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Raw materials: Kate Phillips

Kate Phillips' birth name was Mary Kay Linaker. As a young woman, she attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City. The Academy was a breeding ground for acting talent, and its productions were well-known in the city's theatrical community. In this excerpt from our 2001 interview, Phillips recalls how she got into the movies. My questions are in parentheses.  

Agents used to come to see these shows. There was an agent in New York whose name was Richard Pittman. If you were typecasting somebody to be the owner of an hereditary undertaking establishment, you would pick Richard Pittman. He came and liked what he saw, and said "I would like you to come to my office." And the end result was that I became a client of Mr. Richard Pittman. He was the only agent in New York that nobody ever said "no" to. 

 

So I went for summer stock at a very prestigious summer stock company. There was a young lady in the company who played the leads, the ingenue leads. And I was supposed to play one good part, and whatever else was handy. So I did my one good part, and then she fell and broke her leg. So I did all the ingenue leads, my first year in summer stock. 

 

Then some friends asked me if I would throw the lines to them for their screen tests. We went out to Warner Brothers in Long Island to make these tests.  And the head of talent came out and said we'd have to sign a contract. I said, I don't want to sign a contract. She said, well you have to, or you can't make the test. And I said, but I want to be free. So she said, I'll tell you what you do. Anything that you don't like, just make changes and initial the changes. So I said, fine. 

 

The first thing I saw was the pay scale. On these basic contracts, you started at 40 dollars and you went up to 75 and 125, and then 300, and at the end of the contract, you see, you owned the studio. I thought, the best thing to do is change these numbers. So I did; instead of 40 dollars, I put down 350 dollars. That would ensure that they wouldn't pick up the option. 

 

So we did the test, and I went up for another season of summer stock. That year, we started with a new play that was so awful! So next morning we are sitting on the stage, trying to figure out cuts and changes that could be made, and the telephone rang. The head of the box office answered, and then came up and said, Katie, you're wanted on the phone. 

 

So I trotted down through the barn, picked up the phone and said good morning. And this voice said "Good morning! This is Max Arno from Warner Brothers." [The studio's casting director.] "I just want you to know that we have exercised your option, and you're due in California next Monday." 

 

I said, "This is a very bad joke. I am not amused. Goodbye." And I went back and sat down. The phone rang again. And I went back, and it was Max Arno. And I said, "Look, whatever kind of a dumb joke this is, I am not laughing! Please do not bother me any more, thank you!" And I hung up. 

 

And then the phone rang the third time. And I went back, and this time I was really raring, and this voice said, "Good morning, Katherine. This is Richard Pittman."

I said, "Yes, sir."

He said, "That man calling is Max Arno. They have exercised your option. And you are due in California on Monday, and you start your first picture on Wednesday."

And I said, "Yes, sir." And that's how I went to California!

 

(You were 21 years old when you arrived in Hollywood?) I had my 21st birthday on the set of my first picture. 

____________

Young Kay Linaker became, as she put it, "the third brunette at Warner Brothers. Kay Francis was the first, and Mary Astor was the second." Astor had become a star during the silent era, and she was still a prominent and respected actor. 

Linaker's first film was The Murder of Dr. Harrigan, made in 1936. According to the Internet Movie Database, Astor was supposed to play the lead but refused. As punishment, the studio forced her to play a supporting role in the film, and Linaker took her place as the lead. Phillips recalls:   

 

I probably would have died in the trenches if it hadn't been for Mary Astor. She decided that Ricardo Cortez, who was my leading man, was not going to get away with it. Ricardo Cortez was the romantic brunette type. He did things that -- you see, I knew nothing about motion pictures. Absolutely nothing! And the third day that I was on the picture, this beautiful readhead came in. She said hello to everybody, and they said hello back, and you knew that she knew these people. This was not a polite hello. And she came over and sat down and said, "Hello, I'm Mary Astor. I'll talk to you later." 

 

So the shot was called, and we started to do the shot. We got all through the scene, and all of a sudden she got a coughing fit. She apologized, and we started over again. And she got another coughing fit. And this time she got up, and walked up to Rick Cortez and said, "Rick, I'm going to be here every day, because this girl is working every day. I'm only here six days out of the shooting schedule, but I'm going to be here every day. And every time you get in her key light, every time you turn her back to the camera, I'm going to have a coughing fit."

He started to deny it, but she said, "Look, I've been told that she's a very nice girl. She knows how to act. She doesn't know her way out of a wet paper bag as far as pictures go. But I'm here to help her." 

 

From that time on, he did not get in my key light, he did not turn me around, and Mary came on the set every single day.  She took me to the rushes. She told me what not to do anymore. She taught me everything I knew about pictures. And she had been taken out of the part that I was playing as a disciplinary action!

 

(Of such things are Hollywood dreams made.) Absolutely.

 

__________________

Kay Linaker acted in dozens of movies. For the most part, she had lead roles in B pictures and supporting roles in larger films. She acted in seven Charlie Chan movies, "more than any other woman," she notes with pride. But her most lasting contribution as an actor was a very unusual one: she had a matchless ability to scream. Her screams are still used in TV and movie soundtracks. It never would have happened, if she hadn't been such a beginner when she arrived in Hollywood.  

 

You see, when I looked at the script, it said, "She falls down the stairs." So I fell down the stairs. I didn't know I was supposed to have a double.

And it says, "She screams," so I screamed.

And the sound man came to me afterward and said, "Oh, that scream was wonderful! Do you suppose maybe at lunchtime, you could give me some more?" And I said "Sure." I didn't realize that nobody else screamed. 

 

(What's the technique?) You use diaphragmatic control on breathing. So you take a breath, and then you think of what is supposed to be happening to make you scream, and you just open your mouth, and your head controls the noise. You are relaxed. 

I can scream loud enough to stop a stagecoach!

 

(Do you get residuals for the screams?) No, I don't, unfortunately.

(Do you recognize your screams in movies?) Yes. And they're still being used, because people can't scream. I had no trouble. No trouble at all. 

 

Indeed. During our 2001 interview at NHPR, I asked her to give me a sample. At the time, she was 88 years old, probably five feet tall, maybe a bit over 100 pounds; she looked like a perfectly harmless "little old lady." She moved her chair several feet from her microphone and let fly with an absolutely full-volume, blood-curdling scream that went on for about ten seconds. Yep, she still had it. 


 

 


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