Scarlet Street, The Magazine of Mystery and Horror

Scarlet Street Interviews

Formerly Kay Linaker

Interview:  Kate Phillips

PART 2 (continued)

Scarlet Street

SS: Mary Astor couldn’t have been very happy!

KP: On the third day, this absolutely stunning redhead came over to me and said, "Hi, my name is Mary Astor. I’ve heard some very good things about you and I want to check you out." She waved to Ricardo Cortez and sat down. We ran through the scene and the camera rolled. Mary was watching and all of a sudden, just toward the end of the scene, she had a coughing fit. She apologized profusely and we did it again-and she had another coughing fit. This time she walked over to Ricardo Cortez and said, "Rick, she’s a very nice girl. She’s also a very good actress and I’m not going to watch you ruin her career because you’re selfish. If you get in her keylight once more, if you make her turn so that the shot is lost for her and in the cutting room they’ll use your shot and not hers, if you do that once more I’m going to be on this set every day, whether I’m called or not, and I’m going to have a coughing fit and fix you, friend." He said, "Well, I seem to get the job of braking in all the girls," and she said, "Yes, if I remember correctly, you broke in Garbo, didn’t you?" She went back and sat down and, after the next shot, which was absolutely perfect, she didn’t make another sound! (Laughs)

Kate Phillips--Scarlet Street
Kate Phillips during her acting days, when she was billed as Kay Linaker.

SS: That was certainly generous under the circumstances.

Kate Phillips--Scarlet Street KP: Mary said, "Do you know where your keylight is?" I said, "What’s that?" She looked at the cameraman and said, "As long as you were teaching her, why didn’t you tell her something important?" So she told me where my keylight was and, from that point on, everybody helped me. The boys up high realized that I was being victimized, so they’d do things like joggling a light when Ricardo Cortez was standing right below it. That’s how the boys took out their spite. Mary said, "You must come see the rushes." I saw myself on the screen for the first time, and I barely made it to the ladies room! It is a horrible, horrible, horrible situation to see yourself on the screen for the first time! Mary made me come to the rushes every day and she taught me other things. She said, "Never do that again!" I said, "What?" She said, "When you smile in the closeup, your lip goes up and we see your gums. Put your tongue against your upper teeth. You cannot raise your upper lip when your tongue is against your upper teeth." I learned real quick! So my experience in film from the very beginning was wonderful, but one guy that I really have no fondness for is Ricardo Cortez.

SS: And the other is . . .?

KP: The other is George Sanders. Of course, everybody who ever worked with him disliked him! Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Vincent Price, Joan Bennett-along with me, they were the people in GREEN HELL with George Sanders-they disciplined him; they put him in Coventry. Nobody spoke to him! His behavior was so bad that people pretended they didn’t see him. That’s the British public school method of discipline and, boy, it really works!

SS: GREEN HELL was directed by James Whale, who made many of Universal’s greatest horror films, including FRANKENSTEIN and THE INVISIBLE MAN.

KP: But not DRACULA, which was directed by Tod Browning. Toddy was my neighbor in Malibu and we were very good friends. His wife and I found ourselves working on committees together and all that kind of thing, and Tod was an absolute love. Recently I taught a film course called Double Feature. What I did was take two films that have a connection and I showed them together. I showed Alfred Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS, which is not Hitchcock’s best film, and I double-billed it with Tod Browning’s FREAKS. It is just a beautiful film. Anyway, I taught this course in summer school, and one of my students asked if she could bring her grandson. I said, "Sure," and when we finished I began asking questions about the films. I asked the grandson, "What did you think of FREAKS?" He said, "I think it’s something that should be shown to everybody in the fifth grade, because the fifth grade is when you’re taught to make fun of people and to hate people." I asked, "Why?" He said, "Because they’re different!"

SS: DRACULA is probably Tod Browning’s most famous film, and its reputation with critics has diminished over the ears.

KP: They’re not looking at DRACULA in comparison with other films of that same period. Acting at that time was different than it is, now. Actors were just getting used to the fact that you didn’t have to emote physically in order to put across an idea, that you could simply say a line.

SS: You said you were friends with Browning . . . .

KP: I knew Toddy as a man after he left Beverly Hills. Tod and Alice Browning kept their house in Beverly Hills, kept all the furniture in it, and everything was left on so that any time they wanted to go back, they could. But they moved down to Malibu, and it was as though they had moved to a ranch in the middle of Texas! (Laughs) The whole idea of living there was to shake the dust of Beverly Hills off their feet, and get the smell of Louis B. Mayer out of their nostrils. I’d been living in Malibu for about eight months, under a year, when the attack on Pearl Harbor happened. It was very interesting to look and see that there was nothing between us and Japan except Catalina Island! (Laughs) There were only about 12 houses occupied year round-Tod and Alice Browning’s was one, Wesley Ruggles’ was another, mine was another, and Warner and Winnie Baxter’s was another. Winnie was not well and they had moved there permanently from Bel Aire. Warner Baxter was head of the ration board for gasoline. At the time, we were involved with gas rationing.

SS: Gas was difficult to get, wasn’t it?

KP: It was very difficult. You couldn’t get any extra gas tickets, so Warner Baxter came up with a wonderful idea. He said, "Buy some wrecks for $10"-these cars that would never move again-"and get licenses for them. Come to the rationing office, and we can give you gas for those cars."

SS: What a great idea! Illegal, but a great idea!

KP: And so we did! And we never got caught! (Laughs) There was so few of us in Malibu that everybody wore two or three hats when it came to being air raid wardens and what not. We had to have a first-aid station. The government told you what you had to have, but they didn’t say, "And here’s money to cover the slings and bandages and braces." No, they didn’t do anything like that! The people involved had to pay for it themselves. It was very expensive-not by today’s standards, but back then it came to about $50 a person. By today’s standards, it would be the same thing as somebody saying you had to pay $400.

