Robert Altman's jazz-scored film explores themes of love, crime, race, and politics in 1930s Kansas City. When Blondie O'Hara's husband, a petty thief, is captured by Seldom Seen and held at the Hey Hey Club, she launches a desperate plan to release him. She kidnaps the wife of a powerful local politician in an attempt to blackmail him into using his connections to free Johnny. Despite this being election time, he risks exposure by putting the political machine into action to free Johnny and thereby save his wife. Mrs. Stilton, meanwhile, has befriended Blondie and is impressed by her love and devotion to Johnny, especially in contrast to her own loveless marriage.Written by
Tad Dibbern <DIBBERN_D@a1.mscf.upenn.edu>
"Kansas City" is partially based on a true incident. In 1933, Mary McElroy, the opium-addicted daughter of Henry McElroy, Kansas City's City Manager, was kidnapped from her home by a group of amateur kidnappers. After a $30,000 ransom was paid, Mary McElroy was released unharmed. Her four kidnappers were later caught and sentenced to life in prison. See more »
While the music sessions were not strictly done as period pieces, the inclusion of the Gibson electric guitar jumped the gun by a few years. The ES-150 didn't go into production until 1936 and had a blade type pickup. See more »
Bottom line, whether you love or hate "Kansas City" will depend on your reaction to Jennifer Jason Leigh's performance. Leigh's character Blondie anchors the story as a desperate wife trying to save her husband from the gangsters he tried to rob. Leigh looks great in this role, she is fit and trim which makes her face cuter and her character more fragile looking. The contrast between her almost angelic appearance and her tough persona is intentional because the toughness is an affectation, qualities she has adopted because she loves her husband and they are a turn-on for him.
Her's is the key performance of the film, the twist is her emulation of Kansas City native Jean Harlow ("The Public Enemy" and "Girl from Missoui"). Watch Harlow in "Red Headed Woman" and you will see the incredible physical resemblance between the two actresses. Personally I found it both touching and humorous; her character worthy of the brave heroine hall of fame. But it is almost a caricature and some viewer will be put off by this tiny woman talking so tough.
As in "Nashville", there are great songs (but jazz rather than country) throughout the film. It is important to realize that "Blondie's" behavior is intended to mirror the "cutting contests" between the jazz musicians on-stage at the club. Just as the musicians borrow from one another and weave each others stuff into what they are improvising, "Blondie" borrows from the movies and weaves Harlow's tough girl phrases and expressions into her conversation.
Leigh and Miranda Richardson spend most of the film in each other's company. Although Richardson's character is doped up on laudanum (tincture of opium) most of the time, you get the idea that she is taking in a lot more of the situation than she is letting on. There is almost a "Thelma and Louise" quality to their relationship, in part because Leigh doing Harlow ends up sounding a lot like Geena Davis doing Geena Davis. The two women are polar opposites in the way they react to the desperation in their lives; one has lost all restraint, the other has lost everything but restraint.
Richardson's character is unexpectedly touching. An emotional bond is subtly forged between the two women as the film proceeds, with Richarson gradually becoming totally protective of her kidnapper. The ending is shocking but you understand the motivation, then looking back you pick up on the various foreshadowing devices that Altman placed throughout the film. He goes out with a bass duet of Duke Ellington's "Solitude" performed by Ron Carter and Christian McBride.
Like many films with downbeat endings, "Kansas City" is destined to be more appreciated 25 years after its release.
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