SEPTEMBER 14, 2020
STRANGE AS IT MAY BE to identify films of shifting content and elusive conventions as a genre, movies as different as Rebecca, The Maltese Falcon, Mildred Pierce, Double Indemnity, Phantom Lady, The Asphalt Jungle, and New York Confidential all remain recognizably noir. By employing distinctive cinematic techniques — highly stylized settings, shadowy imagery, and gendered tropes, such as the seductive femme fatale — to evoke undercurrents of sinister, often sexualized desires, these atmospheric Hollywood dramas of the 1940s and ’50s plumbed the psychological traumas of their moment. Key among such postwar anxieties were those triggered by World War II and the destabilization of traditional gender roles resulting from women’s increased entry into paid employment.
In the late 1970s, many feminist film critics turned their attention to these Hollywood classics to examine, among other topics, whether the frequent presence of the femme fatale in film noir indicated the genre’s subversion or conservation of patriarchal gender scripts. The influential 1978 text Women in Film Noir, edited by E. Ann Kaplan, was one of the first to analyze film noir through a distinctly feminist lens. Some contributors to Women in Film Noir read the fact that the institution of marriage took a beating in noir as evidence of its endorsement of a shift in cultural mores. Wives in noir often ambitiously pursued careers or sought satisfaction in extramarital affairs, a blow to their husbands’ egos. But others pointed to the inevitable defeat or death of any woman who deviated from traditional norms as evidence of the genre’s conservative backlash against women’s sexual liberation or independence.
Two biographies released this year revisit women’s representation in film noir and, when read together, highlight the myriad ways even the most successful women suffered — and continue to suffer — in Hollywood’s clutches. Phantom Lady, Christina Lane’s biography of Joan Harrison, tells the story of the “forgotten woman behind Hitchcock,” while Veronica Lake’s recently reissued autobiography, Veronica, co-written with Donald Bain and published originally in 1969, tracks the rise and catastrophic decline of the life and career of one of the 1940s’ most famous femme fatales — the “V-bomb with the peek-a-boo blonde hair.” These literary accounts of these two distinct lives reveal that even as women subvert narrative and societal conventions, the powerful men who control the film industry can still undermine them by rewriting their film’s ending, removing them from a picture, or replacing them in favor of something (or someone) cheaper, newer, and younger.
Phantom Lady chronicles the life and career of producer and screenwriter Joan Harrison, which Lane deems “one of the last great untold stories of the classical Hollywood era.” By mining the archives of universities and film institutes, conducting original interviews of Harrison’s family, friends, and associates, and citing various secondary sources, Lane produces a scholarly monograph that offers a detailed (sometimes to the point of excess) account of Harrison’s rapid ascent from personal assistant to Alfred Hitchcock to major collaborator to independent producer. Ultimately, Phantom Lady is a character study of how a young, attractive British woman from a privileged background overcame her family’s objections to her career and, through a combination of luck and unbridled determination, became a “trailblazing film and television producer in her own right.”
In 1933, a note from a friend landed in 26-year-old Harrison’s lap at precisely the moment when she was desperate to escape her parents’ Surrey home and their unrelenting pressure on her to marry. Tucked inside the Daily Telegraph, the note drew attention to an employment ad for a production assistant wanted by a major British studio. Within a few hours, Harrison found herself being interviewed by Alfred Hitchcock, whose films she’d long admired. Impressed with her evident ambition, her Oxford background, and her vast knowledge of film, Hitchcock hired her on the spot.
Lane goes to great lengths to document how Harrison’s willfulness and intelligence shaped both her early success with Hitchcock and her later career. Yet luck of a more problematic sort contributed to her securing the interest of powerful men like Hitchcock. Harrison was cool, blonde, and beautiful, with the surface hauteur of an educated British lady thinly veiling her penchants for sex, success, and competition — the exact double of the chic, seductively reserved women who populated Hitchcock’s movies almost as frequently as they occupied his sexual fantasies. Beginning with Madeleine Carroll’s 1935 portrayal of Pamela in The 39 Steps — produced when Harrison first became central to Hitchcock’s creative process — and continuing through the iconic characters played by Kim Novak, Grace Kelly, and Tippi Hedren in his later films, the Hitchcock blonde is a recognizable trope in the director’s oeuvre, and Harrison manipulated this trope as shrewdly in her personal life as she did in her career. She pursued professional and sexual adventures, including liaisons with women, while maintaining the cover of the refined lady. Despite her considerable creative talents, had she not been able to hold the attention of the men in control of the industry by reinventing her own image, she might never have succeeded as much as she did.
