February 4, 2010

Pete Kelly’s Blues

Jack Webb is not an actor one easily pictures playing a musician. For those familiar with his work as Sergeant Joe Friday on the Dragnet TV series, you know that his emotional range as an actor is from wooden to glum. So, it is surprising to find him in the film Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955) in the title role as a jazz cornet player and bandleader. Swing he doesn't....
     The story takes place during Prohibition (1927 to be exact) in Kansas City. Pete and his Big Seven Band, a hot ticket on the speakeasy circuit, are targeted by the local mob boss (played by Edmond O’Brien in full chew-up-the-scenery mode), who extorts “management fees” from the band. Pete’s love interest is a local socialite played by Janet Leigh. Unlikely but true casting choices include Lee Marvin as the clarinet player (a precursor to his vocal stylings in Paint Your Wagon) - the laconic way he moves is somewhat reminiscent of Dexter Gordon - and Andy Devine in an understated role as a lawman, sans ten-gallon hat, pursuing the mob. The movie includes some voice-over narration in Webb’s one-note drone (a la Dragnet). Describing one of his band’s gigs, Pete deadpans: “You could put the whole crowd in a bathtub and still have room to splash around.” The gangster story and the love story, plodding plots both, meander along to a rather unlikely happy ending.
“You could put the whole crowd in a bathtub and still have room to splash around.”
     But the real treat for jazz lovers is the music. No attempt is made to play authentic music circa 1927, but the snippets of jazz heard throughout the film are quite good. Peggy Lee, in an Oscar-nominated role, plays Rose, a washed-up alcoholic singer forced on Pete’s band by the mob boss. She sings a couple of complete tunes, “He Needs Me” and “Sugar,” before drinking herself senseless and winding up in a mental institution. (Playing crazy is always good for an Oscar nod.) And Ella Fitzgerald appears in the film as well to sing two tunes, “Hard-Hearted Hannah” and the title song. The film basically stops and lets Ella sing; she also has some dialogue.
     Jack Webb, who also directed the film (with a more deft touch than his granite-faced acting), was a jazz fan in real life, and it shows in this film. He had an interest in the cornet in particular, and he was married for a time to the torchy songstress Julie London. Webb even recorded an album of himself speaking lyrics over musical arrangements, including a rendition of “Try a Little Tenderness” that shows he didn’t try enough.
     This Warner Brothers picture was shot in CinemaScope and WarnerColor, so it looks and sounds beautiful. The film is available through Netflix. In spite of its flaws, I definitely recommend it for jazz fans.

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