August 6th, 1915 — October 6, 2009
Of all the actresses that starred in multiple serials, Pamela Blake just might be the most underrated. In addition to being quite attractive, she was a more talented actress with more actual thespian experience than many of her fellow serial heroines; however, she is rarely even mentioned when fans discuss the best cliffhanger leading ladies. Blake’s obscurity is largely due to the fact that she never appeared in a really successful or memorable serial, the best of her four chapterplay outings being merely one of Republic’s more routine post-war productions. However, she delivered good performances in each of her serial outings, and often managed to bring genuine emotional credibility to scenes that many actresses would have perfunctorily walked through.
Pamela Blake was born Adele Pearce in Oakland, California. She won a local beauty contest shortly after finishing high school, and embarked upon an acting career shortly afterwards. She began making bit appearances in films in 1934, but didn’t start seeking bigger roles until 1937, after she had finished a course in acting. Her first credited part was as the heroine in the 1938 Tex Ritter B-western Utah Trail. For the next four years she freelanced at studios like RKO, Monogram, and Republic, playing supporting parts in bigger-budgeted films (like the RKO Anne Shirley vehicle Sorority House) and leading ladies in B-films (like the Republic John Wayne B-western Wyoming Outlaw). She also had small but memorable bits in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith and the famed film noir This Gun For Hire, and it was possibly these parts that caused MGM Studios to sign her to a contract in 1942. Around this time, she changed her screen name to Pamela Blake, retaining that moniker for the rest of her career. MGM treated her as they did other fledgling starlets, using her as a background player, secondary lead, and occasional heroine in B-films. The studio dropped her in 1944, and she returned to freelancing, playing more heroine roles in Republic and Monogram features. She also took a supporting part in the Columbia B-mystery The Mysterious Intruder, and that studio’s serial producer, Sam Katzman, subsequently cast her in what was intended to be something of a B-mystery/serial hybrid.
This hybrid was Chick Carter, Detective (Columbia, 1946). It featured an unusually “adult” plot (concerning insurance fraud and a stolen diamond) and a similarly adult milieu, the nightclub world of gamblers and gangsters; both plot and milieu were more typical of B-mystery features than of serials, but the end result was too dully and hazily scripted to work as either a B-mystery or a chapterplay. Pamela, though given prominent billing, didn’t enter the serial until the seventh chapter–after which she remained prominent till the end of the chapterplay. Her character was Ellen Dale, a supposed cigarette girl at the “Century Club” who promptly began prying into the mystery of the stolen Blue Diamond–formerly the property of owner Charles King, and soon was vying with King, gangsters George Meeker and Leonard Penn, nightclub singer Julie Gibson, and reporter Douglas Fowley in a search for the stone–until the final chapter, when police lieutenant Chick Carter (Lyle Talbot) unraveled the whole mess and revealed Pamela’s character to be an insurance detective. Blake gave her mysterious character a cool shrewdness and a properly enigmatic manner, and though her material was less than stellar, acquitted herself well–particularly when parrying inquiries by the police or the gangsters and making barbed and searching remarks to Gibson’s character.
Above, from left to right: Eddie Parker, Pamela Blake, Julie Gibson, Eddie Acuff (partially hidden behind Gibson), an unidentified actress, Lyle Talbot, George Meeker, and Charles King appear to be trying to sort out the plot of Chick Carter, Detective.
Blake’s very next role was in another serial, The Mysterious Mr. M (Universal, 1946). She was cast as Shirley Clinton, an insurance investigator who joined forces with federal agent Dennis Moore and police detective Richard Martin to track down master criminal Edmund MacDonald and his shadowy associate, the “Mr. M” of the title. The villains were out to steal the plans for a mammoth submarine, but the trio of protagonists effectively thwarted their schemes. Mr. M was Universal Pictures’ final foray into the serial genre, and was rather a slow and talky affair. However, it was much more entertaining than Chick Carter had been, thanks to a strong supporting cast, and Universal’s fine production values. Pamela’s talent for depicting scrappy determination suited her well for her part, and she established a nice rapport with her two male co-stars–offsetting their usual graveness with cheerfulness during conferences, but still maintaining a thoughtful, collected, and intelligent demeanor.
