Wednesday, August 24, 2022

SW Reads! Phantom Lady: Hollywood Producer Joan Harrison, the Forgotten Woman Behind Hitchcock

Author:  Dr. Christina Lane
Year Released:  2020
Format:  Audio Book and Book

A while back I learned of Dr. Christina Lane's book, Phantom Lady:  Hollywood Producer Joan Harrison, the Forgotten Woman Behind Hitchcock, which ticked a lot of boxes.  Lane's subject matter covered an area with which I had some familiarity - 1940's and 50's Hollywood (I don't claim an encyclopedic knowledge, natch).  The focus of her exploration was a person I didn't know anything about, but whose work I actually knew.

A biography of British-born film writer and producer Joan Harrison, it turned out that I had seen - and very much enjoyed - films produced by Harrison, not least of which was the eponymous Phantom Lady.  As one would guess, Hollywood was not overrun by women in positions of management or executive decision making in the 1940's and 1950's, and so I was curious enough, but then Lane was also featured on TCM's Noir Alley series as a guest, discussing Harrison in conjunction with some of her films.  I was sold.

I won't account for why it took me so long to pick up the book, but I can say that as soon as I did, I blasted through the audio book version well outside of my usual commute-listening, adding in whatever downtime I had.  The book is not an academic exercise, it's a terrifically written biography that strives to uncover a woman pushed not just into the background of the Hitchcock story, but out of the frame of Hollywood lore and legend as a footnote - something Lane rightfully suggests occurred as the wrong eyes misunderstood Harrison's career and role, failing to check their preconceived notions of gender roles and slotting Harrison accordingly.

Lane's prose is snappy and sharp, supported by both what's clearly deep archival research as well as what interviews she could secure from individuals still living who remembered Harrison (Harrison passed in the mid-1990's).  Like the more entertaining historians, Lane knows this is a story she's telling, and as a film historian, she knows what setting a stage and entering in characters is supposed to look like, and how to build tension even as we know the results from the book jacket blurb.  

Nailing one of my personal issues with some non-fiction, the book contains a careful approach to producing evidence to support leaps of logic and does not just making assertions about what must have been in anyone's mind if there's not ample evidence.  Where there isn't, Lane puts options on the table for potential motivations and makes her argument for why.  But Harrison didn't leave an oral history or other direct primary materials that would have been used other than the records of the projects she worked on, leaving a certain distance between reader and Harrison that I think Lane handles well.

There's a respect for Hitchcock in the pages, but not the giddy worship of the director that infected film school when I passed through in the 1990's.  Lane's take feels clear-eyed and realistic, even as Hitch is a supporting character here.  Instead, we get Harrison's path from daughter of a newspaper owner to her spontaneous decision to apply with Hitchcock for office work to her learning the ropes, arriving in America, breaking out and making films unlike any others.  Harrison's work is examined, as is her personal life - with a tone that feels like inquiry rather than building a case to drive home a preconceived point.

A substantial portion of the book is rightfully dedicated to Harrison's heyday years as a producer and specifics about the movies in chronological order - the influences Harrison brought with her, the challenges of the films and the successes, including the relationships developed in the process.  For film nerds, especially if you've seen these pictures, it makes for breezy reading/ listening.

It's a remarkable life and career, one with an untold number of names passing through in professional and personal relationships, that reflects was a woman operating in a complicated system that kept most women at bay, but what it took for Harrison to come out on top with the successes she earned.  

The book was an absolute pleasure, and I can imagine it has broad appeal for fans of Hitch, mid-20th Century Hollywood, noiristas, and certainly those looking for multi-dimensional real-life figures.  

Y'all check this one out.

FYI:  Dr. Christina Lane is a graduate of the University of Texas and now serves as Professor of film studies in the Department of Cinematic Arts and Associate Dean of Graduate Studies at the University of Miami School of Communication.  Her website for her writing endeavors is here.

There's an excellent podcast interview of Dr. Lane by Rob Kelly from July 2022 at this link.  

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