Set at the height of the whole tea dance 20’s ‘go to hell’ generation, soaking themselves in the decadence of tax free ‘new money/old money’ and Prohibition-crazed bootlegger’s bathtub gin, that makes the 60’s ‘revolution of free love’ look like a garden party, Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955) – directed and starring Jack Webb (TV’s Dragnet 1951-59) is an often compelling, star-packed and tune-filled drama, loosely based on the short-lived radio crime series that ran a scant three months on NBC from July to September 1951. Webb, who trademarked the line “Just the facts, ma’am” on Dragnet carries over his unruffled deadpan, ‘shoot from the hip’ and ‘ask questions later’ repartee into this glossy/glamorous affair, lensed with a moody elegance by the superb cinematographer, Harry Rosson. Pete Kelly’s Blues is a superior example of Cinemascope; Rosson illustrating a mature grasp and visual flair for the uncompromising proportions of the horizontally elongated screen. Where too often early ‘scope’ movies tended to look, either as though they were trying much too hard to fill every inch of that vast canvas with varied movement, or simply stumbled along with cavernous portions of ‘dead space’ glaringly obvious and distracting, while the principles gave their dumb show center stage, Rosson’s camera work always provides fascinating compositions to admire. The film looks gorgeous. Moreover, Rosson’s richly varied style delivers the action properly placed, directing our eye to the important elements in each and every shot.
Richard L. Breen’s screenplay keeps the action taut and the plot moving at a breakneck speed, perhaps in part to conceal Jack Webb’s rather stiff central performance. Webb’s ‘presence’ is largely felt in the steely intonation of his voice – not surprising, considering he began his career in radio where vocalization is everything and the subtler nuances of body language are unimportant. But film requires an enigmatic personage to carry the load; or, preferably, a pretty face to keep the audience mooning and swooning. Webb is hardly ‘stud’ material. In fact, in deportment and mannerisms he has a very ‘Oscar Levant’ quality. However, while Levant’s appearances in movies were generally welcomed, primarily because he played to his own neuroses and rapid-fire glibness, cleverly parceled off in between exchanges from the more prominently featured star players, Webb gives us an ‘Oscar’ who must maintain and captivate our interests for the entire duration of the show. He’s not exactly a success at this.
Nor is he particularly adept at complimenting the stony quality in his inimitable voice with something more compelling than a sulky saunter across a crowded room. He periodically explodes with temperamental bouts of frustration, walloping co-star Lee Marvin on the chin (twice!) and engaging in a shooting match with Edmund O’Brien small time crook and his goon squad inside an abandoned ballroom. Alas, these fits of ‘take charge’ frenzy are neither preceded by a build-up of bottled tensions, nor followed with any sort of meaningful cooling off. As a director, Webb tends to fade to black - a lot; the movie increasingly evolving into a series of episodes as might fit between a commercially interrupted radio or TV broadcast. None of this heavy-handedness monumentally hurts the overall impact of the story. But it should be pointed out a more accomplished director, like George Cukor, would not have relied on the fade to link his plot points together.
In hindsight, what is most impressive about Pete Kelly’s Blues is that it was directed by Webb; not simply competently, but with a flavorful yen for the 1920’s gangster and Dixieland milieu, and, with considerable stylistic panache, thanks to Harper Goff’s impeccable production design and Feild Gray’s art direction, easily rivaling Charles Vidor’s superiorly realized musical biopic, Love Me Or Leave Me (also made, though over at MGM, in 1955). The roaring twenties, unseen on the screen since Warner Bros. lucrative spate of gangster-land ‘ripped from the headlines’ pictures, pumped out as daily diet throughout the 1930’s, comes back with a vengeance here. In hindsight, Pete Kelly’s Blues is far grittier. Despite its impressive musical repertoire, and no less torch-singing authorities than Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee belting out some hot jazzy tunes, Pete Kelly’s Blues is not a musical and never allows its’ songs to overpower the story: a very impressive melding of score to action that maintains the tenuousness in its sex, greed, villainy and murder-driven plot.
