Friday, October 17, 2014

The Jack Webb Blogathon: Pete Kelly's Blues (1955)


This one's about Pete Kelly.  If you've ever taken the steps down to Rudy's speak over on Cherry Street to hear Kelly's Big 7, you know who I'm talking about.  If you've been there, you've only gone for the music.  Straight up Dixieland with soul that will divert you from the so-so food and weak liquor.  Blues?  Yeah, Pete Kelly's got 'em.  Some say he was born that way.  Some say he brought it back from the war.  The one that was supposed to end them all.  Pete Kelly's always in a war.  1920s Kansas City has plenty of them - band wars, mob wars.  The liars, the schemers and the broken-hearted all end up on Pete Kelly's doorstep.  If there's trouble he's in it up to his neck.  

Pete Kelly's Blues
Ray Heindorf and Sammy Cahn

If it's going to rain, it might as well pour and pour it does one night at Rudy's.  Flighty society dish Ivy Conrad sets her sights on Pete.  She's looking for kicks.  She's lonely.  She always gets her way.  Racketeer Fran McCarg also has plans for Pete Kelly's Big 7.  McCarg is a political boss/racketeer with controlling interest in bands and joints across the state and he's ever-expanding.  He's cutting himself in for 25 percent.  McCarg always gets his way.  Nobody likes it, but most of the guys have been around long enough to know the score.  Young drummer Joey Firestone is the exception.  Joey shoots his drunken mouth off to McCarg.  Joey gets it in the alley back of Rudy's from a Chicago typewriter.  Pete goes along to get along, but long-time pal Al Gannaway can't stomach knuckling under and is off to better places out of McCarg's reach.

Surprisingly, Ivy turns out to be the one bright thing in Pete's life.  McCarg brings the trouble as promised by muscling a spot on the grandstand for his alcoholic girlfriend, even though it's not that sort of band.  Rose Hopkins was a singer when McCarg found her, but that was ten years and a river of booze ago.  McCarg doesn't like it when Rose drinks, but doesn't seem to care that he's the reason.  George Tennell, a cop with an agenda, pushes Pete from the other side looking for help in bringing down McCarg.  Yeah.  Pete's conscience is getting a real working over.  It all leads to treachery, brutality and a showdown.  Things change and things will always be the same for Pete Kelly.

Pete Kelly's Blues was a summer 1951 radio series created by Richard Breen, Oscar and Writers Guild of America nominee/winner behind Pat Novak for Hire on radio and films such as Titanic, Niagara and A Foreign Affair.  The script, particularly the narration, is brimming with the wry, cynical humour that Jack Webb puts over so well.

Than Wyenn, a welcome and familiar face to those of us who grew up watching television of the 50s, 60s and 70s, plays Rudy Shulak the bottom-line focused owner of the speakeasy.  According to internet sources, still with us at 95, I hope he is enjoying good health and fine companions.  21-year-old Jayne Mansfield's first film credit is as a cigarette girl in Pete Kelly's Blues.  You can't miss the pretty girl with the dark hair.  Martin Milner plays the hotheaded Joey Firestone and Lee Marvin steals scenes as reed man Al Gannaway.  Andy Devine is unusually chilling as a determined cop.

Jack Webb, Janet Leigh
Party like it's 1927!

Janet Leigh was a very busy actress in the 1950s appearing in comedies, musicals, costume dramas, epics and film-noir.  Pete Kelly's Blues falls in the middle of that busy time and Janet is extremely fetching in her 1920s fringed gown and cloche hats.  Ivy's character is that of heiress, madcap.  Ivy is an outsider in Pete Kelly's world and Janet Leigh does yoeman's work giving her character audience appeal.  There are enough hints about motivation in the script to make Ivy's choices feel more organic than they ultimately do, but limiting her interactions to Pete also limits the character.

Edmond O'Brien was also very busy in the 1950s with crime pictures taken up the prime spot in his filmography.  At that season's Academy Awards O'Brien won the Best Supporting Actor trophy for The Barefoot Contessa.  This time around he is a nasty piece of work who bullies his way through life and "business".  A master of intimidation, even whatever feeling he has or once had for his girlfriend Rose is expressed only through his brutality.

Jack Webb, Peggy Lee, Edmond O'Brien
Some nights everything goes wrong.

Singer/songwriter Peggy Lee added "Oscar nominated actress" to her list of accomplishments with the role of Rose Hopkins in Pete Kelly's Blues.  Rose is a woman at the end of her rope.  She's only alive when she sings.  The rest of the time she drinks to escape the torment of her lover, Fran McCarg.  Eventually she escapes into the depths of her mind and soul.  Peggy is subtle and heartbreaking with the dialogue and with the emotional songs by Arthur Hamilton, He Needs Me and Sing a Rainbow.  That more roles of this calibre did not come Peggy's way is a loss to audiences.

