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In 1927 Kansas City Pete Kelly and his jazz band play nightly at a speakeasy. A local gangster starts to move in on them and when their drummer is killed Kelly gives in, even though this also means taking the thug's alcoholic girl as a singer. Kelly soon realises he has made a big mistake selling out in this way and that rich girl Ivy is now the only decent thing in his life. Written by
Jeremy Perkins <firstname.lastname@example.org>
"Pete Kelly's Blues" was originally a radio series created by Richard L. Breen and starring Jack Webb. It ran on NBC as a summer replacement series from July 4 to September 19, 1951. It later became a short-lived TV series (Pete Kelly's Blues (1959)), produced by Webb. See more »
This was Jack Webb's labor of love and his big shot at big screen stardom. Humphrey Bogart was aging, (and soon to die), and perhaps Webb saw himself as an heir to his thrown. He certainly was a lover of everything about the 1920's into which he was born and of the jazz of the time in particular. He was a competent actor, (quite good in 1950's "The Men", opposite Marlon Brando) but ultimately lacked the presence and ability necessary for stardom. he we see him completely outacted by two who did, Edmund O'Brien and Lee Marvin, (who would have been a fabulous choice to play Pete Kelly). Webb seems trapped in his Joe Friday characterization. Particularly poor his the scene where he first confronts O'Brien, as gangster McClarg, in anger. Kelly, (Webb), knocks out McClarg's henchmen. McClarg then breaks a bottle on the bar and offers Kelly a chance to beat him to it. Kelly then shrinks into intimidation and sulks out. The scene is preposterous to begin with: why would Kelly be intimidated by McClarg when he's just kayoed hi body guard? But Webb clearly has no idea how to play it. He just stars blankly at O'Brien, then turns around and, hunched over and with his arms dangling lifelessly at his side, he marches out stage left while the music swells up to convey Kelly's humiliation to us much more effectively than Webb does.
Where Webb really excelled was as a director. He opens this with a shot of a New Orleans jazz funeral. Period detail is exquisite throughout. The dialog is snappy and authentic. The music, of course is great if jazz is to your taste. Any film with both Peggy Lee and Ella Fitzgerald singing in it is work a listen. This one is worth a look, as well. There are great camera shots, particularly when one of Kelly's associates gets gunned down in an alley. The final confrontation is exciting and well-staged. As noted below, it was clearly influential to modern directors. The cast of the film is uniformly excellent except for Webb himself. Peggy Lee is great and one wonders why a significant acting career didn't follow. O'Brien, in a rare villain role, is forceful without the overacting he's often guilty of. Marvin dominates every scene he's in and Martin Milner, a much underrated actor, is excellent in an early role as well. Andy Devine is a revelation as a tough cop. You've got to see it to believe it. Janet Leigh appears as Kelly's girlfriend. She's essentially window dressing but very attractive window dressing. But it's hard to tell what attracted her to Kelly. Webb is so stiff an uncomfortable in their romantic scenes that their relationship is hardly credible.
This film would probably be regarded as a classic today if Webb had not insisted on playing the lead, but who can blame him? It was his big chance on the big screen. He created an exquisite donut to star in. But this donut had a hole in it and he was that hole.
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