Scarlet Street, The Magazine of Mystery and Horror
Formerly Kay Linaker
Interview: Kate Phillips
She was friends with DRACULA director Tod Browning. She worked with Henry Fonda, Mary Astor, Charlie Chan stars Warner Oland and Sidney Toler, and Steve McQueen, and befriended James Cagney, Pat OíBrien, Boris Karloff, and DRACULA director Tod Browning. She co-wrote the cult-classic THE BLOB.
I was fortunate enough to meet Kate Phillips at the National Lum and Abner Society in Mena, Arkansas in 1998, and then at a Buck Jones Rangers of America film convention in Rochester, New York in 2000, where this remarkable woman was happy to talk about her life and career for Scarlet Street . . . .
Scarlet Street: How did you get started in show business?
Kate Phillips: I started when I was, oh, six or seven. I was an only child and I played imaginary games. The very first thing I remember is travelling with my mother and father and my nurse to Chicago. My father took us on all his business trips. One evening in Chicago-I was about a year and a half-we went out, all four of us, to a big place, bigger than a barn. We went up to the second floor and walked down some steps, and there was a railing and nothing! There were chairs behind the railing, and we sat in the second row. Right in the center! There was a big gray wall in front of us. Then all of a sudden, that wall went up, and behind it there was a red velvet curtain with gold trimmings. People came in with musical instruments. They began tuning up, making noise. Then a spotlight went on and a gentleman came out dressed in evening clothes. He stepped up on a podium and bowed to the audience; then he turned around and went tap, tap, tap on the desk and raised his hands and there was music! And I felt that was fine!
SS: You enjoyed theater from the very beginning.
KP: I was tapping time to the music. Then the red curtain went up and behind it was a garden, and a garden wall. There was a pretty girl sitting on a bench, and over the wall came a man with the longest legs I had ever seen in my life! He went up to the young lady and they started to dance. They danced all over this big garden . . . .
SS: You remembered this at that age?
KP: Yes! When I was five, I asked my mother if it was a dream and she said it wasnít. I had been taken to see Mr. and Mrs. Vernon Castle dance!
SS: Vernon and Irene Castle!
KP: That was my first experience with theatre. From then on, whenever it was possible, I went to a play. It didnít make any difference whether it was Shakespeare or what it was, I was taken to see it. And then, when I was about six, the little theater did a play called THE SWEETMEAT GAME. It was about a Chinese gentleman married to a young wife he doesnít trust. He has a child from a previous marriage and the child is blind. I played the blind child. I accidentally get the wrong sweetmeat, the sweetmeat that my father has prepared for his second wife. And I die!
SS: In addition to the theater, did you attend many movies when you were a child?
KP: I donít remember being taken to the movies until I was probably five or six. We went to see a story that had the fire of London in it. My father being an Englishman, he was very interested in how they were going to handle the fire of London. I saw all these flames and I figured the best thing to do was get out! (Laughs) So I left the theater, and my father had to come looking for me. He explained to me that what Iíd seen wasnít real and took me back into the theater.
SS: What can you tell us about your schooling?
KP: I went to a little private school that my father started. He was on the school board in town and they were going to build a new school. My father said, "It has to be for the colored children, because the school theyíre in is a fire trap." He insisted and a new school for the colored children was built. Now, the school for the white children was in pretty bad shape, but to punish my father, the school board said, "No, we canít build another new school." They were going to show him! I didnít start school till I was seven. I was so undersized; I was a tiny, tiny child and the ugliest kid that ever came down the pike! (Laughs) I was really, really homely! I had two magnificently beautiful parents. My mother was gorgeous, and I was a little ugly duckling. There was a teacher who had retired-her name was Miss Boyet-and my father persuaded her to take on this group of children who were all born in the same summer. There were nine girls and three boys, and we went to Miss Boyetís private school. She was a magnificent teacher! We had a sort of drama club; we did fairy stories, that kind of thing.
SS: What other training did you have?
KP: There was a place in New York State called Chautaugua Lake. My father had heard about Chautaugua Institution, so he bought a house there and we spent summers at Chautaugua. Our next door neighbor was a very interesting gentleman. One day, I crawled through a hedge and on the other side-his side-there was a bush that had the most interesting fruit on it. I tried to reach one, and this voice said, "Iíll take care of it for you!" I turned around and there stood a white-haired gentleman. He picked it and said, "Do you know what this is? Itís a gooseberry." I said, "Whatís a gooseberry?" and he said, "Turn your head and look at me when you talk; Iím deaf." And that was my introduction to Thomas Edison!
SS: Talk about getting into movies on the ground floor!
KP: Thomas Edison was my neighbor all during my youth; we went up to Chautaugua every summer. Mr. Tom and I had great fun. He loved to tell jokes and, even if I didnít understand the joke, when he began to grin Iíd start to laugh. I was a great audience for him and we did all kinds of things together. When his friends came, he said, "You be sure to come through the hedge, because I want you to meet these people; theyíre nice men." One was Henry Ford and the other was named Firestone.
SS: Thatís right; theyíd go on camping trips together.
KP: John Phillip Sousa came, too; his band came to Chautaugua and I wanted to get his autograph. I told Mr. Tom that I wasnít going to be able to be able to play Parcheesi, because I had to go down to the amphitheater to try to get Mr. Sousaís autograph. Mr. Tom said, "Iíll come with you; I want his autograph, too." So we went down to the amphitheater and, of course, we got John Phillip Sousaís autograph. And then Mr. Sousa asked for Mr. Tomís autograph, and that was the first time I realized . . .
