Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955)

Film Title: Pete Kelly’s Bluespetekelly

Year: 1955

Studio: Warner Brothers

Silent or Talkie: Talkie

Genre: Drama

Starring:

  • Jack Webb
  • Janet Leigh
  • Edmond O’Brien
  • Peggy Lee
  • Andy Devine
  • Lee Marvin

Review

Jack “Just the Facts Ma’am” Webb is best remembered today for his iconic stint as Sgt. Joe Friday in Dragnet on radio, on television (twice), and in a 1954 feature film. But he was also the creator of eight radio series besides Dragnet. One of these series was Pete Kelly’s Blues in 1951. It was Webb’s attempt to bring the music that he loved, jazz, to a broader audience. The series was short-lived, but in 1955 he gave it another shot with his feature film of the same name. Webb had grown up poor in the Bunker Hill section of Los Angeles. His mother ran a boarding house, and it was there an ex-jazzman gave Webb a recording of Bix Beiderbecke’s “At the Jazz Band Ball.” That gift sparked Webb’s life-long interest in jazz.

The film opens with the funeral of a cornet-man in 1915 New Orleans. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. If the whiskey don’t get you, the women must.” A cornet is placed in the back of a horse-drawn hearse. As the hearse moves over the muddy ground, the cornet tips and falls in the road. Then we’re in New Jersey, 1919. A group of men are shooting craps in a boxcar, and a doughboy wins the cornet. As the camera pulls back, the doughboy is revealed as Pete Kelly (Jack Webb). Jump to Kansas City, 1927. Kelly, with the same cornet, is now leading a band called “Pete Kelly and his Big 7” at a speakeasy, the Club 17. It’s not one of KC’s swankier establishments as is evidenced by the sign at the cashier’s, “PLEASE PAY CASH and be a CREDIT to yourself.” Among the patrons is Ivy Conrad (Janet Leigh), a wealthy party girl who has an eye for Kelly. But Kelly’s not buying: “Look, I don’t feel good. Now if you got tanked up and lost track of the party, go down the street and start another one. But don’t bother me. I’m tired.” The speakeasy’s owner, Rudy, a man so stingy that ‘he fired the cook for using fresh peas’, calls Kelly away from the set to talk to Fran McCarg (Edmond O?Brien). McCarg wants to sign the band (no matter that they already have an agent), and he wants Kelly to use his girlfriend, a 35 year-old, alcoholic vocalist, Rose Hopkins (Peggy Lee): “Ten years he’s known me and all he can say is she comes free. But I guess that covers it.”

McCarg is the kind of a guy that won’t take no for an answer. When Kelly’s drummer Joey Firestone (Martin Milner) ends up on the wrong end of a Tommy gun, and his ace clarinetist Al (Lee Marvin) leaves for a shot at the big-time, Kelly succumbs to McCarg’s offer. Will Ivy catch Kelly too? When he returns to his room after Joey’s death he finds Ivy in his bed. “This is a single. You got the wrong gutter.” Ivy confronts him, telling him that any man who keeps a canary, as Kelly does, can’t be that mean. Kelly’s reply: “I’m nice to him because I might get hungry some day and have to eat him. In the meantime he can hit G above high C so I keep him around.” Kelly is approached by detective George Tennel (Andy Devine) who wants his help in bringing McCarg down. Kelly suspects that McCarg is the one responsible for the murder of Joey Firestone. When he witnesses McCarg’s abuse of poor Rose after she breaks down on the bandstand in front of a rowdy crowd, Kelly decides to take action.

Pete Kelly’s Blues has a lot going for it. Harold Rosson’s cinematography and Harper Goff’s Art Direction are outstanding. Rosson came to the project with four Oscar nominations under his belt for such diverse projects as The Wizard of Oz (1939), Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), and The Asphalt Jungle (1950). His color noirish lighting is perfect for the material. Goff designed the submarine Nautilus for Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea the previous year and was a concept artist for the design of Disneyland’s Main Street. His use of dark contrasted with garish colors gives the film a feeling of authenticity. Writer Richard Breen had nabbed an Oscar for his screenplay for Titanic in 1953, and was nominated twice more. His crackling dialogue is one of the film’s chief assets.

Casting both Lee Marvin and Andy Devine against type was an inspired choice that plays well in the picture. Webb also cast legendary jazz vocalists Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee in pivotal roles. He also gives them some great musical sequences: Ella sings “Hard-Hearted Hannah” and “Pete Kelly’s Blues” to very nice effect, and Peggy Lee gives a nice rendering of “He Needs Me” and the period tune “Sugar”. Ella doesn’t have much dialogue to deliver, but what she has she delivers well. Peggy Lee has several extended dramatic scenes. The best remembered is her scene in a mental asylum where she has reverted to a child, accompanying herself on a toy piano as she sings the sweetly haunting children’s tune “Sing a Rainbow”. Lee was nominated as Best Actress in a Supporting Role for this performance by the Motion Picture Academy. She did not win and Pete Kelly’s Blues was her final screen appearance, but of course she continued performing concerts, recording, and appearing on television variety shows into the 1990s. Future blonde bombshell Jayne Mansfield also appears in a small role as a cigarette girl in the speakeasy.

The leads, however, are a bit more problematic. Jack Webb is so well known as Sgt. Joe Friday that it is difficult not to see his Dragnet persona in everything he did. He certainly smiles more in this than I remember him doing in Dragnet. But he delivers the same kind of performance here. It bothered a lot of people when the film came out, but we’re far enough removed from Dragnet now that it may not bother folks as much today. Janet Leigh is saddled with the poorest written role in the film. She doesn’t look or sound anything like the socialite flapper that the actual 1920s showed us on film. And ultimately her character is just annoying. There is no romantic chemistry between her and Webb, and it hurts the film. One cannot conceive of any possible reason why either is attracted to the other. Edmond O’Brien is stuck playing the meanest man in the world. He does it well, but there is no depth or color to his role. He’s a villain so irredeemably bad that it allows for no tension in his character. He’s always going to go for the worst possible course of action.

I am not a jazz aficionado, so I’m not the one to judge the veracity of the music being played in the film. Webb was however, and as this was a labor of love for him, I’m guessing the music passes muster. The under-scoring by Arthur Hamilton is a typical but not very good dramatic score of the day. It is not influenced at all by the jazz being played “live” in the film, and it clashes badly. Robert Breen’s snappy dialogue is a plus, but the plot itself is flabby. And it is filled with such mediocre villains and heroes that it just doesn’t generate much excitement. Webb’s plodding direction doesn’t help things either. One wishes Webb had left the Warner Brothers soundstage where he was filming Pete Kelly’s Blues and wandered over to the Warner library and watched William Wellman’s The Public Enemy or even one of his melodramas of the same period like Night Nurse or Heroes for Sale for inspiration. It couldn’t have hurt.

On Video

The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio in a fine anamorphic transfer. Colors are vividly rendered and the picture is sharp and free from flaws. The sound has been remixed in Dolby Digital 5.1 and sounds great. The only extras included on the disc are a Robert Youngsen short titled Gadgets Galore and a Looney Tunes cartoon titled The Hole Idea.

Conclusion

Pete Kelly’s Blues is a major disappointment, especially when you consider that this is a subject Jack Webb loved and wanted to bring to a wider audience. The music is great, the visuals are great, and it’s great to see jazz legends Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee in one of their few film roles. But Webb and Leigh don’t click onscreen, and the plot is old and tired. It’s a very nice transfer to DVD. If you are attracted to any of the players or the rare presentation of jazz music in a Hollywood studio film, then this is probably worth a viewing. Otherwise a pass is probably in order.

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