Pete Kelly's Blues (1955)

Pete Kelly's Blues (1955) is a music drama film starring and directed by Jack Webb which has film noir overtones.

It's the movie of the radio series of the same name - - the motion picture event no less! Taken to the screen by its creator Jack Webb.

Instead of firing up the tropes and tiring displays of middle of the road standard-as-you-go methods of storytelling, Pete Kelly's Blues delivers the tropes cold and plays them by the book, making for a strange and slight story that is easy in the telling, but doesn't deliver big on surprise, despite there being a bundle of muscle gunplay and murder throughout.

Jack Webb as Pete Kelly barely smiles as this colourful crime drama unfolds, although there is not much to smile about, aside from when he is rejecting Janet Leigh's frolicking advances.
Pete Kelly's Blues was an American crime-musical radio drama which aired over NBC as an unsponsored summer replacement series on Wednesday nights at 8 pm Eastern Time from July 4 through September 19, 1951.

The series starred Jack Webb as Pete Kelly and was created by writer Richard L. Breen, who had previously worked with Webb on Pat Novak for Hire.  James Moser and Jo Eisinger wrote most of the other scripts.

Set in Kansas City, Missouri, in the early 1920s, the series was a crime drama with a strong musical atmosphere. Kansas City in this era was a hotbed of jazz, as well as of organised crime and political corruption, all of which influenced the series.

Pete Kelly's Big Seven

The set up goes that Pete Kelly played by Jack Webb is a cornet player who heads his own jazz combo, Pete Kelly's Big Seven. They work at 417 Cherry Street, a speakeasy run by George Lupo, often mentioned but never heard. Kelly, narrating the series, described Lupo as a "fat, friendly little guy." The plots typically focus on Kelly's reluctant involvement with gangsters, gun molls, FBI agents, and people trying to save their own skins. True film noir stuff then, often packaged complete with downbeat endings.

The radio show did adhere to the film noir convention of the voiceover well, and used hard-boiled language to tell stories of the 1920s, although the episodes are not strong on plot, mainly relying on the narration and the music working some kind of atmospheric magic.

The supporting cast was minimal. Apart from the off-mic character Lupo and occasional speaking parts by the band members (notably Red the bass player, played by Jack Kruschen), the only other regular role of note was Maggie Jackson, the torch singer at another club (Fat Annie's, "across the river on the Kansas side"), played by blues singer Meredith Howard.

Lee Marvin and Jack Webb in Pete Kelly's Blues (1955)

In one episode, Bessie Smith is mentioned as the singer at Fat Annie's instead of Maggie Jackson. Boozy ex-bootlegger Barney Ricketts would show up occasionally, and the episodic roles were filled by William Conrad (as various mob bosses), Vic Perrin, and Roy Glenn, among others.

The music dominated the series though. In addition to one song by Maggie Jackson, each episode had two jazz numbers by the Big Seven. The group was really led by Dick Cathcart, the cornet player who was Pete Kelly's musical stand-in. The other members of the group were Matty Matlock on clarinet, Moe Schneider on trombone, piano player Ray Sherman, bass player Morty Corb, guitarist Bill Newman, and drummer Nick Fatool. The show's announcer was another frequent Webb collaborator, George Fenneman, who would open each show with: "This one's about Pete Kelly."

Pete Kelly pulls a gun

The series lasted only three months, but did manage to inspire this 1955 film offering, in which Jack Webb produced, directed and starred. It used many of the same musicians, including Cathcart, and Ella Fitzgerald who was cast as Maggie Jackson. A lesser-known television version, still produced and directed by Webb but with William Reynolds in the lead, aired in 1959, using scripts originally written for the radio version!

After the film, two albums were released, a soundtrack recording and Pete Kelly Lets His Hair Down, an instrumental album using the musicians from the series with songs arranged by tempo - "blue songs" and "red songs" with names such as "Peacock," '"Periwinkle," "Midnight," "Rouge," "Flame'" and '"Fire Engine." 