And Webb really has done his homework on this outing: assembling a fantastic cast to insulate his shortcomings as an actor: Martin Milner (who would go on to Adam 12 fame) as petulant drummer/loveable drunk/cum early stiff in the morgue, Joey Firestone; resident tough guy, Lee Marvin, showing us a softer/gentler side as clarinetist, Al Gannaway, and, (look for her), a very young/very brunette Jayne Mansfield, sensually tottering about as a nightclub cigarette girl. Yeow – those legs and cleavage. Okay, I’m through dragging my Neanderthal/sexist knuckles on the Linoleum. Firehouse Five banjoist, Harper Goff (also the movie’s production designer) is featured as the band’s banjo player. Finally, there’s Than Wyenn as Rudy Shulak, frugal owner of the 417 Cherry Street speakeasy where Kelly and his boys move to the beat, hilariously bookending the film with vignettes of watering down the booze. Yes, Pete Kelly’s Blues has a very fine pedigree. Moreover, Webb is able to utilize his collected talent in meaningful ways. All of the aforementioned (except, maybe, Mansfield) strike an indelible chord: a testament not only to Webb’s directorial prowess, but also their abilities to captivate as easily identifiable movie-land icons.
Leaning to the métier of its star, the Richard L. Breen screenplay gives Jack Webb plenty of hard-edged one-liners to rattle off with disdain between bouts of blowing on his coronet (the trumpet heard in the movie actually played by Dick Cathcart). Aside: Cathcart would go on to have a lucrative career as a jazz band leader: other members, Matty Matlock (clarinet), Moe Schneider (trombone), Ray Sherman (piano), George Van Eps (guitar), Jud DeNault (bass) and Nick Fatool (drums) also heard on this soundtrack. Breen and Webb had previously worked together on another short-lived radio franchise, Pat Novak for Hire. The dialogue is, in fact, one of the most impressive assets of Pete Kelly’s Blues; uncompromisingly harsh and witty, amiably illustrating the morally bleak outlook and corrupt social fabric of our…um…hero’s tight and constricting world. On the surface, at least, the character of Pete Kelly is a tough sell. He isn’t conventionally genial or even, on occasion, remotely likable. He lacks the impetus of a strong-minded (or at least strong-willed) overtly masculine influence. And in stature, Webb is about the least impressive to carry off such rogue machismo - too often an essential quality to a movie’s success, though particularly during the golden age of Hollywood. Point blank: Webb is no James Cagney or Robert Mitchum. But there’s a quality to Webb that contravenes our expectations for the gutsy brute.
Here is a guy who basically cannot make up his mind about anything; whether or not to join up with Prohibition mobster/goon-ball, Fran McCarg (played as venial evil by Edmund O’Brien), get busy with ‘the girl’ (Janet Leigh as spoiled, flaxen-haired fluff-head, Ivy Conrad) or stay true to his music, as well as his own severely flawed code of ethics, particularly where silky-voice/has been entertainer, Rose Hopkins (Peggy Lee) is concerned. Lee’s heart-sore and tragic kept woman eventually goes mad, momentarily getting Kelly off the hook and freeing him up for the ever-pursuant Ivy. She is rather relentless, mostly silly and thoroughly vapid. Still, Janet Leigh manages to grow something of a woman’s heart for her character; a ripening of maturity that bodes well for the world-weary Kelly, who sees life as a fairly tortured daily grind. The revelatory performance in the movie undoubtedly belongs to Andy Devine; briefly glimpsed as the steely-eyed cop, George Tenell. Divine, justly famous for his bumbling persona and octave-changing hoarse vocalizations in countless John Ford/John Wayne westerns, completely eschews these trademarks in Pete Kelly’s Blues and to nerve-jangling effect. He’s peerless as the brooding, driven detective out to ensnare McCarg, coolly asking for Kelly’s help, then just as unflappably pulling the chair out from under him – literally. With only a few lines of dialogue to recommend him, Divine gives us the flipside of the problem with local law enforcement circa the period; vengeful, ruthless and equally as obsessed.
Pete Kelly’s Blues opens on a superbly recreated old New Orleans funeral, shot at the Fleming Plantation in Lafitte, Louisiana. It’s Teddy Buckner’s cornet we hear, along with the rousing Israelite Spiritual Chorus, performing Didn't He Ramble. Amidst the lazy sway of moss laden willows, a paddlewheel steamer passing in the background, we witness the burial of an undisclosed jazzman, the mourners disbanding in typical pomp as the band strikes up a livelier tune and departs; the deceased’s cornet toppling from the horse-drawn hearse into the fresh mud, eventually finding its way into a pawn shop and finally Pete Kelly’s hands – won in a crap game inside a moving railway box car. All of this takes place before the appearance of the iconic Warner Bros. shield and the main titles; an evocative snapshot of the smoky-room world of jazz we are about to enter.
