Picture of the Week: Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955)
The world of jazz and the life of jazz musicians appear to be one of the most elusive subjects as far as filmmakers are concerned. A number of bio and fiction films have been made on the subject but outside of the documentaries most of them aren’t worth much. One of the best is Bernard Tavernier’s Round Midnight (1986). But even that one has its flaws.
My film pick for this week is Jack Webb’s Pete Kelly’s Blues and it’s not a great jazz film. If anything it’s a good distance from that. But it’s such a curious odd duck of a movie that it deserves a look-see for exactly that reason. And also for its interesting offbeat cast and their performances. I call the film “Jack Webb’s Pete Kelly’s Blues” because he produced, directed and plays the title character in the film. He was also the guiding creative force throughout. That to me makes him the films auteur in the true sense of the word…Now prior to making this film Webb was primarily known as the creator and star of the highly successful series Dragnet (1951-59). During that time he also directed, produced and acted in four theatrical features: Dragnet (1954), The DI (1957) and later on The Last Time I Saw Archie (1965). But it is his second film Pete Kelly’s Blues that’s the most interesting.
The story takes place in Kansas City circa 1927 and it’s about a jazz musician (Kelly) who has a small band and trouble with the organized crime figure in the area. Or as the poster put it: “In the world of bad booze and jazz they tried to push Kelly but Kelly just wouldn’t budge.” Edmund O’Brien plays the gangster who not only wants to control Kelly’s bookings but also insists that Kelly employ his alcoholic girl friend Rose (played by singer Peggy Lee) as the singer in his band. Janet Leigh is Ivy, a wealthy young woman who follows Kelly from town to town but is something of a social dilettante when it comes to music, men and love. Pete Kelly is a loner with integrity who rejects the socialite’s offer of romance, refuses to be strong-armed by the mob and is loyal to his men and fights for them even when they defiantly disobey his orders. But as I said before you’ve seen all this before. There are no turns in the plot that you haven’t encountered elsewhere.
But what keeps the film continually interesting and entertaining is the cast. Webb does his deadpan thing with a certain style and flourish. Janet Leigh is beautiful, sexy and nicely varied in what could’ve been a one-note role. Lee Marvin shows up in an uncharacteristically sympathetic part, Andy Devine has an interesting non-comic role as a cold hearted, tough-minded cop and he’s terrific. Jazz singing great Ella Fitzgerald plays a nightclub owner and the previously mentioned Peggy Lee is so heart breaking as the boozy, mentally damaged singer that she received an Academy Award nomination as the Best Supporting Actress that year. And just to make things more interesting, future sexpot Jayne Mansfield shows up in a tiny role as a cigarette girl.
The music in the film, a combination of Dixieland and Blues, is lively and sometimes haunting. The title song “Pete Kelly’s Blues” has gone on to become something of a minor standard among jazz musicians and can be heard on a surprising number of recordings. In the film it is memorably sung by Ella Fitzgerald while Peggy Lee knocks out a terrific rendition of “Hard Hearted Hannah”. Added to that, the whole film feels like a labor of love and it well might be. Jack Webb did play the cornet in life as he does in this film (although it’s not his music you hear) and he was a devoted jazz aficionado. Much of this comes through and keeps you interested. Then there’s Harold Rosson’s cinematography. He shot the film in a brightly colored palette that gives an almost child’s coloring book quality to the setting and the action. This effectively takes the story out of the historical past of the 1920s and sets it in a wonderfully imagined Never-Never-land world of its own, which I liked a lot.
Altogether it romanticizes and glamorizes the world of jazz but it can get down and dirty when it needs to be. This is a film I treasure for its peripheral as well as its primary virtues. Because as the lyric of the song states: “Some call em Pete Kelly’s Blues…You can call em anything you choose…I just call them blues.”