Ella Fitzgerald in Pete Kelly's Blues (1955)

This LP was released by Rhino Records as one-half of a Webb compilation disc, Just The Tracks, Ma’am.

Pete Kelly's Blues is a film noir curio in this fusion of music and a historical gangster and noir feel. The film had to be made visual in the style of the day, but it is also a historical film noir, about the 1920s.

Edmond O'Brien as the local gang-leader in
Pete Kelly's Blues (1955)

The story dreamed up for the film has none of the complexity of a full fat film noir, but runs smoothly enough. The year is 1927 and gangster Edmond O’Brien has begun squeezing Kansas City jazz musicians for protection money. When they resist he has one of them killed and the others knuckle under. He also pressures bandleader Pete Kelly, played by Jack Webb into using his mistress played by Peggy Lee in the act. At last, sickened by O’Brien’s brutality, Webb rebels in a violent shoot-out.

Ne'ery a smile from Jack Webb in Pete Kelly's Blues (1955)

Lee Marvin adds so much to this movie, and in a way provides the character and atmosphere around his personality that Jack Webb just can't. Lee Marvin and even convincing as a jazz band member, kind of laid back and easy, tootling away on the clarinet like a pro. He smiles too, which Jack Webb can barely muster. Jack is a constantly rather cloudy presence, never managing to smile much at all. As director, someone should have reminded him to smile in some scenes.

Some scenes in Pete Kelly's Blues (1955) ain't for smiling, such as many of the scenes around Peggy Lee's portrayal of an alcoholic singer. When she ends up in a brutal and bare sanitorium which looks like a deserted laundrette building, and with a toy piano, Jack Webb as Pete Kelly wrings his cap, but there ain't nothing he can do with her. Her tomato is cooked and proper.

Cap-wringin' Pete Kelly (Jack Webb) with sectioned alcoholic Peggy Lee
Pete Kelly's Blues (1955)

It's not an authentic look at alcohol, not much anyway. One moment she is drinking it up at the club and the next, she is in the barest weird looking sanitorium going, with her doll and toy piano. Unfair as anyone may feel we are about this performance, it was in fact Oscar-nominated.

She is still one of the four stars in particular that make Pete Kelly's Blues an unmissable stop on our tour of 1950s super-coloured widescreen entertainment  - - and these are Janet Leigh, Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald and Jayne Mansfield.

An amusingly intemperate role for Janet Leigh, sees her playing a 1920s society flapper, a rather boorish lady at times, always looking for a good time, and maybe one strong aspect of the Prohibition Era life.

Janet Leigh in Pete Kelly's Blues (1955)
Jayne Mansfield with a minor minor role in
Pete Kelly's Blues (1955)

Jayne Mansfield is credited for what is barely an acting part at all, as the cigarette girl. She is noteworthy here perhaps for what she would become, rather than what she delivers to Pete Kelly's Blues.

Prohibition clichés are in full effect, including the Tommy Gun murder-drive-by. Largely the colour and scope of the rest of the film carries most of this, as the venues are made up well, and the music is at least hot.

If evidence were needed that film noir could flavour anything, this is a plain and short tale in total, with just enough depth added to keep it real, and just enough action to keep it moving along. Webb himself is difficult to evaluate, as laconic perhaps, in the Dick Powell style, or maybe just lacking enough bite and aggression to make a real noir. He does have one of the best lines in the film after the shooting:

      “Call the police and get someone to help bring Joey in.”

      “Joey? What’s wrong?”

      “It’s raining on him.”

What is true and topical is the fact of Kansas City (Missouri), which was known to be lax in its enforcement of prohibition, and so became a crucible of crime, and a jumpin' pot of jazz in the 1920s. Less edgy and more relaxed than the jazz sounds of say, Chicago or New York, Kansas City became a focus for the jazz sound of the 20s and into the swing era of the 1930s. 

Ne'ery a smile from Jack Webb in Pete Kelly's Blues (1955)

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