Pete Kelly’s Blues

Pete Kelly’s Blues, ‘Dr Jonathan Budd’ (September 19, 1951)

One of the gloomiest openings to any series leads into Jack Webb’s radio series Pete Kelly’s Blues — a sigh of a tribute, a melancholic shout-out, its needless repetition after a momentary pause seeming to demonstrate only the pointlessness of its own nostalgia:

‘This one’s about Pete Kelly. This one’s about him’.

A solo cornet kicks in, and a mournful voice drags us back into the past. The tone, more than the words, lets us know this won’t be a rosy jaunt back to the good old days.

‘It’s about the world he goes around in. It’s about the big music and the big trouble and the big roar of the ’20s. So when they ask you, you turn right around and speak up. You tell ’em this one’s about the blues. Pete Kelly’s blues’.

It might as well be delivered as part of a dingy small-time funeral, or an unspoken anniversary in a dead speakeasy, the few remaining faces who weren’t chewed up by the times scattered around the room, and a eulogy that’s played rather than spoken.

Pete’s fate seems sealed before we’ve even heard him say a word.

The opening — an instant hook — in fact only appears with quite this level of gloom in one episode, ‘Gus Trudeau’ (aka ‘Dutch Courtney’, and for which a rehearsal or pilot also exists, complicating the already-complicated matter of cataloguing Old Time Radio even further). In other episodes (‘Gus Trudeau’ appears to be the eighth), the opening is softer, the repetition dropped and the tone lightened as delivered by George Fenneman, who also announced for Webb on Dragnet and is probably best known as straight-man and announcer on Groucho Marx’s You Bet Your Life.

But even with a minutely cheerier opening, Kelly’s world didn’t get any brighter, and the atmosphere of noir-ish fatalism permeates this short-lived radio series (13 episodes, of which only seven seem to exist, including a pilot/rehearsal) that Jack Webb initiated while also making the transition to the small screen with his seminal radio series,Dragnet.

In some ways Pete Kelly, a speakeasy band-leader and cornet player eking out a living in a sea of sadistic gunsels, petty hoodlums and no-good dames, seems a logical continuation of Webb’s well-established tough-guy radio persona, full of deadpan grit and smart remarks that invariable set him up for a beating. But while Webb’s earlier Pat Novack [in Pat Novack for Hire (1946-1947)], Johnny Modero [Johnny Modero, Pier 23 (1947)] and Jeff Regan [in Jeff Regan, Investigator (1948-1950)] were laced with surly defiance and deliciously overblown hardboiled dialogue, and Joe Friday in Dragnet (1949-1957 on radio) had plenty of tough retorts once his prey was in handcuffs, Pete Kelly is marked by vulnerability and a more defined aura of powerlessness.

No cop or private eye, the tangible sense of contempt for the corruption around him that Kelly shares with his precursors is tempered by his sense of hopelessness and day-by-day survival. Where Novack or Modero are looking to make some cash and sneer their way through dangerous waters, Pete’s just looking to be left alone, make a few bucks with the band, and stay out of everybody’s way.

‘Dr Jonathan Budd’, seemingly the penultimate episode of the run and the last of the episodes that remain in circulation, perhaps isn’t the best of the Pete Kelly episodes, but perhaps best captures that sense of downtrodden idealism that lurks beneath the more prominent cynical distance, finally seeing Pete’s presence in the drama be a conscious decision without shifting the character into a standard adventurer.

In fact, Pete’s ‘ordinary guy’ status is probably the toughest part of the show to maintain — for a guy who’s just trying to stay out of the way, trouble sure has a way of finding him. As a result, a few episodes stray into the realm of slightly dopey, but no less enjoyable, hoodlum mix-ups to keep things moving — Pete becoming the target of the affections of a gangster’s moll in ‘Veda Brand’ or getting stuck in the search for a secret message on a hidden phonograph record in ‘Zelda’.

The rest of the time, Pete finds the action thrust directly upon him — hounded by a crime-boss after Kelly’s mentor in ‘Gus Trudeau’, stuck holding some papers that seem to draw heavy gunfire (directly resulting in the somewhat under-explored death of a nine year old altar boy) in ‘Little Jake’, or having a sad old lady looking for her daughter dumped on him in ‘June Gould’.

In ‘Dr Jonathan Budd’, when the well-dressed Dr Budd (colloquially referred to as ‘the senator’ in passing, leading to the episode to be sometimes given that title) turns to Pete for companionship and casually reveals himself to be a dead man, targeted by crime boss The Dutchman, Kelly’s foray into danger may seem foolhardy, but not underthought. This time Pete puts himself in the fire willingly, understanding the futility with guns on every corner, but his perpetually expendable status seeming to find an existential resonance in Dr Budd’s certain doom:

‘Look, I don’t make this. Right now you should be two yards the other side of Baffin Bay… you gotta make a pass at it, you can’t just say ‘ok, here’s my head with a fifty-cent cigar in it’.’

Pete handing over the key to his room is no harebrained scheme — and he knows there’s a beating, or worse, if it all falls apart. As he later explains to an incredulous ex-bootlegger friend:

‘I had to help him, Barney. You can’t just stand by and send him into the street to be cut down. A man has to have somebody to worry about him – somebody to help him’.

