Scarlet Street, The Magazine of Mystery and Horror

Scarlet Street Interviews

Formerly Kay Linaker

Interview:  Kate Phillips

PART 3 (continued)

Scarlet Street

SS: Tod Browning was a friend and neighbor, and you worked with another famous director of horror films-James Whale.

KP: I made GREEN HELL, which was very interesting. The other film that I made with James Whale was WE DARE NOT LOVE. We had three directors! (Laughs) James Whale was the original director and he was taken off the picture. Somebody else was put on and then he was taken off the picture and somebody else was put on! That was done at Columbia.

SS: And GREEN HELL was for Universal, where he made most of his films.

KP: GREEN HELL! Oh, dear; GREEN HELL was really green hell! (Laughs)

SS: Itís considered by many to be one of the worst films ever made.

Kate Phillips--Scarlet Street
James Whale and Boris Karloff take a break from filming FRANKENSTEIN.

KP: Oh, I'm not surprised! We slumped along in the mud of a tropical rain forest set for about five weeks and everybody was just dying! Vincent Price, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Joan Bennett-and when they finally got through with the cutting, I had one scene in which I didnít say a word!

SS: After five weeks!

KP: We were on it longer than that; we were on it about seven weeks. They found that it was so bad, and had so much wrong with it, that they kept having different people trying to fix it. There were too many cooks. Too many people were coming around, saying, "Well, so and so says it ought to be this way or that way."

SS: Was the original script itself so bad?

KP: It wasn't bad, but it was sort of old hat. It was all about people in the jungle looking for treasure and what happens to them. It was quite an experience making that film, and it stunk! (Laughs) It smelled so bad! I mean that literally! Well, you can imagine watering down the mud and all the trees and plants and stuff-it all just rotted and stunk! When the plants rotted down at the bottom, they would cut 'em off and the jungle would get shorter! Theyíd replace Ďem when they got too short. We had very little ventilation; there was no air conditioning, of course, and it steamed and it smelled.

SS: This was shot in the studio?

KP: In the studio at Universal.

SS: It wasnít shot outdoors, on the back lot?

KP: It was shot inside, on a sound stage. Thatís why it got so smelly! Universal had the back lot and they had several ranches, but no, this was done on the sound stage. God love us!

SS: Itís amazing that James Whale, who had been Universalís top director, had to put up with that.

KP: When I knew James Whale, he was a very sick man. He was a very sick man. He was-it was past being neurotic. He was psychotic as hell!

SS: Really? Was this during the making of THEY DARE NOT LOVE? He was replaced . . .

KP: Yes, he was.

SS: Was it because he was drinking?

Kate Phillips--Scarlet Street
George Brent, Kay inaker, and Martha Scott trudge through the plot of James Whale's THEY DARE NOT LOVE.

KP: No, he wasnít drinking. Martha Scott and George Brent and Paul Lukas and I were the four characters in the film; it was about a monarchy in Europe that was broke. The man who played the prime minister was Paul Lukas, and the crown prince was George Brent. Martha Scott played the daughter of the prime minister who had died. The prince was in love with her. After her fatherís death, she had come to the United States, because she hadnít been out in the world, and she was working in a dress shop. I played the richest girl in the world, and the prime minister had an idea that the prince would marry me and the country would be financially solvent-as though I was Barbara Hutton. (Laughs)

SS: That doesnít sound like a very promising plot.

KP: When we started the film, James Whale was the director. He took to mumbling. He would walk onto the set mumbling, and then all of a sudden heíd say, "All right! Letís do it!" We didnít know what the hell he wanted us to do! We didnít even know where he wanted us to go, but we would get up and try. And then all of a sudden, heíd scream, "Of all the stupid fucking people that I have ever seen in my life, you people are-this picture is going to stink! I have the two lousiest actors and the two worst actresses in town on this picture!"

SS: Wow! Thatís so unlike anything thatís ever been said before about James Whale!