Harrison joined Hitchcock’s circle at a critical juncture in his career. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935), and The Lady Vanishes (1938) established “Hitch” as a major British director. Working alongside Hitchcock and his wife, Alma, Harrison played a crucial role in production, sitting in on script meetings and pitching ideas. When Hollywood called in 1939, Hitchcock made it clear to his agent and Harrison’s parents that she was invaluable to him. She set sail with Alma and Hitch for America. In the final stages of the production of the Academy Award–winning Rebecca (1940), as Hitchcock moved on to his next project, producer David O. Selznick made Harrison Hitchcock’s representative. Until she set out on her own in 1941, she continued to shape Hitchcock’s films as a major writer and script advisor.
Although she’d hitched her wagon to Alfred’s star, she also formed her own network in the European émigré community, spending many evenings and weekends “immersed in the political and creative conversations of European expatriate writers and actors and their friends,” including Fred Zinnemann, Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang, Claude Rains, Paul Henreid, Charlie Chaplin, and Marlene Dietrich, among others. In this charged sociopolitical context, her writing skills developed further, shaping the treatments she wrote for Hitchcock and ultimately leading her to produce her own innovative films. She leveraged her connections and her image against the grain to challenge Hollywood’s traditional notions of marriage and romance as an independent producer. By spring 1943, she went out on her own to become the first woman producer at a major studio — Universal — where she produced Phantom Lady (1944). As Lane explains, what set the film apart from other noirs was its female-centeredness, upsetting genre expectations with a woman taking on the lead detective role. The film’s success led to a three-picture deal for Harrison at Universal, and opened up a new, independent pathway outside Hitchcock’s influence.
In subsequent films she produced without Hitchcock’s involvement, such as The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1945), she continued transgressing industry codes, creating stories depicting ordinary people as criminals. But when the studio changed the ending she’d imagined for that film — the boy does not get the girl — she walked off the project, broke her contract with Universal, and reestablished her prior working relationship with RKO. There, in such films as They Won’t Believe Me (1947), she continued to experiment with narratives featuring complex female characters until she left RKO when the studio fell under the conservative influence of Howard Hughes.
While Harrison maintained close contact with the Hitchcock circle into the late 1940s, she also teamed up with actor and director Robert Montgomery back at Universal on several films. Their highly unusual partnership (Montgomery’s right-wing tendencies were ill-suited to Joan’s more left-leaning politics, especially as the work of the House Un-American Activities Committee was escalating its attacks on many of Harrison’s friends) lasted three years and resulted in films that earned mixed reviews. In 1950, Harrison split with Montgomery, signed a long-term contract with Columbia Pictures, and then quickly departed to England to make independent films and perhaps avoid being blacklisted herself. That solo effort soon floundered, and Harrison faced a “fallow period” until television offered another opportunity.
Lane follows Harrison’s career as she moves from film into television, when she became associate producer of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (CBS, NBC, 1955–1962), producing 291 episodes for it and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (NBC, 1963–’65). Despite these achievements, by the 1970s, she’d faded from film history. Lane puts it poignantly: “The name Joan Harrison was already all but forgotten.” By 1972, she’d made her last film and seemed “adrift, in every sense.” The disappearance of creative opportunities had left the brass broad who’d challenged Hollywood conventions and openly embraced a series of affairs sequestered in the domestic sphere of a marriage — an institution she’d avoided, even derided, for so long. As Lane observes, “Harrison’s rapid fade […] offers pointed lessons in the way that cultural institutions, cinematic movements and trends in film criticism worked against her.” It’s an observation as applicable to the life and career of Veronica Lake as to Harrison’s, except Lake found few avenues of escape from any of the roles she was expected to play, whether in film or in life. In a tone at once breezy, irreverent, and unwittingly sad, Veronica tells the story of Lake’s life from her earliest years in Hollywood to near the end of her life in Miami as an aging, fading movie star with a reputation for “being a magician at making a bottle of scotch disappear.” She wants to get in front of her own story, to control the narrative, make up for all the mean things said about her by projecting strength. But in between the lines of her devil-may-care story, she reveals the residual pain of having her vulnerability exploited.
“Veronica Lake is a Hollywood creation,” declares “little Connie Ockleman of Brooklyn” in the first sentence of her memoir. Connie Ockleman — who became Constance Keane when her mother remarried after her father’s death, and only later, Lake — moved to Los Angeles with her family. She enrolled teenaged Connie in the Bliss Hayden School of Acting. Connie soon stumbled into an acting career when a chance encounter with the director Freddie Wilcox on a studio lot landed her a screen test, a few bit parts, and representation by William Morris. After producer Arthur Hornblow tested her for a part in his new movie, another stumble — her blonde hair falling over her left eye during a scene — landed the 17-year-old the role of Sally Vaughn in I Wanted Wings (1941). “Constance Keane was going to be a movie star, just as her mother wanted her to be […] My hair had been a smash: it gave me something that would be remembered.” And just like that, Hornblow christened her Veronica Lake.
