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Scarlet Street, The Magazine of Mystery and Horror

Scarlet Street Interviews

Formerly Kay Linaker

Interview:  Kate Phillips

PART 4 (continued)

Scarlet Street

SS: What about another of Charlieís sons-Keye Luke?

KP: Keye Luke was a brilliant artist-really talented, really gifted. He was also extremely bright. He was quieter than Sen, but he had a lovely pixie sense of humor. He was always one step ahead of everybody else. And he had marvelous concentration; as an actor, he had wonderful concentration..

SS: He argued with Sol Wurtzel about the character of Lee Chan. He wanted his character to be smart once in awhile, but Wurtzel said there was only one smart detective in the pictures and that was Charlie Chan.

KP: Sol Wurtzel happened to be a very wise man. He was a big man, physically; he was very big. I must have been in his office a dozen times before I saw him stand up. He sat behind the desk in his three-button suit with a vest. He was not a particularly handsome man; his features were coarse and heavy. He had a pair of eyes that were hooded, and every once in awhile heíd open them wide and youíd see why he kept his eyes half closed all the time. They were twinkling! You couldnít help but grin when you saw his eyes wide open. When your agent was trying to get you an extra $500 a week and you were sitting there, he made it a point never to look at you; heíd concentrate on the agent. He glanced up one day and I was grinning. And he looked at me and we both burst out laughing! After that, whenever I saw him on the lot, heíd say, "Hi, Giggles!"

SS: Thatís a cute story. Warner Oland had a serious drinking problem, didnít he?

KP: Warner was a thorough gentleman; he was delightful! He was on time every morning and just as gracious and charming as he could possibly be, and he had a lovely sense of humor. But he had a problem. When the Charlie Chan pictures were set up, all his closeups were done first thing in the morning, because he drank sherry with absinth chasers and you could see the fog rising in his eyes. Heíd sit in his canvas dressing room on the set for the rest of the day and then, when we were dismissed, he was dismissed along with everybody else. He was such a charming gentleman and so very delightful that nobody ever said anything, but absinth is a very dangerous drink and it just got to him. It was just after CHARLIE CHAN AT MONTE CARLO that he disappeared, and they finally found him after several really serious months of looking for him. He went back to where he was born and was really out of it.

SS: You worked with Charlie Chan, but never with Mr. Moto, although you did make a film called CRACK-UP with Peter Lorre.

KP: Well, he was a darling. What people donít understand is that, when you went on a picture, you became a member of that family. I canít remember being on a picture where most people didnít like one another, and Peter was particularly nice.

SS: What did you do in CRACK-UP?

KP: I played Ralph Morganís wife. CRACK-UP was the story of a man with a dream of flying nonstop from west to east across the Atlantic Ocean. Ralph Morgan played the man. He had a young man working for him, played by Lester Matthews, and Ralph married a younger woman. I was the young wife. Sheís an unpleasant, irresponsible person, and she has an affair with his young protogť. That accounts for the fact that, when the flight finally takes off, Ralph goes along because heís discovered whatís going on between his protogť and his wife. Thatís what the film was supposed to be about, up to that point.

SS: But it wasnít the way it wound up?

Kate Phillips--Scarlet Street
Chet Lauck, Norris Goff, and Kay Linaker in the Lum and Abner comedy TWO WEEKS TO LIVE.

KP: After the picture was finished, there was a two-week break and then we were called back. We went on the soundstage and it was all set up for me to throw a bottle of champagne at the aircraft and say, "I christen thee Wild Goose." Ralph and Lester were sitting beside me and it was a very nicely set up scene. I threw the bottle and they cut all of us out of the beginning of the film! The whole beginning was cut, and Ralph appears in the plane as itís foundering and sinking and the water is rising in the cockpit. Nobody knows how the hell he got there!

SS: What happened?

KP: Well, someone got the bright idea to improve Peter Lorreís part and to improve Brian Donlevyís part, so they just cut out the other parts to make room for it. I throw a champagne bottle, I say, "I christen thee Wild Goose," and nobody knows who the hell I am! All of a sudden, Ralph Morgan is in a cockpit with Brian Donlevy and the audience doesnít know who the hell he is, either! The character that Peter played-a spy who was after something or other-he had a harmonica or a little whistle that he played and he walked around being goony.

SS: Did Peter Lorre dislike playing Mr. Moto?

KP: Well, I think he'd only done one Moto at that point, but after heíd done a few he hated it! Peter did quite a lot of good television on the East Coast before he died. He was delightful!

SS: Youíre in a party scene in LAURA. You donít have any dialogue, though.