We regress – marginally – to the obvious Warner back lot ‘New York’ street set, slightly redressed to mimic Kansas City and the 17 Club, a basement speakeasy that ironically, first began its ‘life’ as a mortician’s room. Webb’s voiceover narration gives us just enough of ‘the facts’ to ease into the story. We see Rudy watering down the booze and Jack and his band pounding out another hot set to the amused and slightly inebriated patrons. At present, we also catch a glimpse of vapid flapper, Ivy Conrad, come to entice Jack and his friends to a society house party she’s only just left. He spurns her transparent flirtations. Jack is hit up – but hard – by Fran McCarg. It seems McCarg is collecting bands, or rather, a percentage of the money owed them for himself. The cut is deep – 25% off the top – but it affords participating members a certain level of – shall we say – protection from McCarg’s goon squad. Jack doesn’t take kindly to the shakedown. Still, he’d rather play ball than wind up in the hospital; or worse – the morgue. The band’s clarinetist, Al Gannaway, is empathetic to Jack’s plight. He really is in between the proverbial rock and the hard place. But ‘wet behind the ears’ drummer, Joey Firestone is adamant Jack turn the offer down. In fact, he all but tells McCarg to go to hell. Silly boy; he doesn’t yet grasp the finer nuances of the mob.
Unable to convince Jack to attend her party, Ivy leaves her ridiculous looking hat at the club on purpose and goes over Jack’s head, paying Rudy to hire the band to play at the house party. Jack reluctantly agrees, arriving at the swank digs where the hoi poloi are in full swing, indulging their senses in some vapid charades and other party playtime. Ivy, who makes no secret of her ravenous sexual desires toward Jack, makes a B-line for him across the crowded room. He plays along – to a point – sashaying her for a few rounds on the dance floor, then a few more on the adjacent moonlit terrace. Presently, the two are attended by a very drunk Joey, nursing his sorrows with yet another alcoholic beverage. Ivy decides to liven up the mood, seizing Jack’s cornet and tossing it to a fellow reveler. Jack coolly demands for its return, arguably the only thing he loves, takes it back by force, then cruelly pushes Ivy into a nearby fountain, depositing the cap she left at the speakeasy on her soaking wet head.
Leaving the party with his band in tow, Jack suddenly becomes aware they are being pursued by a carload of McCarg’s goons who run them off the road into a heavily wooded area. Joey is thrown through the windshield of the car, but survives, and, save a bloody nose, is relatively unscathed. Returning to his seedy little apartment, Jack discovers Ivy lying on his bed fast asleep. He wakes and orders her to leave. She, however, has different ideas about what will happen between them, coaxing Jack from his shell and asking about his pet canary that freely flutters about the room. He makes her coffee, but dispatches with her flirtatious probing in short shrift, before physically escorting her from the room. Ivy doesn’t give up so easily, however. And neither does Joey. The following evening Jack learns Joey was involved in a skirmish with McCarg’s right-hand man, Guy Bettenhauser (John Dennis). Joey gave Guy a pretty good lickin’; much to Guy and McCarg’s chagrin. Such cheek will not be allowed to stand. And McCarg illustrates how far he is willing to go to avenge the slight when he orders a raid on the club; Kelly hurrying Joey out the back way into a rain-soaked alley, only to be gunned down by a carload of McCarg’s goons.
After Joey’s funeral, Kelly and his band hide out for a while, recording their tunes in a makeshift basement studio. But Al is worn out. He explains to Kelly he’s tired of the music scene; of living his life in hotel rooms and wasting his best years hiding out from goons like McCarg while betting on a dream of success never to happen. Kelly cannot argue with Al’s logic. He’s older, wiser, more careworn and honest than the rest; worn down by life’s hard knocks. Thus, Al and Jack part company as friends. A short while later, a meeting of the bands who have thus far resisted joining McCarg, at the roadhouse, Fat Annie’s, reveals Kelly’s complicit weakness. He won’t resist McCarg any longer. There’s been enough bad blood and bloodshed. The other band leaders begrudgingly side with him.
McCarg now tries to befriend Kelly; perhaps to bury the hatchet by lying about Bettenhauser, who McCarg claims, acted on his own to satisfy a personal vendetta. It has nothing to do with them. Jack doesn’t buy it but plays along. Truth to tell, he’s much more adverse about taking on McCarg’s sultry, though burdened moll Rose Hopkins (Peggy Lee) as the band’s new torch singer. However, at tryouts, Rose distinguishes herself as a hell of a good singer. She also reveals to Kelly certain hints about the tempestuous relationship she has with McCarg, who basically controls every aspect of her life – including her drinking, which has begun to get the better of her (shades of the Edward G. Robinson/Claire Trevor doomed relationship in 1948’s Key Largo). Rose is a hit with the band. In fact, Kelly comes to admire her greatly. Alas, celebrating news of Kelly’s engagement to Ivy, Rose has more than a little too much to drink and cannot bring herself to perform at the club. Embarrassed and enraged, McCarg drags Rose into the dressing room and beats her senseless.
Not long thereafter, Kelly learns McCarg has had Rose committed to an asylum. He decides to visit her there and is shocked to discover Rose has actually lost her mind; trapped in a suspended childhood as she desperately clutches a rag doll, referring to it as her baby. Kelly is unable to reach Rose; quietly observing as she wanders aimlessly about the vacant halls before being taken back to her padded cell. Returning to the club, Kelly is confronted by Ivy who wants to marry him post haste. Instead, Kelly calls off their engagement. He tells Ivy it’s over. She bitterly resents the breakup, but nevertheless drives off as Kelly demands. Now, Kelly is confronted by Al, who has come back to vent his disdain over news of Kelly’s acquiescence to McCarg’s demands. The two old friends come to blows, Kelly walloping Al after he demands the return of the mouthpiece belonging to Kelly’s cornet. But Al, realizing Kelly had no choice in the matter, eventually rejoins the band.
Nevertheless, Al’s return has made Kelly see the light. There can be no artistic freedom so long as McCarg is allowed to dominate and control their futures. Kelly’s first attempt – to pay off McCarg to leave them alone – is a flop. Summoned to Fat Annie’s by the singer, Maggie Jackson (Ella Fitzgerald), Kelly is invited into a clandestine meeting with Det. George Tennel who has made it his mission to take McCarg down. Distrusting of the law, Kelly spurns Tennel’s offer and is promptly knocked off his chair for his insolence. Nevertheless, Tennel informs Kelly that Bettenhauser has skipped town. However, not long after, Kelly gets a mysterious message to meet someone at the abandoned club. It turns out to be Bettenhauser, who lies to Kelly about McCarg wanting him dead. On the lam, Bettenhauser tells Kelly he can kill two birds with one stone by breaking into McCarg’s private office at the Everglade Ballroom, stealing $1,200 for Bettenhauser to beat it out of town, but also uncover secret files about McCarg’s illegal betting and bootlegging practices; enough evidence to put his old crime boss in prison for life. It’s an offer too good to refuse. But it’s also a trap.
On route to the Everglade, Kelly is confronted by Ivy. She repudiates their breakup, demanding Kelly share a dance with her then and there for old time’s sake. Kelly frustratingly spurns her and hurries off to the Everglade, unaware Ivy is following close behind. Kelly breaks into the ballroom and then McCarg’s private office. He finds the money and the secret files. But his moment of escape is thwarted by Ivy, who enlivens the cavernous empty ballroom by firing up its jukebox and the revolving glass ball dangling high above its dance floor; the cut glass panes casting points of refracted light about the floor. Kelly is incensed, but complies with Ivy’s request to share a dance together. Alas, the two are confronted by McCarg, Bettenhauser and two other goons. Now, Kelly is forced to engage in a shootout, dispatching with Bettenhauser, who has ascended a nearby balcony for the kill shot. After a struggle between Ivy and the other hired gun causes him to shoot McCarg dead, we see Kelly and his band performing at the 17 Club as Ivy adoringly looks on and Rudy continues to water down the beer; business as usual.