SS: That this man was somebody.
KP: . . . that this man was really amazing!
SS: Did your theatrical training continue during this period?
KP: There was a very famous public speaking teacher from the University of Chicago. His name was S.H. Park; he taught me a bit, but he didnít think he was right for me. His assistant, Mr. Edwards, trained me.
SS: You lost your father at an early age, didnít you?
KP: My father died in my arms when I was 11. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage. He was not yet 41 years old. He was leaning against me; he thought he had indigestion. I got him a drink and stopped at the telephone on the way back, and the operator answered and I said, "This is Mary Katherine Linaker and my daddyís very sick. Get the doctors!" And she did. I started to put a cup to my fatherís mouth and he looked up at me and the most beautiful expression came over his face. And I knew he was dead! The doctors came and lifted my father off my lap and put him on the floor. They started working on him. The pulmonary man arrived with the machine and I just sat there. Nobody paid any attention to me! I got up and walked out of the room. I walked through the house and sat down on the back step. I remember thinking my fatherís dead, but heís not gone. Heíll always be near me, and I couldnít cry. Roxy was the cook, and she went upstairs to take care of my mother. Emma, the maid, came down and put her arms around me. She said, "I donít have to tell you whatís happened. Just go ahead and cry; itís all right to cry." She put her arms around me and rocked me back and forth, and all of a sudden I was able to cry.
SS: Did your fatherís death change your life drastically?
KP: Well, my parents had planned that Iíd go to boarding school, according to British custom. I took an active part in the drama, but during my last year of boarding school I caught polio. The doctor told my mother, "The usual method of treatment is immobilization, but Iíve never seen it work. However, thereís a nurse in Australia starting a new method called the Sister Kenny treatment. It has to do with revitalizing the muscles and nerves through a series of exercise and water treatment." Mother said, "Well, if you know something doesnít work, itís worth trying something that might." So I had the Sister Kenny treatment. My schoolmates carried me from class to class; I was never in a wheelchair. I was carried by my schoolmates and then I walked, leaning on them. I was able to walk in the Commencement procession holding on to my two roommates. I was supposed to go to Wellesley, but I had started the exercise treatments with a modern dancer named Phoebe Gutherie, who was at Chautaugua that summer. I decided that Iíd have to keep on with Phoebe and she was in New York, so I wrote to Wellesley and regretted that Iíd be unable to come. New York University had a small campus in Washington Square, and that's where I started my college.
SS: Did you study drama there?
KP: Well, at Chautaugua, I had met Edna Ferberís niece, who was going to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. I saw how the Academy worked and announced to my mother that I wanted to go. Mother said, "Thatís fine, but you have to get an academic degree, too, because theater is a very iffy business." So the next year I doubled up on my classes and took summer courses, because New York University had an extension at Chautaugua. I came back and enrolled in the American Academy.
SS: You canít ask for better training than that!
KP: When I was there, you had to be invited back for your senior year. The only way you could graduate was to be invited back, and you had to have 100% approval. I was invited back. In my class, the only two people who really stayed in the theater were Betty Field, June XXXXX, and myself. We were the only three!
SS: Your first film in Hollywood was THE MURDER OF DR. HARRIGAN, starring Ricardo Cortez. That was in 1936.
SS: So that it seems passionate?
KP: Absolutely! With Ricardo Cortez, it was all I could do to keep my eyes open; I wanted them shut real hard! He was a difficult man. I did work with him later on as a director, and his attitude when I was no longer in competition for his scenes was different. He was oh so glad to see me and congratulated me on what Iíd done since THE MURDER OF DOCTOR HARRIGAN. I didnít believe a word of it!
SS: How was he as a director?
KP: Well, he was top dog! How good he was depended on how well he was able to work with people. Therefore, his attitude was completely different. See, I was in competition with him on THE MURDER OF DOCTOR HARRIGAN. There was equal billing for Ricardo Cortez and Kay Linaker, and Mary Astor was on the line below us. On my first picture, I had top billing. Warner Bros. was grooming me for one of the top female positions. The top person at Warners was Kay Francis, and then came Mary Astor and Margaret Lindsay, and I was number four.
SS: How did Mary Astor "take care of" Ricardo Cortez?
KP: Mary Astor had originally been scheduled to do the part that I played in THE MURDER OF DOCTOR HARRIGAN, which was the lead. Mary was a beautiful, beautiful woman, and a wonderful actress. Then she got into a dust-up and so, as a disciplinary action, they put me under contract, brought me out to the coast, and put her in the second part in the picture. You know-"Weíll show you that you canít get away with this sort of thing!" Well, when I started the picture, I went to the cameraman and said, "Look, I donít know anything about the camera! Why is that man sitting on the camera on that machine?" He said, "That machine is called a dolly. The camera is mounted on that dolly in order to save time. That fellow is the second camera man. All he does is operate the camera. I light the shot. Now, what other questions do you have?" He realized that I wasnít kidding. I really didnít know anything! Jack Warner had the nerve to take somebody who didnít know anything about films and do this, just to show up Mary Astor! We were on a 65-day schedule and I worked 65 days! Thatís how big my part was.
more in PART 2