Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955 USA 95 mins)

Source: ScreenSound Australia/Warner Bros. Prod Co: Warner Bros.
Prod, Dir: Jack Webb Scr: Richard Breen Phot: Harold Hal Rosson
Ed: Robert M. Leeds Art Dir: Field M. Gray
Mus: Sammy Cahn, Ray Heindorf, Arthur Hamilton, Matty Matlock

Cast: Jack Webb, Janet Leigh, Edmond O’Brien, Peggy Lee, Andy Devine, Lee Marvin, Ella Fitzgerald, Jayne Mansfield

* * *

Jazz and the movies, homegrown arts of America, virtually grew up together. Despite their different sociologies and marketing histories they underwent artistic diversification, developed their own expertise and legends, in roughly the same periods until the 1950s. For reasons we still await the cultural analysts to expatiate upon (racial prejudice and/or ignorance is too vague an explanation), Hollywood’s depictions of contemporary America were more likely to find their subject matter in sports, leisure, education, older media (e.g., opera!), even the newer – and potentially competitive – medium of radio, than in jazz making. When musical groups were central to the stories of feature films they were much more likely to be orchestras – all the way from symphony to palm court – than jazz bands. Despite the fact that synchronised sound in feature films was popularly introduced by a movie entitled The Jazz Singer, this kind of music was not favoured as subject matter for the movies. Occasionally something like genuine jazz could be heard as signature passages and sound motifs, or as encapsulated production numbers (e.g., in some of the early Mae West movies). And of course there were specialty shorts, usually showcases for ‘safe’ jazz (I realise that’s not fair to Bessie Smith, Louis and Lil Armstrong, Bob Crosby and some others, but I’m taking a broad view here). As incidental music – an often underestimated component of screen drama – jazz was not to be heard in feature films, though it had an attenuated influence on standard orchestration.

Pete Kelly’s Blues came along around the same time as Rebel without a Cause, The Blackboard Jungle (introducing something called ‘rock’n’roll’), The Night of the Hunter (terrible music score!), Kiss Me Deadly, All that Heaven Allows, The Man with the Golden Arm. Movies that oozed masculine self-pity and indulged liberal fantasies had become big at the box office (The Wild One, On the Waterfront, etc.). Jack Jack Webb’s second film as director (he had made Dragnet the previous year), Pete Kelly’s Blues had a stoical hero (himself) and a story about an earlier way of life. It looked back to a disreputable hurly-burly past more in sorrow than in anger, not sweet enough to be labelled nostalgia.

In the roaring twenties a struggling jazz band, white men playing black men’s music (as the opening eloquently shows), settle into a regular gig at a Kansas City speakeasy. Professional integrity and camaraderie come into conflict with insensitive patrons and ruthless business interests (which just happened to be illegal at the time). This leads to the death of one musician and the defection of another. To resolve the situation the ex-soldier musician hero steps out of character and takes gun in hand, then returns to the practice of his art. A qualified victory: no fame, no riches, no reconciliation, just a chance to make a living doing what he does best. If this sounds like an analogue of the artist’s dilemma in Hollywood, perhaps it is. But that makes the climactic shoot-out a fantasy (in reality all Rowland Brown did was “sock a producer” – that was enough to end his directorial career). So the storyline of Pete Kelly’s Blues is not exceptional. We become critics when we proceed from “What is it about?” to “How is it about?”. Strong (but not subtle) characterisation, coded dialogue, a flavourful sense of period and mise en scène which achieves something of a baroque quality rare in ’50s Hollywood (other examples include Touch of Evil, and parts of Johnny Guitar). CinemaScope was still the new toy on the block in 1955. Lang was trying something with it in Moonfleet, as Minnelli did subsequently, but it was Webb who enthusiastically combined its challenges to composition and lighting with swooping crane shots. Obvious, admittedly, but exhilarating – then and now. The cinematography of Harold Rosson with the design of Harper Goff (on loan from the Disney Company – there’s a story in that, film buffs) create a pictorially mannered effect, alternating between moody darkness and ‘unreal’ candy colours, comparable to the better known explorations of colour by Sirk and Ray.

A ‘sense of period’ doesn’t necessarily reproduce historically verifiable detail. It serves its purpose if it evokes that more elusive thing: ethos. Pete Kelly’s Blues disappointed jazz buffs, but for most of the audience it examined – not merely cited – a way of life they had only read about or heard in the reminiscences of elders (How do you, dear reader, remember the ’60s and ’70s?). The secret is not in what’s different from the ‘now’ of 1955 in costumes, utensils and means of transportation, but in everyday values shared by the characters, the things not spelled-out in the dialogue. Pete Kelly’s Blues gives us the illusion of being inside an historical milieu (which may or may not be historically accurate) whereas the few earlier films about jazz culture – e.g., New Orleans, The Fabulous Dorseys (both 1947), Young Man with a Horn (1950) – position us outside their fictive worlds. The taken-for-granted information is the key to admission ‘inside’. In some respects this film might have taken too much for granted: the casual reference to ‘Bix’, or the lack of reference to Boss Pendergast, in whose notorious domain the film is set. Webb in the title role defines the film’s poker-faced, tight-lipped style of performance (with the exception of Edmond O’Brien’s brassy hoodlum). ‘Laconic’ and ‘sardonic’ are favourite terms overused by film reviewers. They go together like a bad rhyme. Pete Kelly embodies them both – neither subtle nor ironic, but consistently stylised. He casts cunningly against type: Lee Marvin, “the doves’ favourite hawk”, plays a gentle man upset by violence while Andy Devine, the high-pitched overweight laughing stock of countless other movies, comes through as a tough phlegmatic cop. He calls upon two great singers, Peggy Lee and Ella Fitzgerald, to exercise great virtuosity: the former to sing badly (in a scene that wrings the heart), the latter to make the title song transcend the ‘torch’ genre.

It was a brave and ‘different’ film for the mainstream, and in box office terms it didn’t find its audience. As a director Webb returned to the snappy, tight-framed method which served him so well in another medium – the television series.

There is a besetting flaw to this splendid film. It is confounded by an artistic self-contradiction: while Matty Matlock and his All Stars supply the jazz for Pete Kelly’s band, the incidental music is good old studio standard pseudo-symphonic syrup. Who is to blame? The film’s unusual trailer might give us a clue: the director addresses the camera and introduces Harold Rosson to his public (how often does a cinematographer take a bow?). Webb talks, a little pretentiously perhaps, about his ambitious new project, then reassures us that it still has the familiar story elements (!). Grounds for suspicion: was Jack Webb forced by Warner Bros. executives into an artistic compromise as grievous as that which confronted his alter ago, Pete Kelly?

About The Author

John Flaus began writing film criticism in 1954, and was sacked the following year when he wrote that On the Waterfront was right-wing propaganda. He has been writing film reviews intermittently ever since. These days he makes a living as an actor, script editor and occasional lecturer.

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