Pete Kelly’s Blues

Now that Jack Webb’s glorious PETE KELLY’S BLUES has finally become available on DVD, this seems like an appropriate time to exhume my Chicago Reader film blog post about it in 2007, now happily out of date, and update the links:

The market value of a missing movie
February 16th – 9:31 a.m.

Don’t ask me how, but I recently had a chance to resee Jack Webb’s Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955), a terrific, atmospheric, period noir in Cinemascope and WarnerColor about a cornet player (Webb) in a Dixieland band in 1927 Kansas City (after an evocative prologue in 1915 New Orleans and 1919 Jersey City showing us where and how Pete Kelly came by his cornet). It’s got an amazing cast: Edmond O’Brien, Janet Leigh, Peggy Lee, Lee Marvin, Andy Devine (in a rare and very effective noncomic role), Ella Fitzgerald, and even a bit by Jayne Mansfield as a cigarette girl in a speakeasy. The screenplay, which deservedly gets star billing in the opening credits, is by Richard L. Breen, onetime president of the Screen Writers Guild and apparently a key writer on Webb’s Dragnet, and it’s full of wonderful and hilarious hardboiled dialogue and offscreen narration by Webb. (When a flapper played by Leigh says to Kelly that April is her favorite month, he replies, “If you like it so much, I’ll buy it for you.”)

It seems that Webb was as passionate a jazz buff as Clint Eastwood, and this movie is at least as much of a labor of love as Bird. In his film essay Los Angeles Plays Itself, Thom Andersen compares Webb’s minimalist direction of Dragnet episodes to the direction of Ozu, but here the mise en scene is positively baroque in spots -– and beautifully composed. Another point of interest, for me at any rate, is that I’m strongly persuaded that John Cassavetes borrowed substantial chunks of this movie’s plot for his underrated, neglected, and hard-to-find Too Late Blues (1962), his first Hollywood film (see the black-and-white photo below).

In any case, Pete Kelly’s Blues has never been released on DVD. But it was once released on VHS in England, and if you go to Amazon UK, you can find a used, letterboxed VHS of the film on sale for 150 quid -– which, according to current exchange rates, comes to about $293 -– heralded as a “low price”! This is outrageous even if one places it alongside the $210 being charged by one dealer on American Amazon for a used DVD of The Complete Goofy.

What’s the meaning of this? That enthusiasts of certain cultural items are supposed to be crazy, I guess. I’m reminded of Peggy Lee’s chilling portrayal in Pete Kelly’s Blues of an alcoholic singer who winds up in an insane asylum with a doll and the mind of a seven-year-old after her gangster boyfriend (Edmond O’Brien) beats her up. We cinephiles are sometimes made to feel almost equally bruised and bereft. [7/23/08]

This entry was posted in Featured Texts. Bookmark the permalink.