There’s Not Enough Music in ‘Pete Kelly’s Blues’

No amount of melodramatic hysteria or Ella Fitzgerald's singing can save Pete Kelly's Blues from its bland angle on its subject.

Jack Webb created ’20s jazz trumpeter and bandleader Pete Kelly for radio in the early ’50s. At the decade’s end, he revived Pete Kelly’s Blues as a TV series starring William Reynolds in response to the Untouchables craze for period gangster shows. In between those incarnations, Webb produced, directed and starred in a handsome film version in Cinemascope and WarnerColor, about which we can say… it’s a handsome film in Cinemascope and WarnerColor.

It opens picturesquely with a Mississippi riverboat steaming past a New Orleans African-American funeral in 1915. By the time the credits come in, we understand that the funeral trumpet has passed into the hands of a soldier named Pete Kelly (Webb), who in ’20s Kansas City runs a seven-man jazz band. We can read the subtext about the dispersion of black culture into post-WWI America, though I can’t help thinking that trumpet had more interesting stops on its journey. Playing in bootleg speakeasies during Prohibition, Kelly lives in a world of casual criminality and even depends on it, which is a far cry from his Sgt. Joe Friday of Dragnet.

The slim plot involves his capitulation to a gangster (Edmond O’Brien) until Kelly finally finds something back of his belt buckle (as Andy Devine’s lawman says in pungent bit of dialogue for the era) and takes care of matters personally. Along the way he hooks up with a bored debutante (Janet Leigh), and their romance consists of brittle dialogue at opposite ends of the screen until they clinch. A subplot involves the gangster’s abused girlfriend and alcoholic songstress (Peggy Lee), who delivers a mad scene in an asylum where they seem to have given her the deluxe dungeon suite. There’s support from Lee Marvin as a taciturn musician, Martin Milner as a dead-meat hothead, and Jayne Mansfield as a cigarette girl.

Webb’s projects relied on weary people deliverying snappy dialogue (here provided by Richard L. Breen) as though in their sleep, combined with Webb’s no-nonsense voiceovers, and that style is present in this gangster picture with musical interludes. In the melodramatic ’50s, Webb’s dry, controlled, understated approach seemed fresh and realistic. Today, it feels as stylized and artificial as Douglas Sirk, only angled for blandness. If we compare, just for fun, with the even more drained performance style of Robert Bresson, we see that Bresson’s intimate camera and eye for detail pull us into his characters’ heads even when he avoids his actors’ faces.

Not so with Webb, who stages most scenes in a single wide shot without closeups or inserts, and with significant editing only during action scenes. Photographer Harold Rosson moves the camera smoothly up or down or around the side, but the resultant stageyness keeps us at a distance that doesn’t help any more than all the glib restraint. None of the characters feels credible, with the exception of Ella Fitzgerald’s singer/saloon owner, who’s only expected to sing “Hard Hearted Hannah” and the title song. (She does so very nicely, thank you.) By the way, there’s not enough music.

Vincente Minnelli or Nicholas Ray knew when to throw melodramatic hysteria across the widescreen. A good contrast is Ray’s Party Girl, and a better one is Charles Vidor’s Leave Me or Leave Me, from the same year as Pete Kelly’s Blues. Indeed, its central relationship between the Doris Day and James Cagney characters (based on Ruth Etting and her gangster boyfriend) echoes the Lee/O’Brien plot here, but Vidor’s film is so much stronger, I’m surprised Lee was Oscar-nominated while Day wasn’t.

Webb gives a special credit to art director Harper Goff “courtesy Walt Disney Productions”, where he’d just done 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and was one of the designers of Disneyland. He later worked on The Vikings, Fantastic Voyage and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. His warm spacious work here, though clearly less fanciful, is why the film looks so good. It’s Hollywood’s loss that Goff didn’t do as much design work as he should have; he didn’t even get credit during his tenure in Warners’ set department, which included Casablanca. By a curious coincidence, Goff played in a seven-man Dixieland band.

Warner Archive’s new Blu-ray edition duplicates the contents of the previous DVD, including two Webb-hosted trailers (one overlong and faded to black and white) and two short subjects: Robert McKimson’s cartoon about a professor who invents “portable holes” and Robert Youngson’s Oscar-nominated documentary about pioneer automobiles.

RATING 4 / 10