January 11th, 1887 — February 18th, 1963
A former silent star who became a solid sound-era character player, the tall, dark, and husky Monte Blue turned in half-a-dozen serial performances, winning his biggest cliffhanging showcases in villainous roles. Although he was a very good actor, he was also a low-key and naturalistic one, lacking both the arrestingly sinister appearance and the controlled theatricality that helped contemporaries like Charles Middleton and Bela Lugosi to dominate the screen; as a result, he’s never been one of the serial genre’s more heralded heavies, even though his chapterplay turns (with one exception) were strong and effective ones.
Gerard Montgomery Blue was born in Indianapolis. His father, a half-Cherokee Civil War veteran and railroad engineer, was killed in a train wreck in 1895, and his mother, unable to provide for her four children on her own, was forced to place the eight-year-old Monte in the Soldiers and Sailors’ Orphans Home of Knightstown, Indiana, where he received his education and played on the orphange football team. Blue left the Knightstown Home in 1903, at the age of sixteen; it’s hard to work out an exact chronology for the next nine years of his life, but it appears that he put in a year at a college (probably Purdue University) and held a job as a shipping clerk in Indianapolis, before doing a four-year hitch in the Navy. He was stationed in Michigan during his naval years, and stayed there for a time after his discharge, working as a shipping clerk for a Benton Harbor factory; he then moved on to another shipping-clerk job in Chicago, before heading out to Hollywood circa 1911. During Blue’s first four years in the movie capital, he worked as a script clerk, bit player, general laborer, stuntman, and assistant director for various filmmakers (D. W. Griffith chief among them); in 1915, he began taking noticeable acting roles, first playing co-starring parts in the shorts of the minor studio Reliance, and then playing many supporting parts in the features of bigger outfits like Metro and Famous Players-Lasky. By 1921, Lasky was starting to give Blue starring roles on a regular basis; he cemented his star status that same year, with his performance as Danton in Griffith’s Orphans of the Storm. After playing top-billed roles at several different studios, he signed a contract with Warner Brothers in 1924, and, except for a couple of loan-out assignments, did all of his remaining 1920s screen work there–enjoying considerable success as a leading man in dramas, comedies, and action-adventure films; he was featured with especial frequency in the last-named genre, due to his six-foot-three height and his beefily athletic frame.
Blue’s good speaking voice and down-to-earth acting style helped him to make an easy adjustment to the talkies, but his age (he had turned forty in 1927) kept his starring career from lasting very long into the sound era; his Warners contract expired in 1930, not long after he lost all of his considerable silent-era earnings in the great stock crash of 1929. From 1931 through most of 1933, the newly impoverished Blue capitalized on his silent-era fame by starring in low-budget features for Columbia, Allied, and other small outfits; he began transitioning into supporting roles in 1933, and settled firmly into a new groove as a villain and character actor in 1934 and 1935, making most of his screen appearances in Paramount’s hour-long Zane Grey adaptations and a couple of their bigger films (such as Lives of a Bengal Lancer). In 1936, Blue (like many another ex-star before him) was signed for a serial role by producer Nat Levine, the boss of fledgling Republic Pictures’ chapterplay unit. The serial in question was the science-fiction epic Undersea Kingdom, which featured Blue as chief villain Unga Khan–the tyrannical ruler of the submerged realm of Atlantis and the would-be conqueror of the “surface world.” An uneven but colorful and action-packed outing, Kingdom is probably the best-remembered of Blue’s serials; however, his performance in it was weaker than any of his subsequent chapterplay turns. Though he adopted a suitably evil smile and a properly aggressive manner, his performance was not subtly stagy enough to make Khan seem like the larger-than-life villain he was supposed to be; instead of delivering his lines with dramatic but carefully polished haughtiness, he rattled them off in a harsh, ranting monotone that made him come off like a crabbily impatient thug instead of a demonically ambitious dictator.
Above: Boothe Howard and a pleased Monte Blue watch as hypnotized scientist C. Montague Shaw tells them of the launching rockets that will allow them to move their city of Atlantis into the upper reaches of the ocean in Undersea Kingdom (Republic, 1936).
