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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
PETE KELLY'S BLUES (1955) has finally made it to DVD and a fairly
enjoyable issue it is too but mostly because of the music - which I'm
sorry to say there isn't an over abundance of either. From a lean
enough screenplay by Richard L. Breen it is nevertheless well directed
by the picture's star Jack Webb. The light plot has cornetist Pete
Kelly (Webb), leader of a Dixieland Jazz band in 20s Kansas, going up
against racketeer Fran McCarg (Edmond O'Brien) who wants a "piece" of
the band. Trouble follows when Kelly's drummer Joey Firestone (Martin
Milner) objects and pays for his objection with his life (In classic
old Warner gangster movie style he is mowed down with a Tommy gun in a
back alley by a passing Limousine in the teeming rain). A stoic Webb
tells Rudy, the nightclub owner, "get someone to bring Joey in - it's
raining on him". The picture ends with Kelly having a showdown with the
mob boss and a couple of his "goons" in a well executed shootout in a
In between all the drama and gunfire there are some fine jazz numbers "played" by the on-screen band which is ghosted on the soundtrack by popular jazz band of the day Matty Matlock's Dixieland Jazz Band. Matlock himself ghosted for Lee Marvin on clarinet while Matlock's trumpet player Dick Cathcart doubled for Webb on the Cornet. It is reputed that Webb - an avid jazz fan - based the band in the movie on his own favourite Dixieland band - Eddie Condon's Dixielanders (who themselves in real life had problems with gangsters). But the movie is disappointing in that there aren't enough numbers played by the band in the film. We could have tolerated quite a few more of them from Matlock's great band! However as compensation we are treated to some terrific songs. The great Peggy Lee gives us her wonderful and unique renditions of such standards as "Sugar" and "Somebody Loves Me". Then there's a marvellous cameo by the First Lady of Jazz herself the inimitable Ella Fitzgerald belting out "Hard Hearted Hannah" and the title tune "Pete Kelly's Blues" (composed by Warner Bros. musical director Ray Heindorf). Interestingly Peggy Lee won an Acadamy Award nomination for her portrayal of McCarg's drunken moll in the picture.
So not too bad a movie really - saved mostly as I've said by the music. But it is stylishly photographed in Cinemascope and colour by Hal Rossen and has some clever rapid-fire dialogue. Thanks to Webb's expert direction he imbues his film with an exceptional jazz era atmosphere and his knowledge of Dixieland jazz helps it along. Dixieland jazz was the pop music of yesteryear. Hearing it here and in the light of what we have to listen to today it's a great pity it still isn't. Hmmm!
Now a word about the DVD! Although it is in a well defined 2.35 widescreen format Warner's presentation of "Pete Kelly's Blues" leaves a lot to be desired! There are no extras to speak of! Just a silly very dated short about the early days of motoring and a Looney Tunes cartoon. Surely they could have scraped up, from their archives, some short about jazz or something jazz related. No?? Also why was there no attempt to have a commentary? And to add salt to an already blistering wound - there isn't even a trailer! For shame Warner Home Video!
However, nothing can diminish this classic line from "Pete Kelly's Blues"........... The deadpan Webb (the only actor who could walk without moving his arms) in a confrontation with gangster O'Brian : "I've heard about you McCarg - down south they say you have rubber pockets so you can steal soup"!
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.
"Pete Kelly's Blues" gave Jack Webb a chance to direct and star in this film
that compliments his close, tight, factual emphasis on the characters and
the story. It's a no-nonsense film that combines some good musical moments
with the times of the roaring 20's, when the gangs were determined to make
money in every venture, or cause the venture to cease to exist. Such is the
situation for Pete Kelly and his jazz band.
Kelly, played by Webb, enjoys the fact that his band can pretty much come and go as they see fit, perform, collect their fees, and move on to other clubs, other towns. They are good at what they do, and a local gangster, played to the hilt by Edmond O'Brien, sees a chance to move in. He tells Kelly that the band must allow his new girl a chance to perform, plus give him a sizable cut of their appearance money. The singer, played by Peggy Lee, just wants to get a start in show business, and O'Brien wants to control her start on a career. The film moves to an eventual expected climax, but the ending for Peggy Lee is not a happy one.
The cast included Janet Leigh, Andy Devine, Lee Marvin (a good guy role), and Ella Fitzgerald, who contributed some moving tunes in her own special style. Peggy Lee did garner an Oscar for best supporting actress, and it was deserved.
A film piece that deserves more than one chance viewing.
Jack Webb takes up the trumpet and takes on local gangsters in this colorful
if at times somewhat peculiar movie about jazz musicians in the Kansas City
of the Roaring Twenties. The story is disappointingly shallow and
by-the-numbers, but there's some great music and songs from, among others,
Peggy Lee and Ella Fitzgerald, courtesy of Ray Heindorf and Sammy
Webb was a strange case. A true pioneer of early television production, and in his way a true innovator, he made a virtue out of impassivity. He directs this one with more energy than his TV shows, but the dryness and apathy are still there. When he's dealing with conventional players, like Martin Milner, it's like he's directing himself. But when he's got a live wire, like Lee Marvin, who has a colorful supporting role in this one, or Andy Devine, who has an offbeat one, he seems almost to have the makings of an American Fellini. Deep down, I suspect, that Webb really loved crazy people. He just didn't know how to show it.
