Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Pete Kelly's Blues (1955)

It was only a matter of time before we did a post on the namesake of this blog. The film Pete Kelly's Blues is a personal favorite, along with the beautiful title song and the various musical offshoots of Pete Kelly, all involving the great trumpet of Dick Cathcart (see my Cathcart post).

The many "Hollywood" music bios and jazz films are guilty pleasures of me and many of my fellow musicians. Despite their flaws, historic inaccuracies and unintentionally laughable dialog, the music always saves the day.

The creator and star/director of the film was Jack Webb of Dragnet fame. Jack was a big jazz fan and earlier in 1951 had a Pete Kelly's Blues radio series. The radio show and movie (and subsequent TV series) revolved around Pete, a 1920's jazz cornetist working at the 17 Cherry St. Club in Kansas City with his band, the Big 7. Along the way Pete has many adventures with musicians, flappers and gangsters, all part of the Roaring 20s scene. Each one of the various versions of Pete featured Dick Cathcart with the band of Matty Matlock on clarinet and handling the arrangements, Moe Schneider, trombone, Ray Sherman, piano, George Van Eps, guitar, Jud DeNault, bass and Nick Fatool, drums. All of the players were big band veterans and experts in the Dixieland style. (Many were Bob Crosby veterans, especially Matlock and Miller, both longtime Crosbyites).

In 1955 Jack Webb brought his radio play to the big screen and the
Warner Brothers Studio. Dick, Matty and the boys were back. Jack did the directing and Richard L. Breen (an Academy Award winner and frequent collaborator of Billy Wilder) handled the screenplay. He had written a lot of Jack's Dragnet shows, hence that classic "just the facts" clipped dialog, so central to Webb productions.

Jack assembled an excellent and varied cast. Future cops Martin Milner (Adam 12) as drummer Joey Firestone and Lee Marvin (M Squad) as clarinetist Al Gannaway were aboard. Edmond O'Brien played the nasty racketeer, Fran McHarg. Janet Leigh was the lovely flapper socialite, Ivy Conrad, who falls for Pete. Two of our greatest female jazz singers have strong roles. Ella Fitzgerald plays Maggie Jackson, singer at a musicians' club who befriends Pete. Peggy Lee gave a great dramatic performance as the alcoholic singer, Rose Hopkins. She was deservedly nominated for an academy award. Also making a small appearances was Jayne Mansfield as a nightclub cigarette girl, hardly recognizable as a brunette. Firehouse Five banjoist, Harper Goff, who was the film's production designer, got in a cameo with banjo. Silent comic, Snub Pollard, has some scenes as a waiter and Than Wyenn as Rudy Shulak, the tightwad owner of the club is great. (He reprised the role on the television version). The biggest surprise is Andy Devine as a tough, no nonsense cop out to get McHarg. There is no trace of his "cowboy sidekick" persona.

Band members Matty Matlock and George VanEps and Ray Sherman can be seen onscreen as Big 7 members. The basic plot of the film involves Pete dealing with McHarg who tries to get a piece of the band, and the resulting turmoil and band wars. Mixed in is Pete's romance with Ivy and the tragic story of Rose, who McHarg tries to match with Kelly's band for one last chance at stardom. Along the way we get vignettes of other band members and characters who populate the club. The final shootout at the Everglade Ballroom with Pete against McHarg and Co. is right out of Dragnet. (I guess Pete learned to shoot in World War I. )

The prologue that opens the film is a beautiful recreation of a New Orleans funeral. Filmed at the Fleming Plantation in Lafitte,Louisiana we hear Teddy Buckner on cornet along with the Israelite Spiritual Chorus performing
Didn't He Ramble. The service is for an old jazzman whose cornet finds it's way to Pete Kelly.

The film's sets and atmosphere are perfect, everything has the right look. Any shortcomings are more than made up for by the music. The Big 7 sequences are all expertly played with great contributions from Cathcart, Matlock, Miller and Co. Old favorites such as Smiles,What can I say Dear, Bye Bye Blackbird and Breezin' along with the Breeze are played by the Big 7. Even the background music has nice moments, including the society
Tuxedo Band heard at Ivy's party. Ella and Peggy's vocals are superb, both were at the top of their game and Peggy never looked lovelier. The Pete/Ivy relationship is nicely played. As Pete starts to fall for the lovely Ivy, he starts to loosen up a bit and even cracks a smile or two (unusual for the taciturn Webb). Janet Leigh as Ivy gets to sing an old favorite, I'm Gonna meet my Sweetie Now (recorded by Jean Goldkette with Bix).

About the music: the lovely title theme was written by veteran film composer, Ray Heindorf, and the great lyricist Sammy Cahn. The haunting, bluesy melody is perfect for Cathcart's mellow, Bix-like horn. Ella also gets to sing the lyrics during a scene when Pete comes to her club for help. The old Ted Fiorito favorite,
I Never Knew, gets a new take as the love theme for Pete and Ivy. They dance to it several times, especially charming is the player piano rendition at the ballroom. During Peggy's "audition" with the band she gets to sing a pretty Arthur Hamilton tune, He Needs Me.(Hamilton was a frequent contributor to the radio show) .This didn't go anywhere: too bad! Eddie Miller can be heard with some pretty noodling, and the favorite, Sugar. Later on she does a bit of Somebody Loves Me and in a touching scene Sing a Rainbow. At this point Rose is in an insane asylum. Peggy deserved her Oscar nomination. It's too bad she didn't get more acting offers. Ella encores a great Hard Hearted Hannah and scats some blues. I have to mention some of the classic dialog. Here are some of my favorites. Jack's opening, after playing a band set: If you're looking for a new way to grow old, this is the place to come.

When drummer Joey Firestone is gunned down in the alley by McHarg's boys, here's Pete's response: Somebody bring Joey in-it's rainin' on him. Here's a trumpet player's delight. When Ivy notices Pete's cute parakeet, he retorts: I may have to eat that bird someday, but in the meantime, he can hit a high G above C, so I keep him around.

Here's a Joe Friday special. When asked about using Tin Roof Blues on a record date, Pete's response is, "It'll Keep!" And I love the reference to Pete playing with a heavy mute during his troubles with the gangsters. When Pete informs his bass man that a new sideman had worked with the Mound City Blue Blowers, the bassist's reply is, "If he worked for them, it was carrying beer!"

Jack did his homework, too. Early in the film the young Jayne Mansfield asks Pete if he's going to catch Bennie Moten at The Plantation. Pete's answer, "We'll see. Pack a lunch!" Clarinetist Al mentions that Pete should try out for the Goldkette band. When Pete is told Bix is in the band, his comeback is, "I'm safer here!"

The popularity of the movie and the
Big 7's music spawned quite a few albums. First up was the RCA LP Pete Kelly's Blues with most of the featured songs played by the band along with Jack's unique narrative! This made it to CD on Collector's Choice. Another RCA LP, Pete Kelly at Home, featured some unusual tunes such as Mandy, Fight On, Sweet Eloise, