Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Overlooked Films: Jack Webb in PETE KELLY'S BLUES (1955)

I started Pete's Kelly's Blues knowing absolutely nothing about it. From a glance at the movie posters, I figured it was a bluesy, noirsy mystery set in the contemporary world of 1955. Wrong. There's a big hole in my education on the subject of Jazz History, which this film made abundantly clear.

Pete Kelly's Big 7, I now know, was a hot combo in the late '20s, and were still going strong when this film was made. In fact, the songs performed by the band of actors was recorded by the real Pete and his gang. It's great stuff, and though I've searched the library in vain, there are quite a few tunes on YouTube.

The film opens in 1915 New Orleans, as mourners bury an unnamed but well-loved coronet player. As they leave, the dead guy's horn falls off the hearse and is lost. Cut to a railway boxcar in 1919, where hobos and other economy-class travelers are shooting craps. One bum produces the coronet, and a fellow traveler buys it. The buyer turns out to be Pete Kelly (Jack Webb, natch) still in uniform after returning from the war.

Cut to Kansas City, 1927, where the rest of the movie takes place. Pete and the band (which includes Lee Marvin and Martin Milner) are being shaken down by gangster/promoter Edmund O'Brien, who insists on being their manager. He insists so hard that Milner soon winds up dead and Marvin leaves town. Pete, though, decides to play it safe and wienie under to O'Brien's demands. And he keeps on wienying until the end, when he, O'Brien and Andy Devine (in a rare tough-guy role) engage in a three-way shootout.

The movie starts off well. It's not only in color, but widescreen, and nicely filmed. And along with the Pete Kelly music we get at least two performances each from Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee. Lee Marvin is great, though there's too little of him. And Janet Leigh is easy to look at. The dialogue is sharp, tough and well-delivered by all concerned, included Jack Webb. Webb also does some voice-over narration, Dragnet-style.  In describing the speakeasy where his band performs, he says, "The whisky is aged, if you get here late in the day." Nice.

Webb's performance, as you'd expect, is wooden. Maybe not quite as wooden as on Dragnet, because he does lock lips with Janet Leigh a couple of times. We see him smile once or twice, and maybe even laugh. Other than that, he has only two expressions: stern and surprised. He's great at stern, but he apparently learned surprise by studying silent movie comedians. It's that bad.

The main problem with Pete Kelly's Blues is that the story builds so slowly that by the time it seems about to take off, the movie is over. But the music makes it almost worth the letdown.

More stuff I didn't know: Pete Kelly's Blues was a short-lived radio show in 1951, conceived and written by Richard L. Breen, the guy who wrote this screenplay, and starring Jack Webb. (Those episodes are available for free download on various sites, including this one HERE.) That would be at about the same time Dragnet (which had already been on the radio for two years) was starting it's TV run. THEN, in 1959, Webb was executive producer of a Pete Kelly's Blues TV series, starring William Reynolds as Pete, and Connee Boswell (of the Boswell Sisters!) as a singer. That I'd like to see.

Overlooked Films is a weekly cultural experience nurtured by Todd Mason of SWEET FREEDOM.


Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

Haven't seen this one in years Evan and had no idea about the radio series - thanks very much for the link I'll definitely delve into that.

Todd Mason said...

I liked the radio series (the episodes I've heard) better than the film (which is also pretty hard on its women characters, though the cast as you suggest is impressive; Peggy Lee rather wooden, too, but her voice makes up for it); haven't seen the tv series yet, either.

Todd Mason said...

Oh, yes, and as you note, Kelly seems in the film almost as stymied as Hamlet with even less reason.

Rick Robinson said...

I didn't see it, the reviews I read way back were pretty negative, in spite of the cast. I had made inquiries about a soundtrack album.

Evan Lewis said...

From what I see on Google Images, it's pretty clear there was at least one soundtrack LP.

Anonymous said...

One of my favorite films. I watch it about once a year, and certainly my favorite Jack Webb movie. While I naturally concur with your accolades, on those points where you found it wanting, I would suggest letting it cool and then reappraise. Ella sings. Lee Marvin smokes. Final shootout under the mirrored ball is a stunner. And that opening sequence with the black funeral in New Orleans...dang, I may have to watch it again tonight!

Stephen Mertz

Cap'n Bob said...

I waited years to see it, and when I finally did I was badly disappointed. Seeing Jack Webb as a wimp was more than I could bear. Maybe I need to revisit it.

Yvette said...

I remember seeing this in the theater once upon a long time ago. But that's it. I love Peggy Lee.

Thanks for reminding me that I might want to see the movie again sometime. :)

Evan Lewis said...

Hey Steve, maybe you can explain something to me. I thought Andy Devine wanted Pete to work with him against Edmund O'Brien, but in that big shoot-out at the end both guys were trying to kill Pete. Obviously I missed something, but at that point I didn't care enough to rewind and find out.

Anonymous said...

Ouch. Well, like all things I guess it comes down to taste. Jack Webb a wimp?!? Maybe we're talking about different movies. As for who's out to kill who and who does what, didn't Chandler prove that it's okay for this stuff to be character and atmosphere over plot? Who did kill the Sternwood chauffeur, anyway? I know, that's a cop out. The heck with it. Love you guys, even when you're wrong.

Stephen Mertz

Richard Moore said...

According to the new Dwayne Epstein biography of Lee Marvin POINT BLANK, a role in a 1952 TV Dragnet episode created the first buzz for Marvin in Hollywood.

Regarding "Pete Kelly's Blues" the book quotes Martin Milner said the cast was in awe of Ella Fitzgerald and "everyone was very impressed with the acting job that Peggy Lee did because nobody expected it."

For the role, Lee was nominated for an Academy Award.

I have the DVD and need to watch it again. Webb was a true jazz fan and reputedly had the best high fidelity system in Hollywood. I do love the atmosphere and some of the performances. But given the fine cast and a theme and setting right on a couple of my sweet spots, it was a little disappointing.

Evan Lewis said...

Mr. Richard Moore! Howdy, pardner. Thanks for stopping by.

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