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Pete Kelly's Blues

Pete Kelly's Blues(1955)

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teaser Pete Kelly's Blues (1955)

In the 1950s, Jack Webb was riding high. His movie career was modest, but a role he played as a crime lab technician in a semi-documentary police procedural based on a real crime, He Walked by Night (1948), gave birth to Dragnet, in which Webb was determined to get away from phony Hollywood hard-boiled heroics and salute cops as understated working-class soldiers stoically bulldogging criminals. It struck a chord, first as a radio series from 1949-1954. In 1954 it was made as a film starring Webb as LAPD Sergeant Joe Friday, with his trademark insistence on "just the facts, ma'am." From 1952 to 1959, it was an even bigger hit TV show. Webb thus had clout. With his production company, Mark VII, it meant he could resurrect a short-lived radio series of his, based on a real-life love, jazz. Pete Kelly's Blues (1955) traveled first-class to the CinemaScope screen, with a strong, hand-picked cast. It was Webb's dream to move it, too, to TV. He tried to, unsuccessfully, in 1959. Today, neither the film nor the TV series resonates. It's remembered today chiefly for the role of a damaged alcoholic singer played by Peggy Lee.

It earned Lee an Oscar® Supporting Actress nomination (she lost to Jo Van Fleet in East of Eden) and a New York Film Critics Circle award. Far from being a springboard to an acting career, however, it, and the voice talent she contributed to Disney's animated Lady and the Tramp the same year, marked her last Hollywood feature film appearances. Lee later said she saw her singing career as a better bet. Given that the latter lasted six decades, with Lee and her smoky-voiced worldliness often on or at the top of the charts, who's to say she was wrong? Her character is the most - some would say the only - emotive one in Pete Kelly's Blues, though. It's easy to point to the film's shortcomings - a hackwork screenplay (by Dragnet writer and, prior to that, Academy Award winner Richard L. Breen), stiff direction (by Webb, who used mirrors to track the action when he was on camera), an even stiffer performance in the title role, and patchy editing. Still, for an essentially clunky film, it's often surprisingly enjoyable, and not just musically, although that's its strongest element.

Webb went to New Orleans to film the opening pre-credit sequence, the funeral of a black jazz musician against the slow passage of a riverboat in 1915. The dead man's silver cornet falls off the horse-drawn funeral wagon and surfaces in the next sequence in Jersey City, 1919, where Webb's demobilized WW I doughboy wins it in a boxcar crap game. When the film opens, it's 1927 and Webb's Pete Kelly, cornet in hand, is fronting a seven-man ensemble in Kansas City, in a combination basement pizza joint and speakeasy where the owner waters the whiskey and a fleshy racketeer (Edmond O'Brien) shows up and extorts 25% of the band's fee. Pete caves, talking tougher to a socialite (Janet Leigh) who falls for him than he does to the crooks. One murdered drummer later, and we can feel Pete, the worm, begin to turn.

But not before some music plays. Webb, who grew up poor in his mother's rooming house in Los Angeles, was never the same after a musician who stayed there gave him a recording of Bix Beiderbecke's "At the Jazz Band Ball." Although he never reached a professional level, Webb could play the cornet and supplies his own fingerings in the film. Pete Kelly's Blues is the product of Webb's lifelong love of jazz, and it comes through. Clarinetist Matty Matlock, guitarist George Van Eps, drummer Nick Fatool and violinist Joe Venuti are among the jazzmen we see. The script makes sure to drop a few of the right names - Beiderbecke, Jean Goldkette, Kansas City legend Bennie Moten, and The Mound City Blue Blowers, for example. The film does more than project a sense of actors enjoying themselves playing dress-up in Prohibition Era costumes and driving snazzy period cars. Its homage to the music of the period is palpably real.

