Pete Kelly's Blues (1955)

Crime, Drama, Music
Jack Webb, Janet Leigh, Edmond O'Brien, Peggy Lee
In 1927 Kansas City Pete Kelly and his jazz band play nightly at a speakeasy. A local gangster starts to move in on them and when their drummer is killed Kelly gives in, even though this ...
  • 31 Jul 1955 Released:
  • 22 Jul 2008 DVD Release:
  • N/A Box office:
  • Richard L. Breen Writer:
  • Jack Webb Director:
  • N/A Website:

All subtitles:

Great Dixieland Jazz.6/10
PETE KELLY'S BLUES (1955) has finally made it to DVD and a fairly enjoyable issue it is too but mostly because of the music - which I'm sorry to say there isn't an over abundance of either. From a lean enough screenplay by Richard L. Breen it is nevertheless well directed by the picture's star Jack Webb. The light plot has cornetist Pete Kelly (Webb), leader of a Dixieland Jazz band in 20s Kansas, going up against racketeer Fran McCarg (Edmond O'Brien) who wants a "piece" of the band. Trouble follows when Kelly's drummer Joey Firestone (Martin Milner) objects and pays for his objection with his life (In classic old Warner gangster movie style he is mowed down with a Tommy gun in a back alley by a passing Limousine in the teeming rain). A stoic Webb tells Rudy, the nightclub owner, "get someone to bring Joey in - it's raining on him". The picture ends with Kelly having a showdown with the mob boss and a couple of his "goons" in a well executed shootout in a deserted ballroom.

In between all the drama and gunfire there are some fine jazz numbers "played" by the on-screen band which is ghosted on the soundtrack by popular jazz band of the day Matty Matlock's Dixieland Jazz Band. Matlock himself ghosted for Lee Marvin on clarinet while Matlock's trumpet player Dick Cathcart doubled for Webb on the Cornet. It is reputed that Webb - an avid jazz fan - based the band in the movie on his own favourite Dixieland band - Eddie Condon's Dixielanders (who themselves in real life had problems with gangsters). But the movie is disappointing in that there aren't enough numbers played by the band in the film. We could have tolerated quite a few more of them from Matlock's great band! However as compensation we are treated to some terrific songs. The great Peggy Lee gives us her wonderful and unique renditions of such standards as "Sugar" and "Somebody Loves Me". Then there's a marvellous cameo by the First Lady of Jazz herself the inimitable Ella Fitzgerald belting out "Hard Hearted Hannah" and the title tune "Pete Kelly's Blues" (composed by Warner Bros. musical director Ray Heindorf). Interestingly Peggy Lee won an Acadamy Award nomination for her portrayal of McCarg's drunken moll in the picture.

So not too bad a movie really - saved mostly as I've said by the music. But it is stylishly photographed in Cinemascope and colour by Hal Rossen and has some clever rapid-fire dialogue. Thanks to Webb's expert direction he imbues his film with an exceptional jazz era atmosphere and his knowledge of Dixieland jazz helps it along. Dixieland jazz was the pop music of yesteryear. Hearing it here and in the light of what we have to listen to today it's a great pity it still isn't. Hmmm!

Now a word about the DVD! Although it is in a well defined 2.35 widescreen format Warner's presentation of "Pete Kelly's Blues" leaves a lot to be desired! There are no extras to speak of! Just a silly very dated short about the early days of motoring and a Looney Tunes cartoon. Surely they could have scraped up, from their archives, some short about jazz or something jazz related. No?? Also why was there no attempt to have a commentary? And to add salt to an already blistering wound - there isn't even a trailer! For shame Warner Home Video!

However, nothing can diminish this classic line from "Pete Kelly's Blues"........... The deadpan Webb (the only actor who could walk without moving his arms) in a confrontation with gangster O'Brian : "I've heard about you McCarg - down south they say you have rubber pockets so you can steal soup"!
If you can only see one existential noir gangster musical...5/10

What a weird brew this one is! The toughness of a gangster pic, the existential malhereuse of a trendy European epic, the fine '20s sounds of a period musical, all in Warners wide screen. Webb's production design is arty and interesting, and Lee Marvin is really, really good in a supporting role. There's terse, snappy dialogue that sounds like it's out of a much later movie, and a killer finale that clearly influenced Coppola, Scorsese, and practially every other showy director of that generation.
Music and gangsters collide in the roaring 20's.6/10

"Pete Kelly's Blues" gave Jack Webb a chance to direct and star in this film that compliments his close, tight, factual emphasis on the characters and the story. It's a no-nonsense film that combines some good musical moments with the times of the roaring 20's, when the gangs were determined to make money in every venture, or cause the venture to cease to exist. Such is the situation for Pete Kelly and his jazz band.

