Cast & Crew
In 1927, cornet player Pete Kelly is the leader of "Pete Kelly and his Big Seven Band" which performs nightly at a seedy Kansas City, Missouri speakeasy. Rudy, the parsimonious manager who serves watered-down whiskey, treats the musicians well and the jazzmen are reasonably content with their lot, until racketeer Fran McCarg decides to take over the local bands and extort them for twenty-five percent of their earnings. Pete discusses McCarg's demands with his band, who decide as a group to refuse to cooperate with the mobster. Joey Firestone, the band's young drummer, who has never experienced the brutality of men like McCarg, is especially vocal in his indignation. Pete's closest friend, clarinetist and band member Al Gannaway, predicts that McCarg will kill one of them. Before Pete can talk to McCarg, Rudy sends the band to play at a private party held by flapper Ivy Conrad, who is the daughter of a prominent family. Infatuated with Pete, the fashionable Ivy throws herself at him, but he is not impressed by her forced conviviality. Although Pete is distracted by thoughts of McCarg, he agrees to dance with her, but when she grabs his horn to get his attention, he lets her fall into the swimming pool. Meanwhile, McCarg phones the mansion to talk to Pete, but a drunken Joey takes the call and rashly tells him off. Later, while driving home, the band is run off the road by McCarg's men and Joey is thrown through the windshield. He quickly recovers, but Pete and Al realize that McCarg will continue to harass them until they give in. Tired of mobster politics, Al soon leaves the band. When Pete learns that Joey has had a fight with Guy Bettenhauser, one of McCarg's men, Pete tries to try to reach McCarg in time to smooth over the incident. McCarg bursts into the speakeasy around two in the morning and Pete takes the hotheaded Joey out the back exit, but a battery of gunshots from a car at the alley entrance strikes Joey dead. McCarg claims to be innocent and names Bettenhauser as the killer. Later, in the room he shares with a pet bird, Pete finds Ivy sleeping in his bed. He tries to send her home, but she refuses and he soon succumbs to her amorous agenda. In response to McCarg's demands, band leaders meet secretly at a roadhouse to discuss pooling their money to buy protection. Reminding them of previous failed attempts to dissuade racketeers, Pete announces that he plans to pay McCarg. After being warned by singer Maggie Jackson that a policeman is looking for him, Pete is waylaid by detective George Tenell. The tough cop wants Pete's help in building a case against McCarg, but Pete refuses. Back at the speakeasy, where the band is breaking in Joey and Al's replacements, Pete tells McCarg they "have a deal" and McCarg introduces singer Rose Hopkins, whom he wants to feature in Pete's act. Despite the difference between the band's brisk musical style and Rose's slow, bluesy singing, McCarg forces them to perform together. McCarg wants to make her a star, but the aging Rose has lost her ambition and drinks heavily whenever McCarg is not around. At a ballroom owned by McCarg in which the band has been ordered to play, Ivy proposes to Pete, and overcomes his doubts about a marriage between a spoiled rich girl and a "tramp musician." One night, when the drunken Rose is ignored by a rowdy crowd, she breaks down in the middle of the song. McCarg beats her up, as his thugs prevent Pete from rescuing her. Later that week, Pete encounters Al, who is touring with a big band and, after accusing Pete of selling out, demands that Pete return a cornet mouthpiece of sentimental value that Al gave Pete long ago. Later that night, however, they make amends and Al decides to stay in town. After deciding to assist Tenell, Pete learns that Rose suffered head injuries and has been admitted to a state asylum. In a confrontation with McCarg, Pete accuses the racketeer of Joey's murder and tries to quit, but when McCarg makes death threats, Pete backs off. Without explaining his reasons, Pete postpones his marriage to Ivy, who then breaks up with him. Because he and Tenell think they can get to McCarg through Bettenhauser, who is missing, Pete visits Rose at the asylum. Although she is functioning at the level of a five-year-old, she is able to tell him that Bettenhauser is hiding out in Coffeeville, Kansas. Tenell wires the Coffeeville police, and as they wait for a response, Bettenhauser has Maggie summon Pete to the roadhouse. There, Bettenhauser tells Pete that McCarg ordered Joey's death. For $1,200, the sum he needs to leave town, Bettenhauser offers to provide documents and cancelled checks that will prove McCarg's guilt. After Pete agrees to the deal, Bettenhauser tells him the documents are stored in the ballroom office, which is closed that night. When Al hears that Pete is preparing to break into the ballroom, he offers to help, prompting Pete to knock him out to keep him out of harm's way. On his way to the ballroom, Ivy stops him and asks to make up, but in his haste, Pete rebuffs her. She follows him to the ballroom, turns on the player piano and drunkenly demands to dance. While Pete tries to appease her, McCarg, Bettenhauser and another thug enter and surround them. Pete and Ivy take cover behind tables as a shoot-out commences. When Bettenhauser climbs to the scaffolding above the mirror ball, Pete shoots him, sending him crashing to the floor. As the remaining henchman takes aim, Pete throws a chair, causing him to misfire and kill McCarg. The thug, claiming that he has "nothing to gain" by continuing the fight, leaves the ballroom without harming Pete and Ivy. Later, Ivy and Pete are married, and Pete and the Big Seven are playing together again at Rudy's.
Pete Kelly And His Big Seven Band
George Van Eps
Jud De Naut
The Choir Of The Israelite Spiritual Church, New O
Richard L. Breen
B. G. Desylva
Rudolf Friml Jr.
Leslie G. Hewitt
Robert M. Leeds
Sidney D. Mitchell
Lee G. Roberts
J. R. Rodgers
Richard A. Whiting
Best Supporting Actress
Pete Kelly's Blues
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
Pete Kelly's Blues
Pete Kelly's Blues - The Jazz World of the Roaring '20s as Imagined by Jack Webb in PETE KELLY'S BLUES on DVD
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.
For more information about Pete Kelly's Blues, visit Warner Video. To order Pete Kelly's Blues, go to TCM Shopping
by Jeremy Arnold
Pete Kelly's Blues - The Jazz World of the Roaring '20s as Imagined by Jack Webb in PETE KELLY'S BLUES on DVD
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.
1955 Academy Award Nomination for Best Supporting Actress (Lee).
Released in United States August 1955
Released in United States Summer August 1955
Released in United States August 1955
Released in United States Summer August 1955