Jack Webb, the versatile actor, director, producer and founder of his own Mark VII Productions which oversaw the many famous programs and franchises that Webb created was also apparently a jazz fan. Having grown up with a love for musicians like Bix Beiderbecke and traditional jazz, Webb created a short-lived summer replacement radio series called Pete Kelly’s Blues in 1951, which followed the exploits of the title character, a cornet player in a 1920s jazz combo in Kansas City. In 1955, after having made his directorial debut on the 1953 feature film version of Dragnet, Webb pulled out another one of his radio series as his next film project.
Webb plays Pete Kelly, a cornet player and the leader of his Big 7 combo. They have a regular gig at a local speakeasy but are being hounded by local gangster Fran McCarg (Edmond O’Brien), who is forcing bands to come under his management and fork over a large percentage of their earnings. Kelly and the band are reluctant to give up their hard earned money, but understand they need the protection. The one vocal opposer of the proposition is Kelly’s young drummer, Joey Firestone (Martin Milner), who intercepts McCarg’s call to Kelly while the band is at a party and refuses the offer. As the band heads home, they are tailed and run off the road by McCarg’s men in an act of intimidation. The following night, Firestone gets into it with some of McCarg’s men. Kelly tries to diffuse the situation with the mob boss, but after the band’s set that night, Firestone is shot in the streets while trying to run home.
In the wake of these events, Kelly and the band decide to accept McCarg’s offer for protection in exchange for the high residual payment. Kelly also loses longtime clarinet player Al (Lee Marvin), who sets off for new playing opportunities with a larger outfit. Kelly also finds complications with Ivy (Janet Leigh), a wealthy party girl who keeps pursuing him. Also hounding him is the Detective George Tennel (a startlingly serious Andy Devine), who is working to take down McCarg. Into all of this, McCarg throws his alcoholic moll, Rose (Peggy Lee), a washed up singer.
Eventually, Ivy and Kelly are engaged, and Rose drinks too much to celebrate. Finding herself singing to an inattentive crowd, an inebriated Rose falls apart on the bandstand, causing McCarg to beat her for her failings. Kelly realizes it’s time to get out of the deal with McCarg, and attempts to buy his way out. When that fails, he is given information that McCarg’s right hand man Bettenhauser is willing to sell out his boss. Frustrated with Kelly’s reluctance to set a wedding date and his preoccupation with everything else, Ivy breaks off the engagement.
Armed with Bettenhauser’s information that evidence stored at the Evergreen Ballroom is enough to bring down McCarg, Kelly heads over to break into the office to retrieve the cancelled checks and invoices. While breaking into the safe, Kelly is startled by organ music playing in the main ballroom, and finds a drunken Ivy there asking him for one last dance. Kelly relents once he realizes it’s the only way to get rid of her, but they soon find themselves surrounded by McCarg’s men. A shootout ensues, with Kelly killing a double-crossing Bettenhauser and causing one of McCarg’s men to kill the gangster. I must note here that apparently although Pete Kelly makes his living playing music, he must keep up his sharpshooting skills. The film ends where it began: with Kelly’s Big 7 playing on the bandstand, Al back in the clarinet chair and Kelly and Ivy reunited.
I watch a decent amount of the 1960s iteration of Dragnet when I have a few spare minutes to cram in an episode, and through that I have become a fan of Jack Webb, even if I find his deadpan delivery somewhat odd and comforting at the same time. I’d argue that Webb’s famous police procedural, which began in radio, almost does not need to be processed visually and carried much of its radio predecessor’s traits. From the bland interiors to the often parodied rapid shot-reverse-shot closeups on the characters, Dragnet definitely does not boast flashy visuals (supposedly a holdover from the first version of the show where to cut costs, actors often read lines off teleprompters to keep a low shooting ratio). In fact, with so much of the plot being narrated by Webb’s Joe Friday, one could probably close their eyes and get all of the narrative information through the spoken dialogue. This thankfully is not the case with Pete Kelly’s Blues, which shows Webb working with his widescreen canvas to a much more satisfying degree than his television programming.
Of course the music is a highlight. Peggy Lee, who was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, is wonderful as Rose, and has several spotlight vocal numbers. Also in the cast is Ella Fitzgerald, who plays Maggie Jackson, a singer and informant who works at another club where local band members hang out to discuss issues away from the ears of McCarg’s men. She also has two spotlight numbers, one being the title song. With both Fitzgerald and Lee, vocal numbers are allowed to play out with little editing, and it’s wonderful to just watch. The 1920s combo numbers were dubbed by many of the same members who played on the radio show version, which often featured at least two musical numbers within an 30 minute running time. There is a somewhat humorous (at least to me) time warp going on between the combo numbers, which are played in the 1920s style, and the vocal arrangements, which lean much more towards what would stylistically be appropriate in later years of the 30s and 40s. There are little tidbits for jazz fans located throughout the film. I was definitely geeking out when Kelly and Al are speaking about Jean Goldkette’s band when Al is about to leave, and Kelly asks who is in the cornet chair. Al responds that it must be Bix. So Webb’s own passion for jazz definitely shows in this film.
Again, while I am most familiar with Webb’s radio and television work, I was somewhat pleasantly surprised by Pete Kelly’s Blues. While not necessarily a great film, Webb demonstrates a good sense of direction, visual space and performance that is much deeper than what is seen on Dragnet. While his own acting is probably the weakest link in the film next to the performances from the rest of the stellar cast, honestly Pete Kelly himself is the lead character in title only, and really the film’s strength lies in the people around him.
Warner Archive has released Pete Kelly’s Blues on a wonderful new Blu Ray edition. The film looks beautiful, with rich colors and natural film grain still present. The edition includes two shorts, the film trailer and a neat menu option highlighting the musical numbers within the film for easy navigation. The movie is definitely worth checking out as an example of a well-crafted musical hybrid film. Webb’s fake cornet playing isn’t too bad either.