PETE KELLY’S BLUES was something of a revelation for me. It starred and was directed by Jack Webb, based on a 1951 radio series starring Webb. I may be “misremembering,” but I don’t recall seeing anything else starring Webb. I know there were others, but when I sat down to watch this film, I had in mind his deadpan delivery-style from Dragnet, a dry style as a lady friend calls it. To be sure, it was there and okay, working for me in the viewing.
The three principals were Webb as Pete Kelly, Janet Leigh as party girl Ivy Conrad, and Edmond O’Brien as local crime boss Fran McCarq. Smaller roles featured Lee Marvin as Al, a clarinetist, Peggy Lee as Rose Hopkins(she received an academy nomination), an alcoholic jazz singer, a very young Martin Milner(who later starred in Webb’s series, Adam-12) as drummer Joey Firestone, Andy Devine as detective George Tennel, and a cameo by Ella Fitzgerald as singer Maggie Jackson. Jayne Mansfield, extremely young, had a brief scene as a cigarette girl.
The prologue, and before opening credits, opens with a black funeral in 1915 at a swampy looking area in the south. A coronetist plays a dirge and as the hearse pulls away later, we see the coronet fall off into the mud. Then it’s 1919 and a crap game, Someone puts the coronet down on a bet that no one wants to cover until a pair of legs steps into the picture wearing army boots and pants bloused into them. He wins and we see Webb in an American uniform. Then it becomes 1927 and we see Webb playing with his band.
Kelly and his band, The Big 7, are house band at a small speakeasy in Kansas City. No one’s getting rich, but they get to do what they enjoy.
Fran Mccarq steps into the club and tells Pete that he’s going to be their new manager, that he’s putting together a string of bands all over the midwest. Pete tells him they already have a manager and can’t afford another ten percent. That’s when McCarq lets him know it’s not a request and that he gets twenty-five percent for his services. Needing to ask the band, he promises an answer after their last set early in the morning.
Their manager sends them out early to the home of Ivy Conrad, a spoiled rich girl used to getting what she wants. And what she wants apparently is a pet horn player for her party. She’s even managed to get his precious coronet there and when he refuses to play, she tries to hand it off to another horn player, a wrestling match ensues, with Ivy ending up in the pool and the band leaving. The pair, as one might suspect, eventually begin a relationship, she growing up a bit and he letting someone into his life.
But, too late, young Joey Firestone(Milner) had taken a call at the party from McCarq meant for Pete and unceremoniously told the crime boss off(oh the young and their belief in bullet-proofing). Pete had meant to do the same thing, but a little more politely.
Things go down hill from there. They are run off the road on the way home and Al(Marvin) sees trouble coming. The oldest, and the longest with Pete, in the band, he’s been through it all before and wants no more. After a recording session, quits, deciding to head east in hopes of catching on with a band there. Joey causes more trouble when he attacks one of McCarq’s goons with a beer bottle and when they come for him, Pete tries to get him away, only to see his young friend die in a hail of machine gun fire.
That seems to break Pete and when McCarq decides he wants a singer in the band, over Pete’s objections, he gets the alcoholic Rose Hopkins. She’s a good singer, but as Pete puts it, “We’re not that kind of band. People come to hear the noise.” Mccarq seems to have some kind of mania about Rose. He hates her drinking, but is there to see her every performance, and things come to a head when she drinks a bit much, can’t sing before an inattentive audience, and he beats her so bad that she falls down a flight of steps, ending up in a hospital with the mind of a five year odl with no chance of ever recovering.
That’s when Pete decides he’s had enough and decides to end this. Still a bit timid, he seems to back down. All part of the plan I took it and he contacts Fennell. He wants to prove McCarq had Joey murdered.
The music was great on this one and I would love to find the soundtrack. Sammy Kahn, David Buttolph, Ray Heindorf, Arthur Hamilton, and Matty Matlock provided the music.
A few final thoughts:
I liked the film, but thought Webb himself was bad casting. I understand he thought it was his shot at film stardom, but he couldn’t get around that impassive demeanor. It otherwise distracted me a bit. Not a lot, but I’m sure general audiences didn’t buy it back then. Webb was out acted by both O’Brien and Marvin. The direction was superb though. That seemed to be Webb’s talent more than the acting. I read on IMDB that by 1957, it was playing as a double bill with THE LAST HUNT, a film based on a novel that I liked a lot.
For more overlooked movies, go Todd Mason over at Sweet Freedom.