Blue divided the remaining years of the 1930s between many different studios–among them Paramount, Republic, RKO, Warner Brothers, and Universal; most of his major roles during this period were in serials and B-films (including several of Republic’s Gene Autry Westerns), but he did play a few credited character parts in A-features. His next chapterplay was Secret Agent X-9 (Universal, 1937), which gave him the best of his serial roles. This fast-moving crime saga centered around the theft of the Belgravian Crown Jewels, and featured Blue prominently as Baron Michael Karsten–a Belgravian emissary who didn’t trust G-man hero Dexter (Scott Kolk) to recover the jewels, and who joined with fellow-Belgravian Shara Graustark (Jean Rogers) in a private attempt to find the stolen gems; their activities repeatedly complicated the battle between Dexter and mysterious master jewel-thief Victor Brenda. The Baron’s obstructive behavior in the serial’s early chapters made both Dexter and the audience suspect that he might be Brenda himself, but Karsten’s kidnapping by the master criminal halfway through X-9 dispelled that suspicion; Brenda then spent most of the serial’s middle chapters impersonating the Baron, before the nobleman was rescued and the master thief was unmasked as another supporting character. This role–essentially a dual one–allowed Blue to portray both a prominent “red herring” and the serial’s leading villain at different points in the action; he made the most of the multifaceted parts, playing both characters with flair. As Karsten, he was brusquely dignified (when dismissing the queries of the G-men), fanatically stubborn (when reminding Shara of the national importance of their mission), grimly furious (when defying his captor Brenda), and affably genteel (when he finally decided to assist Dexter); the Baron, antagonistic though he was at times, ultimately came off as rather admirable. Blue’s performance as the disguised Brenda was also a good one, combining as it did crafty slickness and hard-boiled toughness; his coolly confident impersonation of Karsten and his harsh, peremptory attempt to seize the jewels by force (after the impersonation failed) were equally vigorous and self-assured.
The Great Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok (1938), Blue’s only Columbia serial, gave him an entirely sympathetic role as a Texas rancher named Cameron, who led his fellow-Texans on a dangerous cattle-drive to Abilene in the face of attacks by a well-organized outlaw gang known as the “Phantom Raiders.” Giving full rein to his natural Midwestern drawl, and adopting an jovial, gentlemanly, but doggedly determined demeanor, Blue made a very convincing–and very likable–pioneer in Hickok, but was sadly killed off (in an oddly abrupt and undramatic horsefall) halfway through the serial, leaving his daughter (leading lady Carole Wayne) and right-hand man (Reed Hadley) to finish the cattle drive, with help from the heroic Hickok (Bill Elliott).
Blue returned to serial villainy for his last 1930s chapterplay, Hawk of the Wilderness (Republic, 1938). One of Republic’s more underrated outings–but one of their best–Hawk was set on a lost island north of the Arctic Circle, inhabited by primitive Indians and by a Tarzan-like hero called Kioga (Herman Brix)–really an archeologist’s son who’d been shipwrecked on the isle in his infancy. Blue played Yellow Weasel, the medicine-man of the Indian tribe, and an implacable foe of the outsider Kioga; when another group of outsiders, an archeological expedition led by a colleague of Kioga’s late father, arrived on the island, Yellow Weasel roused his tribe against them, forcing Kioga to battle the Indians on their behalf while also dealing with the expedition’s mutinous crew of ex-smugglers. Blue functioned as one of Hawk‘s two main heavies (the other being William Royle’s mutineer leader), and established a strong and threatening presence in the serial without ever uttering a word of English-language dialogue; all of his lines were delivered in an indeterminate “Indian” dialect. Using gestures, facial expressions, and vocal inflections, he did an impressive job of conveying ferocity, cunning, anger, and vindictiveness by turns, while his high-cheekboned, part-Cherokee face made him look more believable in an Indian role than most other regular serial heavies would have. Though considerably more portly than he’d been during his starring days, he also presented a physical appearance imposing enough to keep him from looking completely overmatched in his periodic hand-to-hand clashes with the Olympic champion Brix.