Great Singer, reknowned composer, Peggy lee had a chance to really act and act she did in Pete Kellys Blues earning her an Oscar nomination and many fans...She died today (1/22/02), and the world is a lot less brighter.. This is one of the few glimpses we get to see her in her heydey, beautiful, young and talented... This film should be treasured for that alone plus some fine singing by not only Peg, but the great Ella Fitzgerald... for these reasons alone this flick is worth seeing buying and reissuing/ contrived maybe, poorly directed possibly but to see Peggy Lee on film singing and emoting, and earning an Oscar nom., that alone is worth the price/ also look for an ingenue, Jayne mansfield in the chorus... thank you Jack Webb also
What a weird brew this one is! The toughness of a gangster pic, the existential malhereuse of a trendy European epic, the fine '20s sounds of a period musical, all in Warners wide screen. Webb's production design is arty and interesting, and Lee Marvin is really, really good in a supporting role. There's terse, snappy dialogue that sounds like it's out of a much later movie, and a killer finale that clearly influenced Coppola, Scorsese, and practially every other showy director of that generation.
This could just as easily be titled 'Joe Friday's Blues'! Webb still has the cop demeanor in this rather routine story of a blues band leader during the 20s. Lord, even the narration is reminiscent of Dragnet. Now, having said all that, how can you not like a movie with a supporting cast of Marvin, Milner, Divine, Leigh, Lee, O'brian, and Fitzgerald? The musical numbers are sensational, and one can detect real admiration on Webb's face when he watches Lee and Ella perform; accordingly, this was Webb's labor of love. Watch for Andy Divine in a role unlike any you've seen him in before.
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.
"Pete Kelly's Blues" was a do-or-die project for Jack Webb, best known for
playing Sgt. Joe Friday on the TV series "Dragnet". Riding on the success of
his previous film "Dragnet" (1954), Webb decided to make this film as his
next project. If it did well at the box office, Warners would greenlight a
TV show of the same name.
"Pete Kelly's Blues" did respectable business (about 5 million), and garnered an Oscar nod for singer Peggy Lee in the Supporting Actress category, but, for reasons unknown, Warners decided to pass on the TV show. Today, "Pete Kelly's Blues" fails to muster much interest and is nearly forgotten today.
Webb's film is dripping in atmosphere, which is a major plus considering the setting (New Orleans during the Roaring Twenties)and the script (by Richard L. Breen, who wrote "Dragnet")is so airtight and taut that you just can't help getting involved in it. I know I've raked Blake Edwards over the coals for paying attention too much to the story sometimes, but with Webb, concentrating on the story is a plus. The acting is excellent, especially by Webb, who some might consider too stiff, but others will consider to be realistic. And using the CinemaScope frame for the first and only time in his career, Webb really creates some complex and stunning compositions. It should be required viewing for all budding cinematographers. It should only be seen widescreen. AMC often airs it this way, showing "Pete Kelly's Blues" in all its 2.55:1 glory.
Webb is one of the most interesting of directors and also the most underappreciated. "Dragnet" told a riveting murder mystery that transcended the TV series. "The D.I." was fairly realistic and daring for its' time (you can't fault it for being more mellow than most Marines films, this was 1957 people!)"-30-" was an interesting clash of styles set in the newspaper industry. With "Pete Kelly's Blues", Webb surrounds it with top notch talent (the cast includes Janet Leigh in an early role and recent Oscar winner Edmond O'Brien and future Oscar winner Lee Marvin)and turns in his most original and best work. If you love jazz, you get lots of it here and Webb shows that besides Clint Eastwood, he is one of the only directors able to understand jazz enough to successfully film it.
Webb deserved a Best Director nomination as well as a Best Picture nod (he also produced the picture; making him one of the first auteurs in film) In any case, "Pete Kelly's Blues" deserves to be treated as much more than a throwaway; it deserves respect and earns it from me. I think anyone will enjoy it though Webb fans will like it even more. You know who you are.
**** out of 4 stars
"Pete Kelly's Blues" is, in my humble opinion, like a lot of Jack Webb's work, an underrated movie. Even as a teenager, I realized in 1955 that the movie had a dark plot but at the same time was highlighted by great musical performances. Jack got an academy award performance from Peggy Lee and outstanding performances from Ella Fitzgerald, Edmund O'Brien and Martin Milner, to say nothing of Janet Leigh, whose performance was good. Jack was not liked by a lot of people in Hollywood who panned his work. With the exception of "Dragnet", the TV show and the movies, "Pete Kelly's Blues" was Jack's most important work, if not the most appreciated. It's a shame when personalities interfere with an appraisal of someone's work.
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