KP: So, we would just sit and do nothing. Then, one day, Martha Scottís husband came on the set, because we were getting a little upset about Whaleís behavior. Martha and I had no illusions about our looks, but we didnít think we were as bad as Whale claimed we were! We just werenít enjoying making the film, so Martha asked her husband to come on the set, and he did. Well, Martha and I had a scene together. It was just a little scene where she came into the shop. It was an easy scene and very interesting, but we didnít quite get through with it when Whale jumped up and started stamping his feet and screaming, "Not only do I have the two ugliest broads in town, Iíve got the two lousiest fucking actresses!" At that, Marthaís husband got up and walked over to Whale and said, "I know youĎre older than I am, but if you say one more word to my wife, and to Kate, Iím going to knock you down. Iím going over to Harry Cohn and tell him how youíre behaving." And he did! Harry Cohn came back with him, and he took Mr. Whaleís elbow and walked him over to the corner, and thatís the last we saw of James Whale!

SS: What a sad end to a brilliant career!

KP: The next day, another director came on. He was from middle-Europe and his English was very bad; it was hard for him to make himself understood. He lasted just a week. Then the third director was brought on, and he finished the picture.

SS: The film is credited to Whale and Charles Vidor, who was from Hungary.

KP: The third director was Victor Fleming, who did GONE WITH THE WIND.

SS: At Columbia? Wasnít Victor Fleming with MGM?

KP: He came over. He may have been between pictures, but he finished THEY DARE NOT LOVE.

SS: You really had a bad time with James Whale, didnít you?

KP: Well, when we made GREEN HELL, he wasnít nasty. Of course, anybody else would have looked good, because we had George Sanders in that! (Laughs) He was just unbelievable! In the first film he did-LLOYDS OF LONDON-George Sanders played a bastard. And he did such a good job with it, and he got such good notices, that he decided he would be a bastard! And from that point on, through his entire career, he was a bastard! And he made a good thing of it!

SS: So James Whale was pleasant in comparison. Under favorable circumstances, what was his style of direction?

KP: He was remote. If you wanted to know how he wanted a scene played, you were wise to talk it over before you started shooting. On GREEN HELL, everybody got together and told Whale what a wonderful script it was, and they all took advantage of him. He was out of it! He was starting to go out of it, but he wasnít nasty. Everybody told Whale how good it was-"Oh, yes, isnít this nice? Isnít this wonderful!" They all played it for fun and games. It was a big spoof!

SS: And apparently, Whale didnít get the joke?

KP: No, he didnít! He didnít get the joke at all!

SS: What a shame that youíre only left with one scene.

KP: One scene in the picture! When theyíre getting ready to go into the jungle, George Sanders sees me in a bar and we make a date. Itís surprising that they got it past the Hays Office, because he quite definitely picks me up, and you know exactly what weíre gonna do! Following that, I went on safari with them, and George and I were supposed to be together all the time-but you never see me again in the picture! All the weeks we sloshed through the mud and all the muck that we went through-it was cut!

SS: What do you think was wrong with Whale, exactly?

KP: Well, I think he had a breakdown-a serious, serious breakdown. I think that GREEN HELL was made when he was in the process of being away from reality. And then the next thing he did, THEY DARE NOT LOVE-I think he had gone over the border, and he really belonged in a locked ward.

SS: Like Tod Browning, not much has really been known about James Whaleís private life.

KP: Well, you see, Tod was 100% male, and James Whale was gay. And thatís something that nobody took into consideration, Now, he wouldnít have any trouble . . .

SS: But back then, it was considered necessary to keep it a secret.

KP: Oh, of course it was! Several directors were gay, but they knew how to handle it. There were several very successful ones who never had a breakdown, who even went through the business of being married to a woman. They were such nice guys-such really good guys, and so talented, that everybody worked with them and loved them dearly.

SS: But James Whale couldnít handle it?

KP: Oh, no! He was mad! Believe me!

SS: "Mad" not as being angry, but as being insane?