This extends to - and culminates in -- the vocals. Ella Fitzgerald plays the owner of a roadhouse on the outskirts of town, which encapsulates the racism of the era by having all the black musicians herded there if they want to work - Pete Kelly's place of employment is lily-white - and has two vocals. The title song, by Ray Heindorf and Sammy Cahn, isn't up to the level of the old standards, but Fitzgerald unfurling "Hard-Hearted Hannah" gets right to our pleasure centers. Even Leigh, who brings the sweetness that made her so irresistibly a fixture on the 1950s and '60s A-list to the impossible role of Webb's love interest, turns in a passable drunken flapper rendition of "I'm Gonna Meet My Sweetie Now," more notable for Leigh's working-girl-with-a-work-ethic gameness than for vocal prowess. Matlock's All-Stars keep things upbeat between the eruptions of violence. Then there's Lee.

In the film, she plays the fragile singer turned platinum blonde arm candy to O'Brien's bullying mobster. Sad, drinking too much because she considers herself washed up at 35 (Lee's age when the film was released!), her character pulls it together long enough to deliver molten versions of "Sugar" and a song written for the film (referring to her masochistic rationale for staying with the strong-armed thug), "He Needs Me." But when she cracks while singing "Somebody Loves Me" and flees the stage, O'Brien follows, beats her up and throws her down a flight of stairs. The next time we see her, Pete is visiting her in what looks like the large whitewashed basement of the asylum to which she's been railroaded with brain damage, having regressed to childhood, crooning a poignant song called "Sing a Rainbow" to a rag doll and plinking out the accompaniment on a toy piano. Lee has written that she turned down film roles because they were mostly mawkish fluff. Here was one that wasn't, but easily could have been. Lee gauges it with the finesse and professionalism she brought to her singing career, and carries it off.

There are other pleasures. Luxuriant cinematography by Harold Rosson and production design by Harper Goff - especially in the climactic shootout between had-enough-and-won't-take-it-anymore Pete and brutal O'Brien, with breathtaking long shots in a darkened dance hall allowing just enough light for a glitter dome to figure. Here you can feel Webb breaking free of the spatial constraints of TV and really showing what he can do, with a few grand, shadowy long shots and framings at which Coppola or Scorsese wouldn't thumb their noses.

The spare but square writing and Webb's sparer and squarer performance are offset by some offbeat casting, too, starting with tough guy Lee Marvin as Al, Pete's weary clarinetist and pal. With both wearing caps that look as if they were just unwrapped when the lens cover came off the camera, they aren't exactly convincing when Pete not once but twice punches Al out during differences of opinion. You get the feeling that Marvin's Al, a head taller, could pulverize Pete. Then there's Andy Devine, yanked out of his usual comic roles to convincingly bring his hoarse deliveries to a dogged cop determined to nail O'Brien. Oh yes, and Jayne Mansfield, just before her own platinum blonde bombshell period, as the club's red-headed cigarette girl. Finally, since jazz aficionados will want to seek out any soundtrack with Lee and Fitzgerald on it, it's worth pointing out that there are three versions, owing to different contractual alignments at the time. Look for Fitzgerald-Lee, then on Decca, now MCA.

Producer: Jack Webb
Director: Jack Webb
Screenplay: Richard L. Breen
Cinematography: Hal Rosson
Art Direction: Feild Gray
Music: David Buttolph, Ray Heindorf (both uncredited)
Film Editing: Robert M. Leeds
Cast: Jack Webb (Pete Kelly), Janet Leigh (Ivy Conrad), Edmond O'Brien (Fran McCarg), Peggy Lee (Rose Hopkins), Andy Devine (George Tenell), Lee Marvin (Al Gannaway), Ella Fitzgerald (Maggie Jackson), Martin Milner (Joey Firestone), Than Wyenn (Rudy Shulak), Herb Ellis (Bedido).

by Jay Carr

Just the Facts, Ma'am: The Authorized Biography of Jack Webb, by Daniel Moyer and Eugene Alvarez, Seven Locks Press, 2001
Fever: The Life and Music of Peggy Less, by Peter Richmond, Henry Holt, 2006

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