour which he wanted to characterise the new series. Certainly she had his total trust and, after the first season, became full producer on the series: a job she kept for nearly ten years.

During this time she was producer on 266 half-hour shows, and, in association with another long-time Hitchcock collaborator, Norman Lloyd, on 93 hour-long shows. She also produced in 1957-58 ten hour-long contributions by Hitchcock's company to a series called Suspicion, and working on one of them, The Eye Of Truth, she met the author of the original screenplay, the British thriller writer Eric Ambler.

Ambler was in Hollywood for the first time, with many tempting offers from film companies; his marriage was on the rocks, and shortly after his divorce came through in 1958 he and Harrison got married, with the Hitchcocks in attendance at their "secret" wedding and Harrison giving herself away. The Amblers continued to live in Hollywood, but he apparently did not find it professionally congenial and after having their home in Bel Air gutted in a bush fire in 1961 they both began to hanker after a return to England. With this in mind Harrison progressively reduced her involvement with the Hitchcock television series, finally severing it when the last series ended in 1965. Subsequently she lived quietly with her husband, mostly in Europe, where they settled by Lake Geneva early in 1969. In the late 1970s her health began to deteriorate, so they moved back to London in 1982.

Joan Harrison remains uniquely distinguished as a woman producer in Hollywood, even after the 1980s when women had actually held positions as the heads of studios. As a creative producer she placed a recognisable mark on all her work, involving primarily an impish, dark and off-beat sense of humour and a clear understanding of the close relationship between the giggle and the scream. This she no doubt refined under Hitchcock's tutelage, but then it (along with her platinum blonde hair) was what attracted his attention to her in the first place, and what made her finally his most intensive and most trusted collaborator.