“Pete Kelly’s Blues” (1955)
by A.J. Hakari
Jack Webb was a hardass among hardasses. His tenure as Sgt. Joe Friday on “Dragnet” is the stuff of television legend for a reason, as perfect of an example of the law’s unshakability when faced with society’s scummiest that you could ever wish for. But this stern small-screen persona afforded viewers too few glimpses at a different side of Webb, one that nurtured a lifelong love of jazz music. This admiration for the medium even extended into Webb’s day job, resulting in a short-lived radio program titled Pete Kelly’s Blues that spun off into a feature film in 1955. This was his chance at showing something personal to an audience that had grown accustomed to him as a poker-faced policeman, but unfortunately, a reputation that’s tricky to evade is just one of the issues that comes to plague this project. Pete Kelly’s Blues feels as though we’re joining a story already in progress, having gathered an ensemble of characters who sure seem like they’re worth rooting for but leaving out the part as to why we should.
The time is 1927. The place is Kansas City, Missouri. The age of jazz, Prohibition, and speakeasies is in full swing, and Pete Kelly (Webb) is right in the middle of it all. Long ago, a chance dice game won him a cornet and set him on a path that eventually crowned him the leader of Pete Kelly’s Big 7 band (comprised of eight other members, of course). They’re a small-time bunch that’s happy to be playing pizzerias and gin joints, until the criminal kind arrives to put a damper on their good times. Gang boss Fran McCarg (Edmond O’Brien) has moved into town and wants a piece of what meager action the band gets, a demand Pete begrudgingly accepts for the safety of his friends. But thanks to the actions of his hot-headed drummer (Martin Milner), war breaks out between the two factions, as shots fire, bodies fall, and the band becomes more indebted to McCarg than before. All Pete wants is to live a normal life with rich party girl Ivy (Janet Leigh) at his side, but the more of a stranglehold McCarg puts on his pals — eventually forcing them to take on his alcoholic moll (Peggy Lee) as a singer — the more he’s pushed to the edge and forced to resort to deadly means to protect them.
It seems to be that Pete Kelly’s Blues breezes through what likely would’ve made for a stronger story during the beginning credits. We open on a sequence that traces a cornet’s path from falling out of a hearse in New Orleans to a young Pete picking it up as he returns from World War I, a nice visual metaphor for how music endures long after those who practiced it have passed away. Now the main plot about getting out from under the thumbs of gangsters is all well and good (especially with Richard L. Breen’s screenplay supplying some immaculately-composed one-liners), but skimping out on what might’ve been a rich back story seriously hinders Pete Kelly’s Blues in the long run. We aren’t told a whole lot about our hero, be it what inspired him to lead a life dedicated to jazz or what other things he may have experienced that caused him to cave in so quickly to McCarg’s orders. Pete isn’t an enigma as much as he is a blank slate, someone who exists just so things can happen to him and who’s our protagonist by virtue of having his name in the title. Webb narrates the proceedings as his character and gives the impression that he’s been through a lot in his time, but we’re never privy to just what that is, why McCarg is so bent on bullying his band, or why Ivy’s carrying such a torch for him.
Plus, try as one might, Webb’s own performance in Pete Kelly’s Blues makes it hard to move past the all-encompassing shadow of Joe Friday. Pete’s really kind of a square without much personality to spare, and with the multitude of sarcastic quips he throws in the direction of various characters, that anyone would rally so strongly behind him becomes a sizable pill to swallow. Webb knows how to sell these zingers when it counts, and his real life interest in jazz ensures that he looks like he knows his way around a hunk of brass, but the film is at a loss when it comes to reasons for cheering him on. O’Brien is similarly shortchanged as a generic thug (a subplot’s efforts to cast suspicion on whether or not he ordered a particular character’s hit prove confusing and fruitless), as is Leigh, who does a fine job of acting but whose character has zero motivation to fawn over Pete. On the other hand, Lee fares well in her Oscar-nominated performance, Lee Marvin lends solid support as one of Pete’s bandmates/confidantes, and in terms of setting the mood where sound and sight are concerned, Webb (who also directs here) couldn’t be more on the ball. The soundtrack is an incredible combination of instrumental pieces and melancholy ballads (some belted by Ella Fitzgerald in a small cameo), and the period production design perfectly evokes the mood of a ’20s watering hole, with just a hint of stylish exaggeration.
I’d crack wise about how Pete Kelly’s Blues hits all the wrong notes, but it’s more as if there’s an entire sheet of music missing in action. There’s nothing wrong with the main premise itself; it’s just that our investment in it is so minor, one spends more time mentally filling in the blanks instead of being involved in what’s actually taking place. Pete Kelly’s Blues looks great and sounds great, but while its soul is perfectly in tune, its form is all over the map.
(Pete Kelly’s Blues is available to purchase on Blu-ray through the Warner Archive Collection.)