Saturday, November 29, 2014

Tonight's Movie: Pete Kelly's Blues (1955) - A Warner Archive Blu-ray Review

PETE KELLY'S BLUES (1955), directed by and starring Jack Webb, is now available in a gorgeous new Blu-ray from the Warner Archive.

PETE KELLY'S BLUES is set in the '20s, soaked with jazz, rain, illegal booze, and gunfire. It's a unique movie not quite like anything else I've ever seen, with Webb's trademark dry delivery juxtaposed against hot music and high drama.

One IMDb reviewer called it an "existential noir gangster musical," with "the toughness of a gangster pic, the existential malhereuse of a trendy European epic, the fine '20s sounds of a period musical, all in Warners wide screen." I liked that!

Cornet player Pete Kelly (Webb) plays jazz at a speakeasy with his band, the Big 7. Local mobster Fran McCarg (Edmond O'Brien) moves in on the band and insists on a cut of their income to "manage" them. McCarg also insists that his moll, Rose (Peggy Lee), sing with the band.

Conflict regarding paying the protection money to McCarg leads to Pete's best friend, clarinet player Al (Lee Marvin), leaving the band and ultimately also leads to the death of young drummer Joey (Webb regular Martin Milner).

Meanwhile, flighty young flapper Ivy (Janet Leigh) decides that Pete is wonderful and launches a campaign to become his wife.

The movie doesn't quite completely work, yet it's fascinating, and there's much to love about it. It's almost as though the individual elements are more important than what comes together as a whole.

For starters, the movie looks absolutely terrific. The production designer was Harper Goff, "Courtesy of Walt Disney," and he and cinematographer Hal Rosson give the movie a rich, colorful look; you'd never know that the movie was filmed in Warnercolor, which so often looks harsh or washed out.

In my favorite sequence, at a dance hall, the scene is filmed with several different color tints, as a color wheel lights up the room. Other notable sets include a secret attic still and a ballroom shootout with a glittery ball spinning, giving the sequence a surreal, nightmarish look. Everything about the film is visually striking, including the prologue and the opening credits sequence.

Production designer Goff, who was a member of Disney's Firehouse Five Plus Two musical group, is seen on screen playing banjo early in the film when Ivy sings. (Incidentally, it sounds as though it's Janet Leigh's voice singing, and she does quite well.) Last year I attended a tribute to Goff at a screening of another film he designed, Disney's 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (1954).

Then there's the music. The movie would be worth seeing if only for the rare treat of seeing Ella Fitzgerald singing in a feature film; it's quite a thrill watching her in this. The Big 7 also sound great, and I would have enjoyed hearing even more from them.

There are also some excellent performances, starting with Lee Marvin as Pete's best pal. Marvin's more colorful character makes a great contrast with Webb's dry style. They have a wonderful scene where they make up after a serious fight.

Andy Devine gives an atypical performance as a very tough cop. Devine did some especially good work in this era, with his pilot in William Wellman's ISLAND IN THE SKY (1953) also being a particularly interesting characterization.

Marvin and Devine were my favorite actors in the film, but the entire cast is good, including the Oscar-nominated Peggy Lee and Janet Leigh, who makes likeable a woman who easily could have come off as a shallow floozy.

It's hard to put a finger on why the movie isn't a complete success; some have faulted Webb's lead performance, but I appreciate his style and have no problems with "Webb being Webb." I think the movie could have used even more music and perhaps a faster pace. That said, I really enjoyed it, and fans of Webb and great music should like it too.

The cast also includes Than Wyenn, Jayne Mansfield, Herb Ellis, John Dennis, and several musicians including Dick Cathcart and George Van Epps.

The screenplay of this 95-minute film was by Richard L. Breen.

Previous reviews of films directed by Jack Webb: DRAGNET (1954) and -30- (1959).

The Warner Archive Blu-ray includes a short, a cartoon, and the trailer. The Blu-ray looks fantastic and will please anyone interested in the movie.

May 2017 Update: The Warner Archive has now also reissued PETE KELLY'S BLUES on DVD.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this Blu-ray. Warner Archive releases are MOD (manufactured on demand) and may be ordered at the Warner Archive website.


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