KP: No, I donít. There was a lot of trouble on that picture. It was started by director Rouben Mamoulion, then it was changed and the only thing that was consistent in the whole business was the man who played the villain-Clifton Webb. Gene Tierney was in it throughout, too. The part that I originally had was shot during probably the first week of shooting. Then they changed everything and I ended up in one party scene. Things like that happened consistently, because they went off half-cocked in many instances and had to start all over again. It was particularly difficult with directors. One director would start and then, for one reason or another, heíd be replaced. Thatís what happened to James Whale on THEY DARE NOT LOVE, and to Rouben Mamoulion on LAURA. He was replaced by Otto Preminger. The fact is that Mr. Preminger was a very unpleasant man. He was very difficult to work with and, I guess, unsure of himself. Insulting people was probably a cover-up for his own feelings of inadequacy.

SS: Did Preminger direct you in the party scene or was it Mamoulian?

KP: It was Mamoulian.

SS: Who would you say was responsible for the success of LAURA, though-Mamoulian or Preminger?

KP: As far as Iím concerned, it would be Otto Preminger, the big fat man. It was not the very gracious, charming director, Rouben Mamoulian. It was not the smooth gent; it was the buffy guy.

SS: In the early forties, just before you went into Red Cross, you were offered a part in a play with Bela Lugosi.

KP: Yes, LADY CHATTERLEYíS LOVER. I talked to Lugosi and the director and producer, and they were very nice and they wanted me to do the part. I didnít want to do it. I just had a feeling it would be extremely difficult to work with Mr. Lugosi. I thought heíd lost it! You looked in his eyes and there was something really dead there. The body was still functioning-he knew his left from his right and that kind of thing-but he was just really gone. I didnít want to get embroiled with Lugosi.

SS: Well, he was still working, though. Heíd been touring in DRACULA at that time.

KP: Yes, but he was very familiar with that play, and a company will cover for you if you make any mistakes. LADY CHATTERLEYíS LOVER was a breakaway thing that he was planning to do, an effort to change his image. I had a hard time seeing him play the lead in that!

SS: What brought about your switch from acting to writing, from Kay Linaker to Kate Phillips?

KP: Iíd known a lot of writers in California. I learned my trade from people like the Epstein Brothers, who wrote CASABLANCA. Also, when I was working with John Ford I got to know his writers. I did one job of writing while I was still acting; I worked at Walt Disney. And then I wrote a radio show for VOICE OF AMERICA. When I met my husband, I was working with the Red Cross and he was in the Air Force. He was a singer and he didnít want to go back to singing. Heíd begun writing and had very good luck selling material while he was in the Air Force. He sold articles to top magazines. He didnít want to continue singing and I didnít want to continue acting, so I became a writer with him. My husband and I had a 40-year career of writing together. People used to ask us how long weíd been married and weíd say 180 years! (Laughs) Well, how much time do married couples actually spend together? You get up in the morning and have breakfast together, then he goes to work. Now she goes to work too! You donít see him again until supper time. After supper, you have a few minutes, but then you gotta get to bed because you have to get up in the morning. The average married couple ends up with about five hours together a day. We got up, had breakfast, went into the office and worked until one oíclock. We stopped for an hour for lunch and then we worked until six oíclock-and if we were on deadline, we worked after supper. We were together at least 12 hours a day, so thatís why we were married so long!

SS: Among horror and science fiction fans, your most famous writing credit is for THE BLOB. Itís one of the earliest example of the teen horror film, with teenagers as the main characters.

KP: Well, you see, I believe that teenagers in every generation get the real short end of the stick. People have said for years that the young people are going to the dogs! Nobody really likes these people. They attribute all kinds of nastiness to them and I donít think that's true. We all come into the world with good in us. When you keep putting these bad labels on people instead of looking for the good in them, youíre creating a bad generation.

SS: Steve McQueen played the lead teenager in THE BLOB.

Kate Phillips--Scarlet Street
(Read more about THE BLOB)

KP: The character was named Steve before Steve McQueen got the job. In the story, the character of Steve comes from an uncertain family. His mother died young and his father was busy doing other things, and maybe his father was a heavy drinker. This is a young man who has a bad reputation and doesnít deserve it.

SS: And because of his reputation, he has a hard time convincing anyone heís seen a monster from outer space.

KP: The concept of THE BLOB is that, if you believe something and can get one person to believe it with you, and that person can get somebody to believe it with him, you finally have a positive source going. Now, the positive source wonít be able to wipe out evil, but the positive source will be able to control it. Thatís the theme of THE BLOB.

SS: The cast of THE BLOB is mostly made up of locals from Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, where the film was shot.

KP: There were three professional actors-Steve McQueen, Aneta Corsaut, and the old man.

SS: That was Olin Howling, who also appeared in another famous sci-fi film-THEM!.

