Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955)

Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955)

“You couldn’t give me a cold.”

A Prohibition-era jazz band leader (Jack Webb) is pressured into being “managed” by a local gangster (Edmond O’Brien) after his uncooperative drummer (Martin Milner) is gunned down, prompting his longtime bandmate (Lee Marvin) to hit the road. Meanwhile, a beautiful socialite (Janet Leigh) doggedly pursues Webb, and O’Brien insists that Webb allow a talented but alcoholic performer (Peggy Lee) to sing in his band.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Edmond O’Brien Films
  • Gangsters
  • Jack Webb Films
  • Janet Leigh Films
  • Lee Marvin Films
  • Musicians

Jack Webb made his feature debut as a writer/director/actor/producer by adapting his hit radio series Dragnet (1954), and followed up with this cinematic rendering of a crime-musical radio drama taking place in Prohibition-era Kansas City. Webb stars as the title character, who comes across as essentially a variation on his personae as “facts only” Detective Joe Friday and hard-hitting Sergeant Moore in The D.I. (1957). As DVD Savant writes in his review:

Webb locked himself into his perfectly deadly ‘Dragnet’ style. He often moves like a robot. Instead of acting he hits marks, turns his head and flashes the occasional predetermined smile.

The movie’s redeeming moments are fine period sets, luminous Technicolor cinematography, and the presence of real-life musical stars Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee, who are given wonderfully uninterrupted, respectful moments to shine. Otherwise, the storyline’s awkward pacing, rat-a-tat dialogue (“They say you’ve got rubber pockets so you can steal soup.”), and underdeveloped characterizations reflect blunt radio serial norms rather than effective screenwriting.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Ella Fitzgerald singing “Hard Hearted Hannah”
  • Peggy Lee’s tunes
  • Some creative direction and vibrant Technicolor

Must See?
No, unless you’re a diehard jazz fan.


One thought on “Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955)

  1. Just rewatched this and – agreed – not must-see; the assessment given here is rather accurate.

    I might quibble with a few points – like…occasionally the writing is effective in certain scenes. And, esp. in her earlier scenes, it’s rather interesting watching Peggy Lee (who is not known for acting) act. (Ms. Fitzgerald is not really called on to ‘act’, even though she has lines of dialogue.)

    But, overall, this is a standard backstage tale of musicians of a certain era.

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