In 1947, Blake returned to Columbia to co-star with Tom Neal in a couple of 45-minute B-mysteries produced by the studio’s shorts division. The same year, she appeared in her second and last Columbia serial, The Sea Hound. Her character, Ann Whitney, was a girl searching for her missing scientist father in an unnamed tropical archipelago. She enlisted Captain Silver (Crabbe) and his ship The Sea Hound in her search, and with Silver’s aid she rescued her father and defeated the schemes of island criminal Robert Barron and her father’s treacherous “friend” Hugh Prosser, who were both after a cache of Spanish gold that Professor Whitney (Milton Kibbee) had discovered). A Katzman-produced venture like Chick Carter, Sea Hound was low-budgeted and somewhat lethargically paced, but possessed a more traditional serial plotline than Blake’s first Columbia cliffhanger. The serial also benefited from some colorful supporting performances, interesting Catalina Island locations, the presence of Buster Crabbe as the hero. Pamela’s performance was another one of the serial’s good points. While the search for the heroine’s missing father is a standard serial plot device, she conveyed an urgent and single-minded concern that made her character’s quest seem like more than a perfunctory cliché to set the plot in motion.
Blake co-starred in a few more B-movies for Republic, Monogram, and low-budget Lippert Pictures before appearing in her final serial, Ghost of Zorro (Republic, 1949). This well-produced but uninspired Western cliffhanger cast her as Rita White, daughter of a pioneer trying to establish a telegraph line on the Western frontier. When her father was murdered by outlaws who were determined to keep the telegraph, and the law and order it represented, out of their territory, Rita took over the telegraph company and attempted to finish her father’s work. Her Eastern engineer Ken Mason (Clayton Moore) secretly aided her efforts in the guise of the masked avenger Zorro (Mason was a grandson of the original Zorro, Don Diego Vega). Since the script required Rita to treat the “tenderfoot” but actually very capable Mason with unwarranted contempt, until she found out his secret identity in the later chapters, Blake could not avoid coming off as rather unpleasant at times. However, she kept her character from ever seeming too unsympathetic, and brought a convincing air of intent, slightly bitter determination to her beleaguered character–convincingly conveying sorrow and anger at her father’s death, ongoing frustration with the obstacles thrown in the path of the telegraph project, and pioneer resolve to complete the project despite those obstacles.
Blake appeared in a few more B-films, chiefly for Lippert Pictures, before beginning to work principally in television in the early 1950s. She made frequent guest appearances on shows like Range Rider and The Cisco Kid; her last screen role was the female lead in The Adventures of the Texas Kid, an unsold TV pilot that was released to theaters as a latter-day B-western in 1954. After making Texas Kid, she retired from Hollywood, moving to Las Vegas with her husband, TV quiz show producer Mike Stokey. She enjoyed a long life out of the spotlight, passing away in a Vegas care facility in 2009 at the age of 94.
While Pamela Blake never starred in a really outstanding serial, her cliffhanger performances were always first-rate. Many serial heroines were catapulted into the movies directly from the modeling industry or other walks of life, but Pamela had a solid grounding in acting the time she entered the chapterplay world. That acting experience allowed her to make you believe she was a seasoned professional investigator (not merely a pretty girl playing at being one), and make you believe she was genuinely concerned or deeply sorrowful about missing or murdered fathers (not merely claiming to care about them in order to jump-start the plot). Had she begun her cliffhanger career only two or three years earlier, she might be well-remembered by serial fans in general and not just serial historians.
Acknowledgements: Gary Brumburgh’s Internet Movie Database biography of Pamela Blake provided me with the biographical information featured in this article.