At least, that’s how Lake tells it. Lake’s mythology falls apart under scrutiny; even she can’t keep her story straight. In an earlier section, she claims that “Constance Keane introduced that hair style to the movie-going public” in some scenes she’d played in a Busby Berkeley film, well before the Hornblow interview. So, was it a push from her mother, a stumble, or a self-conscious leap that got her into Hollywood? In one moment, she’s taking credit for forging her own path: “‘Who wanted to be a movie star anyway?’ I decided I did.” In the next moment, she’s telling the reader Veronica Lake was her mother’s invention. Becoming Veronica and marrying the much older Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer art director John S. Detlie soon after got the actress away from her mother, something she “wanted more than ever” to do. Yet what becoming “this Veronica Lake broad” did for confused, lonely Connie Ockleman was to offer pretense as a way to escape reality, if only temporarily.
Her appearance in I Wanted Wings made her an overnight sensation. The box office success had Paramount treating her “like a valuable piece of jewelry,” albeit one with a reputation for being a “temperamental little brat” for walking off the set, too far along in the filming to replace her. Yet it was her siren appearance, and not her performance, that drew the critics’ attention. Never mind. As she puts it: “Veronica Lake was a star. Paramount knew it. My mother knew it. And I knew it.” The star got a taste of something even better when famed Paramount director Preston Sturges cast her as “The Girl” in Sullivan’s Travels (1941). Cultural critic Eddie Selover remarks that Lake was rarely given credit for being “the emotional center of this complicated movie about The Movies.” She went on to famously partner with Alan Ladd in noirs including This Gun for Hire (1942), playing a sexy nightclub singer who becomes involved with Alan Ladd’s hit-man character, and The Glass Key (1942), cast as a woman desired by two different men, one shady and the other more straight-laced. Connie was sanguine about what their success at the box office signaled. “It certainly helped perpetuate Veronica Lake as Everyman’s mistress,” writes Lake, thus assuring her further work. “But I gave up something in return. I had obliterated any inroads I’d made as an actress in Sullivan’s Travels.” The pretense had overtaken reality.
Several ill-suited films followed, including The Hour Before the Dawn (1944), where she played a Nazi spy. Less than a decade after she began acting, her career was on the rocks. After the birth of one child and the post-partum death of another, her marriage failed. Connie married again, to the director André De Toth, had two more children, a boy and a girl, and made a few more films, including a last one with Alan Ladd, The Blue Dahlia (1946), a last glimpse of the glamorous star as mysterious blonde before Paramount ultimately discarded her. Despite that film’s success, she never recovered from the downward slide, sinking harder and deeper into a well of anger and illusion amplified by drinking to excess. She left Hollywood behind in 1952 and headed to New York, where she tried her hand at stage work. Yet what Hollywood had done to her — the choices she made and the pressures under which she made them — haunted her the rest of her life. As she tells the reader: “You never escape being a film star.”
A bittersweet sadness echoes through Veronica, the pained echo of the real Connie Ockleman’s voice reverberating between the lines. “That’s the problem with growing older,” Ockleman starts to explain until Lake finishes the thought with the drama befitting a femme fatale. “Those vicious, concentric circles that give meaning to the small world adage get tighter and tighter and swirl closer and more often to your life. And pretty soon they wrap around you and get rid of you.” Every time Connie becomes introspective about her mistakes, that tough broad Veronica Lake interrupts, reminding us of the fat cat studio bosses who designed and destroyed her, while expressing gratitude to the fans without whom Veronica Lake and Veronica wouldn’t have been possible.
Connie Ockleman died alone in a Vermont hospital in 1973 a few years after Veronica was published. She was 50 years old. Her ghostwriter, Donald Bain, retrieved her ashes after they’d sat unclaimed for three years. Veronica Lake lives on, immortalized on the screen as the sexy, peekaboo blonde, long after Connie Ockleman has been forgotten. Joan Harrison’s legacy in the development and production of the Hitchcock oeuvre has, for too long, been eclipsed by the fame accorded the film director, abetted by his outsize ego. In his lifetime, Hitchcock never publicly acknowledged how critical Harrison had been to his career, both in film and television, and, in 1979, when the American Film Institute awarded Hitchcock its Lifetime Achievement Award, he failed to mention her by name among the many with whom he’d collaborated. These two women were dynamos whose different creative talents made noir films such enduring classics; two defiant blondes who played, and played with, the roles Hollywood dealt them until their defiance was rebuked or punished or faded from view. Like so many women struggling in Hollywood today, whether against sexual predators or the prejudices that still govern the trade, they deserve to be written back into film history on their own terms.