Pete Kelly’s Blues is a recent Warner Archive collection Blu-ray release that took Joe Friday out of his element and placed him in an entirely different, yet equally immersive, universe.
Jack Webb left an indelible mark on the television landscape with Dragnet and as a producer of Adam-12. Though he flourished within this creative arena, his auteur sensibilities took full shape with the 1955 jazz drama Pete Kelly’s Blues, a visually arresting story about a cornetist (Webb in the titular role) who simply wants to play in his band sans any complications.
But life has a funny way of throwing a few curves. It’s the roaring twenties, and though Pete and his jazz outfit (they’re called Pete Kelly’s Big 7) have a regular gig at a local bar/restaurant in Kansas City, their threadbare wages may suffer an even bigger hit after crime boss Fran McCarg (a menacing Edmond O’Brien) offers to be their manager and protector.
Drummer Joey Firestone (Martin Milner, who would later star in Adam-12) refuses to yield to McCarg’s threats, and for a spell Pete thinks the band can weather the storm. Janet Leigh is Ivy Conrad, a wealthy and seemingly trifling society girl who takes an immediate liking to Pete and his music, and though he continues to reject her advances, a jazz man has his limits (especially if it’s Janet Leigh waiting in your lonely apartment!).
Jazz great Peggy Lee, in an Oscar nominated performance, is Rose Hopkins, a once promising songbird whose wings are clipped by McCarg’s abuse. To handle the pain, Lee hits the bottle before she performs onstage with Pete Kelly’s Big 7 (McCarg forces Pete to include her in the band). But there’s no easy way out for Rose, especially when her longtime companion is a hardened criminal. Jayne Mansfield also has a bit role in the film as a waitress who flirts with Kelly.
The beauty behind Pete Kelly’s Blues rests in Webb’s layered approach to the story. One of his great choices was getting cinematographer Harold Rosson, a master at lighting and framing, to lens the movie.
Thanks to expansive detailing of CinemaScope, Rosson’s camera work, and Webb’s surefooted direction, the film is able to breathe without being trapped into a generic, genre driven corner.
Instead of shooting Pete Kelly’s Blues as a straight ahead crime/romance drama, Webb also explores the narrative from a musical angle with performances from Ella Fitzgerald (she’s a singer at a different gin joint in town) , Peggy Lee and even Janet Leigh. If you’re a fan of either Fitzgerald or Lee, Pete Kelly’s Blues definitely delivers on the music end.
Jack Webb will never be confused with Marlon Brando or Montgomery Clift, and though Pete Kelly would have best been served with a different, more charismatic, lead actor, Webb understands that occasionally giving up center stage and enabling his co-stars to shine is simply the best way to go. Each of the film’s players get their moment to shine in the film, with Lee receiving the showiest (and most heartbreaking) role as Rose. Lee received an Oscar nod for her work in Pete Kelly’s Blues, and it’s a shame that the singer wasn’t a more prolific actress – she definitely had the chops.
Rosson was a master at visual composition, as Pete Kelly’s lonely road to redemption is mainly told by what we see in the frame. Whether it’s watching Rose walk away for the last time or if it’s dancing cheek to cheek with Ivy on a darkened evening, Pete struggles with his solitude and occasional ambivalence, and Rosson captures these moments in an subtle yet ultimately eye-catching fashion.
Richard L. Breen’s screenplay is infused with memorable, film noir inspired monologue. Though he may not have the innate presence of an A-list star, Webb delivers these standout lines with his usual, understated aplomb.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Robert Altman’s own classic Kansas City, an intricately woven kidnapping story that was punctuated by first rate jazz performances, was partly inspired by the innovation behind Pete Kelly’s Blues.
The movie’s opening sequence, shot in New Orleans, is set in a funeral, with the cornet being played by an understandably somber man. For several minutes, we follow the cornet’s circuitous journey from funeral procession to serving as Pete Kelly’s go-to instrument. It’s an intriguing way to start the picture, and that loose, improvisatory style floats throughout this can’t miss feature.
A lifelong jazz lover (Julie London was a former wife), Jack Webb put his creative heart and soul as the director and lead actor behind Pete Kelly’s Blues. The picture hits a ton of inspired cinematic notes, and it’s an unexpected gem that’s worth a look.
During the original theatrical trailer (featured below), Jack Webb pulls out a reel of film, and says, “A lot of unexpected things happen in this picture.” It’s something Joe Friday would say, but these days, my mind’s still fixated on Pete Kelly and all those seductive blues.
Special Features: The Blu-ray features two versions of the theatrical trailer for Pete Kelly’s Blues (one of which is in B&W). Also included is the Oscar nominated short Gadgets Galore and the Looney Tunes cartoon The Hole idea, which centers on a henpecked inventor who develops the hole to end all holes (it’s an amusing 6 minute plus cartoon).