SS: How did you manage?

KP: Well, Alice Browning had a marvelous idea. She said, "Look, I’ll gather things to be auctioned off, movie star stuff, and we’ll have an auction down at the police station." Male stars, female stars-she’d say, "We need a donation," and somebody would send us a tie or a sweater or an evening bag or a skirt. We had a sale, and Tod Browning was the auctioneer.

SS: Really? Wasn’t he rather a shy, reclusive person?

KP: He was except where Alice was concerned. He would do anything she wanted. He adored her. If Alice Browning had asked him to appear stark naked in I. Magnin’s window in Hollywood, he’d have done it! (Laughs)

SS: Was he happy being away from the Hollywood studios?

KP: When they moved to Malibu, he was really getting the stench of Louis B. Mayer out of his nose. No matter what anybody else tells you, Louis B. Mayer was one of God’s big shits! He was really just-awful!

SS: The last film that Tod Browning directed was a B movie called MIRACLES FOR SALE, in 1939.

KP: Yes. You see, he wouldn’t do what Louis B. Mayer wanted him to do, which was to continue to do the horror stuff.

SS: Browning had made some MGM pictures with Lon Chaney Sr. and then, after Chaney died, he went to Universal to make DRACULA. He returned to MGM for FREAKS, MARK OF THE VAMPIRE, and THE DEVIL DOLL.

KP: The reason he went back to MGM was that Louis B. Mayer allowed him to make FREAKS. He didn’t realize that this was just the bait, and the trap was sprung on him. Mayer would not let him do anything else but horror stuff after that. Finally, he just hated it so much that he walked out.

SS: What kind of films would he have liked to direct?

KP: Well, what he wanted to do-it sounds very funny, when you consider we’re talking about Tod Browning-but he wanted to make films that taught a lesson, films that would improve the American idea of success. He was kind of a banner carrier, and he really cared about teaching a good lesson. Of course, there was a time when he was a naughty boy, when anything that wasn’t nailed down he was screwing.

SS: Before he developed morals!

KP: Alice said, "This has to stop!" And when it didn’t stop, she sued for divorce, and then it stopped. They got back together again, and he never looked cross-eyed at anybody else again. It was just a naughty phase that he was going through. He was taking out his anger. Quite frankly, with everything after FREAKS, Tod didn’t give a damn. He had it made! He was married to an absolutely charming and delightful lady. They had a darling house, right on the ocean in the colony, and plenty of money. They lived a simple, quiet life. They enjoyed the way they lived.

SS: You said the Brownings treated their home in Malibu like a Texas ranch.

Kate Phillips--Scarlet Street
Alice and Tod Browning at their home in Malibu.

KP: Yes! When Tod was living in Malibu, he was a farmer. The land between the colony road and the highway was a big piece of land. Now it’s all developed with condos and God knows what, but at the time nothing could be built there. You couldn’t put in a swimming pool, because when you dug down, you hit water. You could have a tennis court, but you couldn’t have a swimming pool! Anyway, who wants a swimming pool when you’ve got the Pacific Ocean just on the other side of your bulkhead? (Laughs) So, we had all this land, and people put in flower gardens and tennis courts. Then all of a sudden, Tod Browning said, "I’m gonna farm."

He got the notion that he’d put in wheat, because he thought it would be wonderful for people to come down the highway and see this marvelous waving field of grain. Everybody said, "Toddy, look; it’s too salty; you’ll never be able to grow wheat." So he asked, "Well, what should I grow?" We suggested he call the Department of Agriculture and get advice. The advice he got was to plant corn or other vegetables. So he planted corn, and he cultivated it, and he did all of it with hand tools. He had the most gorgeous cornfield you’ve ever seen! In Malibu! He also had the greatest corn-but, I mean, how much corn can you give away? (Laughs) He sold it to the store-to Jones’ store in Malibu, and he still had too much! So he opened a farm stand right on the ocean side of the highway. He sold pumpkins and everything you can think of; he supplied the entire colony with fresh vegetables and all kinds of stuff. And he loved doing it! He’d be out there early-early, every day! If it looked as though there was going to be a frost-and very often there was a frost in Malibu, because the winds would come off the ocean-he’d be out there pinning covers over his little plants. Therefore, he didn’t lose anything. It was a lot of yard to take care of, but it was his devotion. He just loved it!

SS: Browning really didn’t miss being a filmmaker?

KP: No, he didn’t even want to talk about it. When he and Wesley Ruggles got together, they’d stand in the back and chat about everything but film directing! They would talk about athletic teams, and about things that were happening in the government. He just cut off everything about film.

SS: He certainly wouldn’t give out interviews in later years.

KP: No, he wouldn’t! He absolutely wouldn’t!

SS: Was he bitter about what happened to his career?

KP: I think he just walked away. He said one time, "I don’t know anybody who likes living on a pile of dirty laundry." I think he thought of himself, before he met Alice-I think he thought of himself as being part of the "dirty laundry." All I can say is, he was a father figure to me. At that point, I was in my mid-twenties. Every once in awhile, when a notice appeared in a gossip column that I’d done such-and-such with so-and-so, he had no compunction about saying, "Katie, he’s bad news. Get away from him. Don’t see him anymore." He and Alice were busy bringing me up and making my life more pleasant. I was one of the few people they’d call to over the bulkhead, and say, "Put the dog back in the house and come and have a bite of supper."

SS: Was he lonely at all?

KP: He had a couple of good friends. In the book Dark Carnival, it mentions his friend who was a policeman. Of course, when Alice died, that was when he pulled the shade down.

more in PART 3

Twilight of the Horror Gods: Inside the Kate Phillips Interview

Scarlet Street

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