Pete Kelly’s Blues greatly benefits from its near perfect evocation of 1920’s ambiance. Only the back lot exteriors of the redressed New York street betray; looking fairly like cardboard props in the few brief ‘street scenes’ in the movie. Mercifully, Harold Rosson’s camera remains fairly tight on the actors, using long shots sparingly to convey a sense of place only. He also knows exactly where to situate his camera for maximum dramatic effect. The other great asset in the movie is its music. Whether Janet Leigh’s plucky ‘I’m Gonna Meet My Sweetie Now’, Peggy Lee’s smoldering ‘Sugar’ or Ella Fitzgerald’s rendering of ‘Hard Hearted Hannah’ and the film’s title song; Pete Kelly’s Blues is a cornucopia of period jazzy hits, accompanied by David Buttolph and Ray Heindorf carnal and brassy orchestrations. The title song was, in fact, written by Heindorf in the vein of a vintage ‘20’s pop tune, with lyrics by Sammy Cahn and recorded with a mellow, bluesy, mildly throaty quality, perfectly complimented by Ella Fitzgerald’s iconic vamping. In all, the music is complimentary to the plot. Ted Fiorito’s ‘I Never Knew’, as example, is refreshed as the movie’s love theme for Ivy and Kelly; heard several times throughout the story. Peggy Lee’s audition solo is an old Arthur Hamilton ditty, ‘He Needs Me’; that ironically never made much of a splash on the hit parade, despite its poignant lyrics and Lee’s tasty rendition. Lee’s most haunting musical moment is undeniably, ‘Sing A Rainbow’; done a cappella inside the asylum as a mental rambling after her nervous breakdown. It remains both epically tragic and bone-chilling.
Pete Kelly’s Blues was a sizable hit for Warner Brothers, Jack Warner wasting no time exploiting its success by releasing a string of pop albums, including the movie’s soundtrack; favorite jazz recordings that continued to populate the decade with the memory of the movie itself. Then, in 1959, Warner attempted to move the story to the small screen, hiring Jack Webb to produce, though ironically, not to star; the lead going to William Reynolds. Only thirteen episodes were ever filmed and the ratings did not warrant a return of the iconic character or his misadventures set in the world of gats, goon and gals. Afterward, the members of the real Big 7 Band continued to perform at local clubs and jazz festivals.
Unlike the radio series preceding it, or the television program that would follow, Pete Kelly’s Blues – the movie – is fanatical about its devotion to period and this makes all the difference. Despite its obvious 50’s trappings of Cinemascope, stereophonic sound and WarnerColor (arguably, the worst of all color processes developed throughout the decade…although, I still personally loathe the grotesquely muddy and fast-fading tones of AnscoColor more), Pete Kelly’s Blues just feels like a movie about the 20’s, set in the 20’s and shot in the 20’s. It has more than the patina of that decade to recommend it; a sincere impression of having teleported the cast back in time for just an hour or two. Howard Shoup’s costuming has a lot to do with it; never skimping or embellishing the flapper age beyond its already atrociously absurd and occasionally dapper clothes and hairstyles. The assembled cast wears Shoup’s vintage designs with confidence instead of the other way around. You can dress an actor to look like Al Capone, but it still doesn’t make him so. Yet, everyone in Pete Kelly’s Blues has a lived in quality about them. We can, as example, believe Janet Leigh, immaculately attired in her spangles and beads, as the epitome of chic good taste. The last bit of verisimilitude is the casting of Peggy Lee and Ella Fitzgerald to augment the score. It goes without saying each is in very fine voice. But Lee, in particular, distinguishes herself as a supremely accomplished actress besides. Both gals ought to have done more work in the movies – a genuine pity and a loss to our movie culture.
Pete Kelly’s Blues arrives to Blu-ray via the Warner Archive and in another reference quality hi-def transfer to boot. As previously mentioned, WarnerColor was perhaps the most disastrous derivation of color cinematography foisted upon the cinema arts; despite its prints being struck by Technicolor. Mercifully, we see very little of the process’ problematic elements here, the new 1080p image exhibiting an uncharacteristically vibrant, richly saturated and relatively grain-free image that dazzles with incredible amounts of fine detail and superbly rendered contrast. Honestly, I didn’t expect all that much from this disc and am sincerely amazed by what the technical wizards under George Feltenstein have managed to extract from this old archival negative. There are one or two awkward dissolves (a shortcoming of vintage Cinemascope, with a momentary loss of fine detail) but otherwise, this Blu-ray is a revelation; even more so in its enveloping 5.1 DTS stereo. Wow – what a soundtrack! It will take your breath away. Extras are limited to two trailers and two short subjects – a live-action comedy special and a Warner Bros. cartoon: each appears to have been remastered in 1080p too. The Warner Archive thus far gets my vote for the year’s most impressive launch of a viable market for niche classic catalog in hi-def. Everyone who sincerely loves movies ought to be supporting their efforts with a show of orders. Well done and (greedily) more, please!!!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)