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Pete Kelly's Blues

Pete Kelly's Blues(1955)

Remind Me

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A prologue set in 1915 on a New Orleans bayou overlooking the Mississippi River depicts the funeral of an African-American cornet player. After the interment, the mourners sing a spiritual, then a brass band playing ragtime music leads the mourners away. The dead man's cornet, which had been lying on top of the coffin during the service, falls from the hearse. The next scene, set four years later aboard a railroad car near Jersey City, NJ, shows a man winning the cornet in a crap game. The Warner Bros.' logo appears, after which Jack Webb portraying "Pete Kelly" exits the railroad car with the cornet he has won. The opening credits then commence, beginning with: "Jack Webb as Pete Kelly, in the Screen Play by Richard L. Breen, Pete Kelly's Blues." After the last credit in the opening sequence, voice-over narration by Webb begins: "If you're looking for a new way to grow old, this is the place to come: 17 Cherry Street, Kansas City...." Webb's voice-over continues intermittently throughout the film.
       Webb, whose first wife was actress and nightclub blues singer Julie London, had a lifelong interest in jazz. Like his previous film, Dragnet (see entry above), Pete Kelly's Blues's first incarnation was a radio series which aired for six months in 1951. Although production charts indicate that the shooting schedule of Pete Kelly's Blues occurred between late March and mid-May 1955, a two page ad in a late February 1955 edition of Hollywood Reporter reported that the film was "now shooting in New Orleans." The ad featured a punch-out recording containing a message from Webb and a 78 rpm recording of a song from the film. According to a February 1955 Hollywood Reporter news item, production of Webb's popular Dragnet television series was halted during the production of Pete Kelly's Blues.
       Trombonist Elmer Schneider, who appeared on film in the band, was credited onscreen as "Moe" Schneider. Although the appearance of the following actors in the film has not been confirmed, Hollywood Reporter news items add Arlene Harris, Lomax Study, Robert Lorraine and Dinah Ace to the cast. Other Hollywood Reporter news items add Eddie Sheehan as a Kansas City hoodlum and Wally Ruth as a saxophonist. According to a May 1955 Hollywood Reporter news item, the following dancers, who were supervised and directed by Lillian Culver, appeared in the roadhouse party scene: Cynthia Blaire, Linda Coleman, Ingrid Dittmar, Irish Krasnow, Jewel Diehl, Shirley Falls, Joan Larkin, Winona Smith, June Valentine and Shirley Wilson. Another May 1955 Hollywood Reporter news item reported that 200 extras were hired to dance popular dances of the "Roaring Twenties" era, the Charleston and the Black Bottom, in the dance hall scene. According to opening credits, the bayou sequence at the beginning of the film, which featured cornet player Buckner and the Choir of the Israelite Spiritual Church of New Orleans, was shot on location at The Fleming Plantation in LaFitte, LA.
       Peggy Lee was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in the picture, but lost to Jo Van Fleet in East of Eden. Although opening credits list only two songs performed in the film, according to a March 1955 Hollywood Reporter news item, a total of thirty-eight musical numbers were at least partially featured in the film. The "Big Seven" musicians also played twelve tunes from the film, each introduced by Webb, on the RCA Victor label. The musicians portraying "Pete Kelly's Big Seven," several of whom appeared in Dragnet, recorded songs from the film with Ray Heindorf and the Warner Bros. orchestra on the Columbia Record label. Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee, who appeared in the film as "Maggie Jackson" and "Rose Hopkins," respectively, recorded an LP of songs from the film on the Decca label. As early as April 1955, a Hollywood Reporter news item reported that Webb planned a thirty-day tour in conjunction with the opening of the film to determine whether there was interest in creating a spin-off television series. From April through September 1959 a Pete Kelly's Blues television show aired on the NBC network, starring William Reynolds as the title character.