Jack Webb is Pete Kelly.  Of course, he was Pete Kelly on radio and his success with Dragnet is all encompassing and legendary.  Jack looks perfectly at ease on the bandstand, having played cornet as a youngster.  The tailor-made dialogue is a pleasure to hear, dripping attitude.  He has some lovely moments in the movie conveying vulnerability, fear and anger.  However, solid skills are not alone in creating a memorable lead character and there have been times (a few) when I have imagined Jack not spreading himself so thin on this project.  I imagine him sticking to the directing and the producing, and perhaps playing Al Gannaway and maybe (just maybe) promoting Lee Marvin to lead.  A part of this could be hindsight.  Perhaps Marvin wasn't quite ready to be that guy that he slowly became over his career.  In all likelihood, Warners would have balked at the idea.  Not let one of the biggest names in the business play the character he created?  Really?  Sometimes I think someone with a bit more of the old screen charisma was needed to give the movie that extra indefinable something.  At any rate, I think it would have amped up the Pete and Ivy scenes.  We wouldn't have cared if they made sense or not.  Silly musings?  Probably.  Jack Webb is Pete Kelly and I guess I really wouldn't want it any other way.

My first impressions of Pete Kelly's Blues back in my teen years was of the look and the sound of the movie.  Cinematographer Harold Rossen and art director Harper Goff created a nighttime world filmed in WarnerColor.  The hue is almost pastel-like, yet dark and smoky where there is no smoke.  I can think of no other film quite like it.  The sound is the music.  The lush background score by Ray Heindorf and David Buttolph utilizing Heindorf's theme and Ted Fio Rito's I Never Knew is haunting.  And then there's Pete Kelly's Big Seven.  Matty Matlock arranged the classic 20s tunes and doubled for Marvin on clarinet.  Dick Cathcart was the cornet lead.  George Van Eps, guitar.  Moe Schneider, trombone.  Ray Sherman, piano.  Nick Fatool, drums.  Jud De Naut, bass.

  
The original soundtrack was nominated for a Grammy for Best Soundtrack Album.  Songs from Pete Kelly's Blues featured the work of Peggy Lee and Ella Fitzgerald.  An album was released featured music from the subsequent 1959 television series produced by Webb and starring William Reynolds.  A garage sale find that enjoys a place of honour in my collection.

An older friend told me that he was in high school when Pete Kelly's Blues was released and it turned him and his group of friends into old-time jazz fiends who thought it would have cool to live in the 20s.  I could look up how well the movie did at the box office or with the critics, but I think my friend's story says it all.

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18 comments:

  1. Like how you wrote this one. :-)

    This sounds pretty good. I remember listening to some Damon Runyon OTR stories as research for a blog post. How would you say the original PKB radio version compares?

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    1. Comparison-wise I would say that Breen leans toward the cynical while Runyon has a touch of whimsy. However, the tone is consistent and the stories really draw you in.

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  2. Next to the '54 Dragnet film, this is my favorite Jack Webb movie. It's coming out on blu-ray soon and should look beautiful.

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    1. We share the same top two favourites. I imagine the blu-ray will be spectacular.

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  3. Splendid post, beautifully written as always. I agree that it's surprising Peggy Lee never got more gigs like this. Surprising too she was one of those who got dropped from the In Memoriam reel at the Oscars. Not only was she nominated here, but she'd actually won an Oscar for song writing. When even an Oscar winner gets dumped, you know a lady's got the right to sing the blues.

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    1. I didn't realize the Oscar program had omitted Peggy when she passed. It should be a surprise, but it isn't. I don't think the people who work at the Academy are movie fans!

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  4. Loved this! This movie is another gap in my Webb viewing but I understand it will soon be out on Blu-ray and I'm looking forward to see it soon -- you have certainly got me interested. Jack Webb and Edmond O'Brien in the same movie sounds like a winner to me.

    Best wishes,
    Laura

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    1. Thanks, Laura.

      I'm sure "Pete Kelly's Blues" will tick a lot of boxes for you. The blu-ray should be extraordinary - almost like walking into the speakeasy. Now, how do I get my sister with the blu-ray player to buy this movie?

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  5. Great post, I have this one on the dvr so I can't wait to get to it.

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    1. Thanks. The Dixieland will get into your head, Kristina, so be ready for it.

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  6. I saw that it was going to be on TCM, and I have to say I had the urge to watch it. I didn't know it was in color, nor that Janet Leigh was part of the cast. Now I'm more and more driven to look for it. And I have the sense that I'll want to live in the 1920s... once again.
    Thanks for your kind comment!
    Kisses!

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    1. TCM always seems to know what we need, don't they? I'm sure you'll enjoy the movie. Let me know.

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  7. I DVRd this from TCM this week, but haven't seen it. Although I downloaded the soundtrack along with several others after I listed to the radio series for my post. Can't wait to watch it. Great read as always.

    Aurora

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    1. Thanks.

      I don't think it's going to far to say that you and I are Pete Kelly groupies.

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  8. I have seen this film a couple of times and like it a lot. Never knew this began as a radio series. I am frankly not a fan of Jack Webb. I generally find him stiff. That said, I enjoyed you take on this film. The music is good, the speakeasy atmosphere is pretty cool. Make you want to have been there.


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    1. The movie has a lot going for it, and the good definitely outweighs all.

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  9. Great write up on one of my favorite Jack Webb films! This film turned me into a Peggy Lee fan. IRC, Webb was a great Jazz buff and owned a million Jazz records, and it shows in this film. I have the movie on DVD, but may buy the Blu-ray when it comes out.

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    1. Jack's love and support of the music may be the greatest thing about "Pete Kelly's Blues". I'm glad you liked the write-up.

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