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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>
Shaking Down The Musicians In Prohibition Kansas City
The background of the Prohibition Era of Tom Pendergast's Kansas City in the Twenties at its height is the setting for the story of Pete Kelly's Blues. Jack Webb's crisp documentary like style honed by years of doing Dragnet on television is the manner in which Pete Kelly's story of resistance to the mob is told. All Webb in the title role wants to do is play jazz, but playing jazz in mobbed up Kansas City came at a price.
The one who wants the payoff is political ward boss/gangster Edmond O'Brien. He's got the swinging part of Kansas City in his pocket where all the speakeasies and clubs are and he's thought of a new racket, charge protection to the musicians, even to the extent of moving their own legitimate agents out. And O'Brien wants 25% not the usual 10% real agents charge.
Webb's defiant, cowed, and then defiant again during the course of the film. The murder of his drummer Martin Milner takes a lot of the fight out of him. But O'Brien pushes way too hard and he's a really crude sort of thug. In the end Webb snaps.
With one exception the cast is great. The music end is taken by two really great singers Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee who have some great numbers that show why they were the best in their business. Lee even copped an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress, but lost to Jo Van Fleet for East Of Eden. Lee Marvin is here and not playing a thug, but is a clarinetist and Webb's best friend. Webb plays the trumpet. Andy Devine is law enforcement and deadly serious. The squeaky voice is moderated and Andy's bulk is used similarly to Laird Cregar in I Wake Up Screaming and Orson Welles in Touch Of Evil. Andy never had a role this serious on screen. And Peggy Lee even with that Oscar nomination never followed up on it, my guess being she thought of herself as a singer not an actress primarily.
Janet Leigh who usually is great disappoints me here. Her role as an air-headed party girl is really out of place and why Webb is falling for her is a mystery. Later on she nearly gets him killed when he finally decides to face down O'Brien. Janet does her best, but the part makes no sense at all to me.
The locale of Pete Kelly's Blues in Pendergast controlled Kansas City is interesting. O'Brien is just the kind of guy Pendergast would have as a lieutenant. Pendergast's name is not mentioned, in 1955 it didn't have to be. The recent president of the United States, Harry S. Truman was a product of that machine and that was never out of the public's mind even after Pendergast was dead.
Dixieland jazz fans will really like the music from Pete Kelly's Blues, I certainly did along with the rest of the film.
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