KP: Insane! That was the great tragedy, because he was a sick man. He was a very, very sick man! None of us who worked with him hated him. We were all very sorry for him, but we werenít about to put ourselves up and be clay pigeons. Thatís why Marthaís husband went to Harry Cohn about him. It wasnít done in a way to embarrass Whale at all, but he saw to it that we didnít suffer for it. I have never seen that picture. I donít know if it was even released!

SS: Letís backtrack a little. If Warner Bros. was grooming you for stardom, why didnít you stay with the studio?

KP: Mary Astor came on the set of my second picture, ROAD GANG, and went to the rushes with me. She said, "Kay, Iíve got a proposition for you. Ask for your release, now, before this picture is over." I was the only woman in the picture, and Mary thought I was going to make a splash and be in a better bargaining position if I was a free-lancer. She said, "If you donít ask for your release now, you're gonna be stuck. Every single solitary part for a brunette that comes down the line will be offered to Kay Francis, Mary Astor, and Margaret Lindsay, and all three of us have to turn it down before you get a chance at it. If you donít believe it, just realize what happened when Jimmy Cagney wanted you as his leading lady. You made the test and Jimmy asked for you, but Margaret Lindsay made a test and Margaret Lindsay got the part. So ask for your release before this picture comes out." I talked it over with my agent and he got my release. When ROAD GANG was released, Jack Warner wanted me back. He called my agent and said, "Look, Iíve made a terrible mistake; I should have never given her a release." My agent said, "Sheís going to stay free-lance"-and I did, for my entire career. Everybody thinks I was under contract to 20th Century, but I wasnít. I just free-lanced. Money-wise, it was much better.

SS: When youíre a free-lance actor, you donít have that protection of a studio, though.

KP: Well, thatís not quite true. Youíd get parts as a free-lance actor because they figured they could get you cheaper and, if you were good, they could always offer you a contract. And if you were in a bad picture and you were good, it didnít make any difference, because you were good! The idea that the studio protected you was a false thing promulgated through the studios in order to get people under contract for less money, and keep Ďem under contract for less money. At the time I was making films, the studio system was not too bad for free-lancers. People under contract had trouble, though.

SS: Can you give us a few examples?

KP: Well, Jack Warner saw Olivia DeHavilland in a production of A MIDSUMMER NIGHTíS DREAM at the Hollywood Bowl, and put her under contract. He had this idea of making a super-duper film of A MIDSUMMER NIGHTíS DREAM, which was going to introduce the motion-picture viewing public to Shakespeare. Jimmy Cagney was in it and Mickey Rooney played Puck. It was a prestigious film and they used all their contract players. Max Reinhardt was the director and he spoke no English. The assistant director was Michael Curtiz. He spoke German and could translate what Max Reinhardt wanted to the actors. Unfortunately, it didnít get the response that Jack Warner wanted, but he did get people under contract for very little money, including Olivia DeHavilland. Jack Warner was very stingy, and Olivia DeHavilland finally sued him in order to get out of her basic contract and get better money. Bette Davis sued him, too. Bette Davis was not pretty and, in her first two or three films, she was stinkiní lousy, but then she did Somerset Maughamís OF HUMAN BONDAGE and became a star.

SS: A standard contract ran for seven years.

KP: Seven years, and you were supposed to get more money as you went along-except that Jack Warner always had a perfectly good reason and excuse not to give you more money. Heíd tell you how much money your last film lost; he was a great manipulator, really a great manipulator. And he was always trying to prove to everybody that his brother who died wasnít the real genius; he was the real genius! He was an interesting man. If you looked at Jack Warner from Jack Warnerís point of view, he was a not a nasty, conniving man! He didnít try to hurt people; he just tried to get the best deal he could.

SS: You appeared in a number of Charlie Chan mysteries, including CHARLIE CHANíS MURDER CRUISE, CHARLIE CHAN IN RENO, CHARLIE CHAN IN RIO . . .

