Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955) Blu-ray Review: Uneven Musical Gangster Noir (in Color)

Way back during those far-off days of the very early 1990s (he said in jest), I found myself – along with my peers – choosing an assignment for English from a number of eclectic books our teacher had on-hand. And while my report of The Communist Manifesto, wherein I commented Karl Marx was of no relation to Groucho, Harpo, Chico or Zeppo, was a deliberately dumb affair, it could not compare to the smirking delight that set over my face when the morons on the other side of the room – the “cool, popular” kids, if you will – decided to go with the subject of Charlie Parker as their assignment. Why? Because they chose their topic based solely on the fact that there was a film version by Clint Eastwood.

Already a fairly big film buff at that point in time, my amusement was mostly founded because I knew Bird was a film that Eastwood only produced and directed. My classmates were expecting a shoot-em-up action film that starred the big name actor. I could only imagine the disappointment that settled over their faces that weekend when they all sat down to discover they were watching a drama about a jazz musician. The fact I lived in a Northern California redneck mountain town where country music was king made it all the more droll. Birdwas a personal project for Clint Eastwood, one wherein the man best known for playing a trigger-happy cop decided to lay off of the bloodshed in order to share his love of jazz music with the public who had grown to admire him.

Thirty-three years earlier – around the exact same time Charlie Parker passed away, in fact – another actor famous for portraying a police officer on-screen, tried something along the same lines. Jack Webb, the man best known for playing the by-the-book, deadpan LAPD sergeant Joe Friday in various incarnations of Dragnet, also shared a love of jazz music – something he did his best to get the public to like, as well. Set in Kansas City in 1927, Pete Kelly’s Blues finds Webb in the lead role as Pete Kelly, the cornetist headman of an eight-man group known as Pete Kelly’s Big 7. Now, if you’re already detecting a bit of an ego at play, you have every right to.

For you see, folks, Pete Kelly’s Blues was a personal project for Webb, too; a Prohibition Era character he brought over with him from a short-lived radio series of the same name that aired in 1951. Whereas Eastwood told the moving true story about a real musician, as played by an appropriately-cast actor, Webb decided to cast himself in this fairy tale about a fictional bandleader whom the actor/producer/director actually described in the film’s trailer as being like Joe Friday. Because, in all honesty, that was the only type of character Webb could play. As a law enforcement officer of military figure, he was right at home, for he could play it straight like no other without even trying. Here, he would have done better to cast somebody else with a different sort of acting method.

He might have done better to choose a real life individual to base his story off of, too. Or, at the very least, paid more for a better script. For, although Pete Kelly’s Blues made its money back at the box office back in the ’50s, it wasn’t a huge success, and the public Mr. Webb tried so very desperately to get to like his favorite kind of music decided not to go out and cause a huge surge in jazz sales at record stores after all. That, and the movie is a very uneven story laced with some rather rocky performances, including rare acting bits by legendary vocalists Peggy Lee and Ella Fitzgerald, both of whom are slightly out of their elements when it comes to that dialogue thing (though Lee does darn good, especially given her acting experience and the tragic character she is cast as).

Fortunately, both singers are on-hand mainly to sing. And those moments are worth their weight in gold here, as is a bizarre but unfortunately limited performance by the raspy-voiced comical cowboy sidekick Andy Devine as a hard-nosed detective. Instead, Mr. Webb takes up most of the screentime all by himself here, occasionally throwing co-star Janet Leigh in as a wealthy high society gal who has a thing for Kelly and vice versa, despite there being no chemistry between the two. Edmond O’Brien occasionally appears as the gangster bad guy who puts the pressure on Kelly and Company, but just doesn’t get a big enough chance to shine. Tough guy Lee Marvin has a small part as one of Kelly’s musician pals, who leaves at the beginning of the picture and returns towards the end only to notparticipate in the climactic shoot-out.

Martin Milner also appears as a doomed drummer (and who probably delivers the liveliest performance in the entire film), and Jayne Mansfield appears briefly as a cigarette girl in a speakeasy club owned and operated by a shrewd Than Wyenn (another saving grace of the feature). Diminutive voice actor Mort Marshall is another character that disappears towards the beginning of the feature, and who Devine’s copper announces “never came back” after being sent out on an errand to find O’Brien. Yet he inexplicably re-appears towards the ending without a single word of explanation for some reason. John Dennis, Snub Pollard, and a number of (mostly minor) jazz players are also featured.

Yes, Pete Kelly’s Blues is an unsteady motion picture. If you can imagine a film noir in color with a cowardly protagonist who really doesn’t do much and which features musical numbers, you’ve pretty much got it. Granted, the film has its moments throughout, and thankfully flies by like a short subject, but it ultimately fails to really grip its audience. After the failed radio program and this lackluster big-budget CinemaScope WarnerColor feature film version, Webb tried yet once more with a television series in 1959 – which didn’t last long, either. Though it’s a bit of an odd selection for the Warner Archive Collection’s Blu-ray series, it is nevertheless nice to see this demi-classic presented in High-Definition, though the widescreen image seems to have been stretched out some horizontally.

That said, the video quality of Pete Kelly’s Blues is very vibrant and crisp, with no noticeable flaws to distract any genuinely interested parties. Originally released to theaters in four-channel stereo (a big deal back then), this Blu-ray presents a DTD-HD 5.1 MA remix of same (presumably), which comes through just fine – particularly during more “exciting” moments or when Lee and Fitzgerald break out into song. (Oh, Janet Leigh also sings here, in the film’s only “traditional” musical moment – which stands out like Jack Webb’s donning of a yellow raincoat and bow tie when he tries to be stealthy.) English (SDH) subtitles are on-hand here, as are a couple of special features.

The first two bonus items are the original theatrical trailers for Pete Kelly’s Blues, one in color, the other in black-and-white. The previews are essentially the same, with the latter being the longer of the two. In each, Webb addresses the audience, joking that the antiquated Victrola playing “Sugar” next to him was the HiFi system of its day. Webb proceeds to pitch the movie to his potential audience, wisely taking time out from his own back-patting to briefly introducing us to cinematographer Harold Rosson as well as clips from the movie. Even when compared to other trailers of the time where actors and filmmakers address the good men and women in the auditorium, these come off as slightly weird.

Lastly here are two shorts, a joking look at the history of automobiles in Gadgets Galore, and the Looney Tunes subject The Hole Idea. Both shorts were produced the same year as Pete Kelly’s Blues, and very well could have been played with the feature film in cinemas. They were also included on the 2008 Standard-Definition DVD release of our main attraction. Like the recent, awesome Warner Archive Blu-ray release of the musical Yankee Doodle Dandy, the menu for Pete Kelly’s Blues includes chapter selections set to the various musical performances in the film.

All in all, I can’t say I’m any more of a fan of Pete Kelly’s Blues than my late lamented classmates were when they shockingly discovered Bird had nary a track of Clint Eastwood in it all those years ago (I guess this is God’s way of getting back at me after all this time). Alas, just like I’m sure they failed to realize then, I understand the movie of my assignment does have its fans around the world, and anyone who is looking to upgrade the movie in question or who would simply like to take a peek at this filmic oddity should by all means check out this remarkable Blu-ray presentation from the Warner Archive.

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Luigi Bastardo

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