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Pete Kelly's Blues

Pete Kelly's Blues(1955)

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What a movie Pete Kelly's Blues (1955) could have been. The opening sequence is a stunner, the music is superb, the sets and costumes look great, and the supporting cast does a quality job all around. The problem is Jack Webb, who directed the picture and stars as Pete Kelly, a cornet player who leads a blues band in 1927 Kansas City.

In this tale of the band struggling to keep afloat and fighting a local mobster (Edmond O'Brien) who wants to extort their earnings, Webb seems to still be playing his Joe Friday character; it's as if Friday simply wandered in off the set of Dragnet. The clipped dialogue, the deadpan voice, the overall manner - it's all Joe Friday, and it feels completely inappropriate to this story. Webb delivers every line stiffly, and otherwise spends much time staring off into space while listening to other characters speak to him, and it all just about sinks the movie. It's hard also to believe that he would be the object of such great affection by love interest Janet Leigh, who nonetheless soldiers through the story pretty well.

As director, Webb has mixed results. While he gets good performances and balances the music well through the film, there's a showiness here that comes off as pretentious. Webb begins many shots of new sequences with some kind of extreme foreground action which quickly gives way to the main action of the shot. It feels awfully overdone. The dialogue, too, is crammed with far too many "clever" lines or wisecracks that do not mesh with what is otherwise a richly textured visual portrait of a historic time and place. The wisecracks feel modern, artificial and forced; the look and setting do not.

All that being said, there are pleasures here, first and foremost the presence of Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee, the latter of whom received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her role. (She lost to Jo Van Fleet in East of Eden.) They each sing, of course, and Lee plays a much more integral character than does Fitzgerald, but Webb lets them both have their musical moments, which are wonderful. Production designer Harper Goff, on loan from Disney (and identified as such in the opening credits), does fine work in creating convincing speakeasies and other sets. Hal Rossen's CinemaScope photography is moody and rich and mixes in a certain glossy noirishness when appropriate.

Mention must also be made of the film's inspired pre-credit sequence, which shows the backstory of Kelly's cornet. Just a few well-composed shots express a deep sense of atmosphere in a funeral sequence which will linger in viewers' memories. Later on, Webb has one other especially notable triumph of staging: a murder scene in a rainy alley.

Standing out in the supporting cast are an understated Lee Marvin as a band member who leaves and returns, Martin Milner as a hotheaded drummer, and Andy Devine in a straight role of a tough detective - an odd choice but fun to see. Also look for a positively stunning Jayne Mansfield as a cigarette girl, in only her second screen appearance.

Pete Kelly's Blues had previously been mounted as a 1951 radio show and would later surface as a 1959 TV series. With its promising characters, music and production values, and flashes of smart visuals, it's too bad the movie is such a mixed bag. Technically, it looks great on a dual-layer, enhanced widescreen DVD, and the remastered soundtrack is excellent. Jazz aficionados will definitely want to give this film a look (and a listen); for everyone else, it's not a must-see. Extras comprise just a short and a cartoon, neither of which has any relevance to the picture itself.

Warner Home Video has released Pete Kelly's Blues as part of a group of four "blues" movies, each sold separately. The other titles are Blues in the Night (1941), which has music and Don Siegel montages as the best things going for it, 'Round Midnight (1986), starring Dexter Gordon in the '50s Parisian jazz world, and Bird (1988), with Forest Whitaker portraying Charlie Parker. The latter two films, directed by Bertrand Tavernier and Clint Eastwood respectively, are excellent.

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by Jeremy Arnold