KP: CHARLIE CHAN IN MONTE CARLO was my first, but quite frankly, I donít remember the titles of all of them. I really donít! (Laughs) Some of them were very small bits, and I even played an apparition in one. I didnít get screen credit for that one. They wouldnít give me screen credit because I was an illusion. It was something about a phony mystic.

SS: CHARLIE CHAN AT TREASURE ISLAND featured Cesar Romero as a phony mystic.

KP: That would be it! I was in the last Charlie Chan that Warner Oland made, and the first one that Sidney Toler made. Sidney decided that he was not going to copy Warnerís performance. There were certain things heíd have to do to keep the continuity the same, but he wasnít an imitator. He did his own version of Chan, but it was done from the standpoint of the Charlie Chan books. His sense of humor was completely according to the original, the original Chan.

Kate Phillips--Scarlet Street
Warner Oland and Kay Linaker share a laugh on the set of CHARLIE CHAN IN MONTE CARLO.

SS: What did they do to make you look like an apparition in CHARLIE CHAN AT TREASURE ISLAND?

KP: Well, I put my head through a black jersey. It clung right along my hairline, so that I had no hairline and youíd just see my face. They put gummy makeup on me, which wasnít powdered down. They put the stuff on my face, then pulled their hands away and it left peaks and bumps and lumps. Then they sprayed it with something and put some powder on it. I was sitting on a platform, I was about eight feet off the floor, so that they were shooting up at me. There was no way I could get out of it until somebody pulled the zipper on it. We shot all morning and then lunch was called. Everybody went to lunch and they forgot about me! (Laughs) They left me sitting up there! I screamed and yelled and whatnot, but the stages were soundproof and the soundproof doors were shut. Finally, somebody came in to check on the lights and heard me. They unzipped me and I was a most unappetizing thing! I went into the commissary for lunch and people got sick at the sight of me! I didnít care!

SS: How long were you trapped on the soundstage?

KP: Only about 35 minutes, but thatís a long time to be alone on a sound stage.

SS: In CHARLIE CHANíS MURDER CRUISE, there was a gentleman who was supposed to choke you.

KP: And he did! He had served in World War One and he was shell shocked. Something snapped and I think it probably was two or three months before he was able to work again. His wife called me to apologize and I said, "I donít know what you're talking about. Letís just forget about it, because it has nothing to do with who the man is under ordinary circumstances." But if it hadnít been for the second cameraman helping me, who knows what might have happened? Both my arms were in casts, and I was tied in a wheelchair. I couldnít push him away. The scene was on a ship. Everybody went out into the corridor, and the camera was dollying with them, and suddenly the cameraman who was playing out the cable behind the dolly saw what was happening and screamed, "Cut!"

SS: Thank God! What can you tell us about Charlie Chanís sons?

KP: Victor Sen Young was an absolute darling-not that all of Ďem werenít charming. On CHARLIE CHAN IN RENO, there was a young Chinese girl who played a maid. She was a darling; her name was Iris Wong. We were all trying to fix her up with Sen Young, because they were so cute together. A friend of Senís came on the set two or three times and he was a very nice guy, but Sen was all bubbly and this chap was flat! We thought Sen was a much better choice for Iris. Well, after weíd been working for two weeks, we moved to another set and theyíd just finished painting. They used banana oil in the paint and it really smelled to high Heaven, those bananas! Iris walked on and said, "Oh, my God! IĎm gonna be sick!" Nobody thought much about it, except that the next day she was looking perfectly fine but again said she was nauseated. Finally, on the third day, she said, "Oh, when does this morning sickness stop with pregnancy?" I said, "Pregnancy? Oh, my God, Iris!" And she said, "Well, the guy whoís been visiting the set, heís my husband. My family doesnít approve of him, so we havenít said anything about it. Nobody knows except you." So that was the end of our plans for Iris and Sen, but Iím the godmother of that child.

more in PART 4

Twilight of the Horror Gods: Inside the Kate Phillips Interview

Scarlet Street

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