2014 marks both the 20th anniversary of Hollywood producer Joan Harrison’s death and the 70th anniversary of her first and most celebrated production Phantom Lady (1944). This blog reveals the parallels between the protean female producer and the resilient heroines in her mystery films, and asks what it might tell us about women’s roles in wartime Hollywood and beyond.
In an October 1945 Chicago Tribune article on Hollywood producer Joan Harrison titled “Glamour Galvanic,” noted film critic Hedda Hopper describes her as “a 33 year-old, golden-haired ball of fire with a temper of a tarantula, the purring persuasiveness of a female archangel, the capacity for work of a family of beavers, and the sex appeal of a No. 1 glamour girl.” Hopper’s characterization of “Hollywood’s most successful lady” as a hybrid creature—simultaneously aggressive spider woman and ethereal innocent, desirable pinup and desiring predator—reveals much of the simultaneous liberations and limitations facing women working in wartime and postwar Hollywood. In the immediate postwar context of October 1945 Harrison— a former protégé of Alfred Hitchcock who had worked her way up from his secretary in London in 1933 to his assistant and scriptwriter in Hollywood in the early 1940s— reflected on a career as Universal’s first female producer that had lasted only 18 months. In this time she had transformed from heroine to femme fatale in the eyes of Universal’s executives, as both her own and her onscreen alter-egos’ syntheses of multiple femininities and skills for masquerade became undesirable within the “boys’ club” of Hollywood following the war.
In mid-1943, Universal had appointed “Hitchcock alumna” Harrison to produce mystery films “from the woman’s angle.” As Barbara Berch of the New York Times explained, her gender and her experience with the “master of horror” put her in a unique position to bring a profitable female perspective to the burgeoning horror and mystery market. Harrison’s appointment is a clear example of Hollywood bringing in female expertise in order to target a newly realized female audience for horror and crime films during the war. These gendered shifts in wartime audiences and the resultant changes to Hollywood’s production strategies are discussed in my forthcoming monograph for Rutgers University Press, Phantom Ladies: Hollywood Horror and the Home Front, which, as you can see, takes its name from Harrison’s film. Harrison chose Cornell Woolrich’s (under the pseudonym William Irish) crime novel Phantom Lady (1942) as her first project, but significantly reconstructed the source material to privilege a female protagonist’s point of view. In the novel the secretary Carol “Kansas” Richman is a marginal figure—only the suspect’s girlfriend, not his work colleague. In the film, however, she takes on the traditionally male investigator’s role. Like Harrison, Kansas transcends her role as secretary to excel in the perceived male world of mystery and terror because of, rather than in spite of, her gender.
In Phantom Lady, Kansas (Ella Raines) swaps secretarial duties for hard-boiled detective work when her boss, Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis), a civil engineer, is sentenced to death for murdering his wife. She sets out to track down his alibi—the eponymous woman with whom he shared the night in question but did not exchange names. Mysteriously no one remembers the “phantom lady” despite the elaborate hat that she wore, which seemed to get her noticed at the bar where she met Scott and the show she attended with him. Kansas is plunged into a corrupt New York underworld of lies, payoffs, betrayal, and murder. In the film’s most celebrated and controversial jazz club scene—respected critics James and Manny Farber loved this “orgiastic” sequence, whilst the Production Code Administration, Hollywood’s internal content regulator, feared its “offensive sex suggestiveness”—Kansas masquerades as a “hep kitten” called Jeannie to seduce a lascivious drummer and key witness, Cliff (Elisha Cook Jr.). This frenetic montage sequence utilizes disorienting camera angles and close-ups as it cuts between the musicians performing and Kansas dancing, pouring liquor, kissing Cliff, and applying makeup. It culminates in a frenzied drum solo that cuts back and forth between Cliff’s increasingly sweaty, manic face and Kansas’s feigned ecstatic expression (see below):
This scene is typically attributed solely to director Robert Siodmak—with whom Harrison, and Raines, would collaborate on her next and final film for Universal, The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1945)—but for me it is the embodiment of Harrison’s quest to capture the complexities and contradictions of women’s wartime experiences and expectations. The scene perfectly captures Kansas’s skill for masquerade but also the multiple pressures placed upon women on the American home front. The spectator appropriates Cliff’s point of view as he scans her legs adorned in fishnet stockings, but unlike Cliff, the spectator is aware that this is an elaborate ruse to entrap the predictable drummer. Harrison herself was well aware of the advantages her sexuality might offer in the male-dominated world of Hollywood. In an article on Phantom Lady in Time magazine, she differentiated herself from other producers by saying “I use my sex,” even exploiting “some leg art” in her studio publicity photographs. The article continues, “Besides using a pair of ah-inspiring legs, she also uses a mind trained at the Sorbonne, Oxford, and by England’s shrewdest director.” Like Kansas, Harrison suggest she was able to get ahead by manipulating the male gaze.
Phantom Lady was, on the whole, a critical and box-office success and afforded Harrison more power in wartime Hollywood. However, as the war came to a close these powers were retracted and her image as an assertive, independent woman became increasingly policed and tamed by critics and studio publicists who claimed, for example, that despite her reputation as a “stormy petrel”, her biggest fear was running out of butter at dinner parties. Like her films, which celebrate wartime career women’s abilities to synthesize the twin demands of desirability and productivity, the appeal of the “galvanic” Harrison was seen as increasingly redundant following the war, as men returned to reclaim their roles and restore women’s central productive roles of housekeeping and childbirth. Harrison quit Universal in 1945 after the studio refused to back her in a long-running battle with the Production Code Administration over The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry. The film’s morally ambiguous ending was seen as unpalatable for immediate postwar audiences and the studio’s acquiescence to a tacked-on “dream ending” brought Harrison’s Universal career to a strange but certainly not dream end.
Tim Snelson, lecturer in media history at University of East Anglia. He has a forthcoming monograph tilted Phantom Ladies: Hollywood Horror and the Home Front published with Rutgers University Press to be published in October 2014.