During the first few years of the 1940s, Blue worked primarily in Republic’s B-westerns (in major parts) and in Paramount’s A-films (in minor parts); he also made two more serials during this period. The first of these was Riders of Death Valley (Universal, 1941), a highly entertaining “million dollar” serial with an unusually distinguished lineup of stars that included Dick Foran, Buck Jones, Leo Carrillo, and Charles Bickford. Blue, as a greedy and unscrupulous frontier businessman named Rance Davis, had less to do than some of the other players in this large cast; his character served as a sort of assistant brains-heavy to nominal lead villain Joseph Kirby (James Blaine)–but Bickford’s outlaw leader Wolf Reade was the real linchpin of the chapterplay’s evildoing team, getting the lion’s share of screen time and showing little respect for his ostensible bosses. However, Blue received more time in the spotlight than Blaine did; half-heartedly posing as a law-abiding citizen, he joined in the search for the “Lost Aztec Mine” that dominated the serial’s first half, and was given several opportunities to pompously argue with heroes Foran and Jones and loudly feign solicitude for heroine Jeanne Kelly. He also served as a good foil for Bickford in more than one sequence, amusingly oscillating between smug self-importance and nervous caution as he criticized his vicious cohort’s strategies; the grouchy and blustery way in which he discussed plans with the more cool-headed Blaine was amusing too, as was Blue’s darkly humorous death scene (in which his character insisted that Wolf–who was threatening him with a gun–was just “bluffing,” only to be summarily shot down).
Blue’s last serial was King of the Texas Rangers (Republic, 1941), which featured him its first chapter as Ranger Captain Tom King–who unearthed evidence of a foreign espionage ring threatening the Texas oil fields, but was killed by a sniper before he could pass on this evidence to his superiors, leaving his son (Sammy Baugh) to take up his Ranger badge and continue his fight against the spies. Blue originally got to open Rangers by engaging in a protracted running shootout with the villains (and plugging two of them), but the sequence was trimmed from the final print due to time issues (footage from this discarded scene can be spotted in the serial’s trailer). In the finished chapterplay, he appeared just long enough to ride into town, make a phone report, briefly discuss his investigations with the heroine (Pauline Moore), and get shot. He still managed to make an impression during his short time on screen, going about his business with a tough, taciturn, and grimly urgent manner appropriate to a veteran lawman who’d caught the scent of something really big.
From 1942 through 1950, Blue worked steadily and almost exclusively in the features of his silent-era employer Warner Brothers, only playing a handful of roles at other studios; these latter-day Warners roles varied in size, ranging from uncredited bits to sizable character parts (he was especially memorable in John Huston’s Key Largo). He began to freelance again during the early 1950s, working occasionally at Warners but also appearing in other studios’ films–and on television; he played a recurring sheriff role on the Sky King series in 1952, and also took multiple parts on The Lone Ranger. He did more and more TV work (typically playing either lawmen or Indian chiefs) as the 1950s continued, and by the middle of the decade had virtually given up features for television. He made his final screen appearance in an episode of the 1960 series Pony Express, and then retired from acting to work as a press agent and traveling “advance man” for the Shrine Circus; he was visiting Milwaukee on circus business when he died of a heart attack in 1963.
Although Monte Blue was simply not flamboyant enough of an actor to be considered one of the serial genre’s most memorable heavies, the quiet excellence of most of his chapterplay work still warrants more than a passing mention. He was undeniably out of his acting depth in his first serial, but he was thoroughly successful in his subsequent cliffhanger characterizations, convincingly portraying a noticeably varied assortment of villainous (and heroic) figures–from the superficially civilized master-thief to the entirely savage war-chief to the solidly honest frontiersman.
Acknowledgements: Like several other movie stars, Monte Blue has been thoroughly obscured by studio-concocted misinformation that makes biographical research somewhat difficult. Most biographies of Blue, derived from Hollywood press releases, have him pursuing a ruggedly romantic succession of occupations–cowboy, coal-miner, hobo, lumberjack, circus equestrian, forest ranger–during his pre-movie career, but an entirely different picture is painted by the 1910 federal census (which lists his occupation as shipping-clerk and his residence as Michigan), his World War 1 draft-registration form (which refers to his previous four years of Navy service in Michigan), the 1940 census (which credits him with a year’s worth of college education, partially confirming publicity-material references to his time at Purdue), and a trio of newspaper blurbs (two of them reference his shipping-clerk jobs in Indianapolis and Chicago, and the third names his first film as a 1911/1912 production). These bits of evidence so thoroughly narrow the time-frame of his early years as to make the accounts of his multiple occupational adventures seem highly unlikely; at most, I suspect, Blue took a few odd jobs on his way from Chicago to California. My other sources for this piece were Blue’s AP obituary and David Smith’s book Hoosiers in Hollywood (Indiana Historical Society press, 2006), which reproduces the usual inaccuracies about Blue’s cowpunching, etc.–but which does provide some more concrete info (which I checked against additional censuses) about his childhood in Indiana and his assistant-director work for Griffith (the latter information is backed by a quote from one of Griffith’s cameramen).