Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Pete Kelly's Blues

If you liked Jack Webb last week in The D.I., you're in luck. One of the movies TCM is showing in honor of Star of the Month Janet Leigh was directed by and stars Webb. That film, Pete Kelly's Blues, airs tomorrow morning at 9:00 AM on TCM.

Webb, unsurprisingly, plays Pete Kelly. (Having your own production company making the movie helps.) Pete is the cornetist in, and leader of, a 1920s jazz combo, playing at a Kansas City-area speakeasy along with clarinetist Al (Lee Marvin) and drummer Joey (Martin Milner). This being the 1920s, it obviously means Prohibition, and all the concomitant problems that brings. One of the big problems is the rise of the gangster, which in this context means the protection racket. Local gangster Fran McCarg (Edmond O'Brien) wants to take over the entertainment racket, charging every band a piece of the action in order to be able to play. The band thinks it over and says no, with Joey being particularly strident in his view that the gangsters shouldn't be taking money from bands.

Of course, McCarg's offer wasn't a request; he's not going to let a little thing like the word "no" stop him. So while the band goes off to a private function, Fran is plotting to use force to get Pete and his band to comply. Janet Leigh finally shows up here, playing Ivy, the woman hosting the party and falling in love with Pete there, although at first the feeling is not mutual. On the way home from the party Fran's goons try to run Pete and has band off the road. Joey still refuses to give in to Fran, and when the gangsters continue their policy of vilently harassing anybody who says no to them, Joey gets in a fight with one of the underlings, thus sealing his fate. He abruptly gets rubbed out. This ultimately gets Pete to give in to Fran.

Of course, that's not where Fran's pressure ends. Fran has a girlfriend named Rose (Peggy Lee), although she's not particularly enamored of him any longer. Rose is a singer, and Fran is trying to push her career, reminiscent of James Cagney and Doris Day in Love Me or Leave Me. So Fran tries to push Rose on Pete's band, even though the styles of music aren't a mesh at all. Eventually Fran strikes out at Rose, and that's what gets Pete to do the right thing and cooperate with the law.

Even if Jack Webb weren't playing Pete Kelly, the movie would still have his fingerprints all over it: the clipped dialog and the obvious right versus wrong, practically hitting us over the head with all of it. Still, it's obvious from watching the movie that Webb had an affection for the material and as with The D.I., directs it almost as a labor of love: in addition to Peggy Lee's singing, Webb was able to get Ella Fitzgerald The result is a movie that, while it has its flaws, is a lot better than you'd think if you only knew Jack Webb from the 1960s version of Dragnet and the other TV shows his production company made at the time. (Martin Milner would go on to star in Dragnet's police-drama companion Adam-12.)

Pete Kelly's Blues did get a DVD release several years ago, but it seems to be out of print now, as the TCM shop no longer offers it for purchase.

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