It’s a dour idealism, a sensitivity that’s irrevocably tangled up with a sense of doom; nobody’s surprised when it doesn’t come through. Pete makes it out alive, but his defiance in the face of death only stretches so far. Dr Budd is left waiting, passively, as in the beginning, for the killers that are certain to arrive. Dr Budd’s final speech may lay it on a bit thick, an overblown grab at the fatalism of Hemingway’s ‘The Killers’, but it’s true to the spirit and a perfect fit for the drab world of Pete Kelly’s Blues. Pete hasn’t seen a happy ending yet, and there’s no reason it should be any different just because he finally made a gloomily defiant pass at one.

Glum as it might be, the series remains an absolute treat to listen to — certainly an excellent entry point into the world of Old Time Radio. Part of this is due to Webb, an excellent actor whose presence on radio far outweighed his stilted presence on film and television: when Webb went on to direct a film version of Pete Kelly’s Blues in 1955, it’s unfortunately his own awkward physical presence that seems to slow things down (a TV series followed in 1959 with William Reynolds in the title role — and I’ll trade a bathtub-full of gin-mill hooch if anyone has a copy).

But, best of all, the radio Pete Kelly is lifted to another level entirely but the presence of the music that defines its world. Most of the action, or the setups at least, take place in the speakeasy, meaning that vital dialogue is squeezed in between the performances where Pete makes a buck. Invariably, he’s drawn back to play before he can fully deal with a problem or thrown a curve-ball just before stepping on stage.

This emphasis on the necessity of Pete actually playing forces a sense of urgency on much of the action — either because he has to go, or because someone won’t let him. In his encounter with Dr Budd, Pete is dragged back to stage by the tinkle of the piano, leaving him to thrust his keys at the doomed man, possibly to see him for the last time.

More interestingly, the dramatic effect of including these musical performances in full adds a unique texture to the drama, completely at odds with those other shows that simply include unrelated musical interludes. Not only is the music spectacularly good (well, to my untrained ears anyway), it becomes a pivotal part of the narrative. In one sense, it creates a weird suspense to the proceedings — we enjoy the performance, but while the songs are playing, we know that the clock’s ticking for Pete in one way or another. In Pete Kelly’s Blues, the songs don’t just fill time, they mark it.

Similarly, we know that Pete’s completely vulnerable while on stage, being mulled over by any stray louse that may be lurking at the bar that night. Unlike those detectives and pseudo-detectives, Pete’s job adds another layer of vulnerability in its unyielding necessity and public nature.

And more than simple suspense, the prominent nature of the music (thanks to the Jazz-loving Webb), carries its own insights: it’s an odd work of modern culture that posits music as something other than an all-liberating expression of humanity and emotion. The jazz in Pete Kelly’s Blues seems to be an entity oblivious to the turmoil around it: insistent but indifferent. Beneath every number is the lurking reminder of Pete’s troubled brow, often completely at odds with the fiery music we’re hearing — it almost seems a cheap front or a blatant sham, at once a great art form and a mere distraction from the real world around it.

Stripping music of any real personal or cultural power is a pretty grim prospect, especially with Glee, Pop Idol, Afghan Star and American/Australian/Indian/Pakistan Idol big on TV. Here, music seems to have nothing to do with the mind or the soul — it’s a separate entity, and any promise of elevation or transcendence it carried is long-broken. When Pete steps up to play, there’s no sense he’s exorcised any demons or found himself in a new state of being.

Its presence in this grim world, where it plays on despite the corruption and violence around it, has more in common with the music in Ronald Harwood’s Taking Sides (filmed by István Szabó in 2001), which examines German conductor and composer William Furtwängler (played by Stellan Skarsgård in the film) who demonstrated no direct approval of the Nazi party, but continued to act as a high-profile conductor during Nazi rule. While Furtwängler suggested that the music he conducted expressed those higher ideals of humanity, needed at those times more than ever, we’re simultaneously left with the jarring counter-point: that the music offered no social or humanistic transcendence whatsoever, that it neither questioned nor addressed the conditions around it. We face the possibility that it was just a mask of humanity over base reality: that, next to the corruption of the day, it was nothing but mere accompaniment.

Dennis Potter’s TV drama Pennies From Heaven (1978) touches on the same unease, with music offering promises that flit away the moment they’re looked at head-on, and Robert Altman’s Kansas City (1996), not so far removed from the world of Pete Kelly’s Blues, ends with the blistering jazz, that dizzy outpouring of a new and vibrant culture the film appeared to be examining, merely sitting indifferently amid the usual injustice and decay of a corrupt world. In the final scene as the credits roll, the jazz dutifully rolls on — ordered to play by the crime boss as he sits and counts his blood-money.

Perhaps it’s only a real music-lover that could face this underlying possibility so directly and unflinchingly, to love it as it is and not for some flimsy transcendental promise: Webb’s love of jazz sees it paraded but not fetishised like so many soft musicals and musical showcases before and after. The jazz in Pete Kelly’s Blues is extraordinary, but we’re never led to believe that it could lift its servants above the noirish, nihilistic doom of the speakeasy.