KP: The rest werenít professionals. In the sequence where the kids are going to various houses and knocking on the doors and trying to get the townspeople to join in fighting this thing, one young man was my husbandís second cousin! (Laughs) Iíd known him from the time he was 12 years old. I had just been married. We were at his grandfatherís 75th birthday party and I felt terribly out of place. I walked into one of the rooms at this country club, and there sat a beautiful, beautiful young man. He looked so unhappy, and I said, "You look as miserable as I feel! May I join you?" He said, "Oh, yes!" I sat down and Phillip and I fell in love with one another. Whenever Phillip was having trouble with his stepfather, heíd give us a call and spend the weekend with us.

SS: Did he become interested in show business because of you?

KP: No. In order to please him, Phillip went to his stepfatherís alma mater, Amherst, and in his second year he was in a play. The theater bug bit him and he told me he was going to be an actor. His stepfather-Sam Epstein, who researched what came to be known as Epstein-Barr Syndrome-Sam was having a cat fit; Phillip had a terrible fight with him. Well, they were getting ready to shoot THE BLOB, and I figured the experience would either kill him or cure him. So Phillip did THE BLOB, and then he went to Columbia and got his masters in international banking. He went to England, married a former lady in waiting to Queen Elizabeth, and just a few years ago he got his Phd in pure mathematics, the kind that doesnít have any numbers. I made him promise that he would never try to explain it to me. (Laughs)

SS: The man who directed THE BLOB, Irwin S. Yeaworth, primarily made religious films. He had little experience before making THE BLOB.

KP: Yeaworth didn't know what the hell he was doing! Phillip told me that Steve McQueen kept making suggestions to Yeaworth-"Maybe we ought to try it this way instead"-and thatís the way they filmed it.

SS: Still, even the amateurs in THE BLOB give natural performances, including the little boy.

KP: Isnít he wonderful? They were all little theater people. You see, when somebody is really interested in playing the character, in being the character, then you get a relaxed and realistic performance. Thatís true whether youíve been doing it for 100 years or whether itís your first time. I was told very early-when you come into the theater, the last time youíre yourself is when you say hello to the stage doorman. From that point on, youíre the character. You know everything about the character. You know whether she drinks tea or coffee for breakfast, whether sheís superstitious-itís all there in the script if you just read it carefully between the lines.

SS: Isnít it difficult, when youíre starting out, to get into character for a television show or movie? Thereís usually a long wait between scenes.

KP: Well, itís even worse than that! You have to come back four days or a week later and pick up where you left off. Thatís why the script girl is such a gifted person. She knows exactly how far down your cigarette has been smoked, she knows whether your hand was on your cheek or your chest-she has that all down in notes. The technical side of film is, I think, absolutely fascinating!

SS: Were you happy with the final result on THE BLOB?

KP: Yes, I think it turned out extremely well; Iím not at all ashamed of it. I think itís absolutely remarkable that it was done at all! One thing that Iím very pleased about is that they did the one thing I felt was necessary and that I was very careful to write in-and that is they didnít show a person covered in this goo.

SS: Have you any favorite scenes?

KP: I love the scene where it comes through the projection-room window in the movie theater. Then, unfortunately, they used some very bad footage of people running out of the theater. It was too big a theater for a small town and there were too many people. That wasnít the way it was written. It was supposed to be a theater in a small town!, a theater that holds a couple of hundred people. There were dozens of those all over the country at that time. When I saw that scene, I said, "Oh, no!" Overall, it was good, though. I saw THE BLOB for the first time when it was showing in Hollywood. Gordon Chaseís wife was with me, and when we left she said, "You know, Kate, thatís a very good job!" I thought that was really great; I felt good about that. But then I didnít see the film again until I was teaching a course in screenwriting for Continuing Education. The film department needed to make some money so we could rent films, and it was decided that maybe people would pay a dollar if we showed one of one of my films. We showed GIRL FROM MANDOLAY, and then we showed THE BLOB and it worked out very well. That was the first time I really looked at it seriously, and I wasnít ashamed of it.

SS: When you began writing, did you give up acting entirely?

Kate Phillips--Scarlet Street
Kate Phillips with interview Leonard J. Kohl at the Buck Jones Film Festival in 2000.

KP: I didnít act again till about five years ago. I played the lead in a two-character play in Canada at the Thousand Islands Playhouse. When I called Equity to reinstate my membership, the lady said, "When did you join Equity?" I said, "I joined in 1934," and she thought I was a nut! (Laughs) I said, "I think it would be better if you called the producer and got his input on this." And about half an hour later, he called me and he was still laughing! He said, "That woman was sure that you were putting her on. She was sure that you were some kind of a nut!" And I said, "Maybe I am, but more to the point, maybe you are for hiring somebody my age!"

SS: Was it hard for you to get back into the swing of things?

KP: Not at all! No matter what we do, weíre all giving a performance. You realize that! And it just happens that I was comfortable with what I was doing. I had lots of fun; I enjoyed it hugely!

Back to PART 1

Twilight of the Horror Gods: Inside the Kate Phillips Interview

Scarlet Street


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