Kelly, played by Webb, enjoys the fact that his band can pretty much come and go as they see fit, perform, collect their fees, and move on to other clubs, other towns. They are good at what they do, and a local gangster, played to the hilt by Edmond O'Brien, sees a chance to move in. He tells Kelly that the band must allow his new girl a chance to perform, plus give him a sizable cut of their appearance money. The singer, played by Peggy Lee, just wants to get a start in show business, and O'Brien wants to control her start on a career. The film moves to an eventual expected climax, but the ending for Peggy Lee is not a happy one.

The cast included Janet Leigh, Andy Devine, Lee Marvin (a good guy role), and Ella Fitzgerald, who contributed some moving tunes in her own special style. Peggy Lee did garner an Oscar for best supporting actress, and it was deserved.

A film piece that deserves more than one chance viewing.
The hole in the donut5/10

This was Jack Webb's labor of love and his big shot at big screen stardom. Humphrey Bogart was aging, (and soon to die), and perhaps Webb saw himself as an heir to his thrown. He certainly was a lover of everything about the 1920's into which he was born and of the jazz of the time in particular. He was a competent actor, (quite good in 1950's "The Men", opposite Marlon Brando) but ultimately lacked the presence and ability necessary for stardom. he we see him completely outacted by two who did, Edmund O'Brien and Lee Marvin, (who would have been a fabulous choice to play Pete Kelly). Webb seems trapped in his Joe Friday characterization. Particularly poor his the scene where he first confronts O'Brien, as gangster McClarg, in anger. Kelly, (Webb), knocks out McClarg's henchmen. McClarg then breaks a bottle on the bar and offers Kelly a chance to beat him to it. Kelly then shrinks into intimidation and sulks out. The scene is preposterous to begin with: why would Kelly be intimidated by McClarg when he's just kayoed hi body guard? But Webb clearly has no idea how to play it. He just stars blankly at O'Brien, then turns around and, hunched over and with his arms dangling lifelessly at his side, he marches out stage left while the music swells up to convey Kelly's humiliation to us much more effectively than Webb does.

Where Webb really excelled was as a director. He opens this with a shot of a New Orleans jazz funeral. Period detail is exquisite throughout. The dialog is snappy and authentic. The music, of course is great if jazz is to your taste. Any film with both Peggy Lee and Ella Fitzgerald singing in it is work a listen. This one is worth a look, as well. There are great camera shots, particularly when one of Kelly's associates gets gunned down in an alley. The final confrontation is exciting and well-staged. As noted below, it was clearly influential to modern directors. The cast of the film is uniformly excellent except for Webb himself. Peggy Lee is great and one wonders why a significant acting career didn't follow. O'Brien, in a rare villain role, is forceful without the overacting he's often guilty of. Marvin dominates every scene he's in and Martin Milner, a much underrated actor, is excellent in an early role as well. Andy Devine is a revelation as a tough cop. You've got to see it to believe it. Janet Leigh appears as Kelly's girlfriend. She's essentially window dressing but very attractive window dressing. But it's hard to tell what attracted her to Kelly. Webb is so stiff an uncomfortable in their romantic scenes that their relationship is hardly credible.

This film would probably be regarded as a classic today if Webb had not insisted on playing the lead, but who can blame him? It was his big chance on the big screen. He created an exquisite donut to star in. But this donut had a hole in it and he was that hole.

All That Jazz9/10

Jack Webb takes up the trumpet and takes on local gangsters in this colorful if at times somewhat peculiar movie about jazz musicians in the Kansas City of the Roaring Twenties. The story is disappointingly shallow and by-the-numbers, but there's some great music and songs from, among others, Peggy Lee and Ella Fitzgerald, courtesy of Ray Heindorf and Sammy Cahn.

Webb was a strange case. A true pioneer of early television production, and in his way a true innovator, he made a virtue out of impassivity. He directs this one with more energy than his TV shows, but the dryness and apathy are still there. When he's dealing with conventional players, like Martin Milner, it's like he's directing himself. But when he's got a live wire, like Lee Marvin, who has a colorful supporting role in this one, or Andy Devine, who has an offbeat one, he seems almost to have the makings of an American Fellini. Deep down, I suspect, that Webb really loved crazy people. He just didn't know how to show it.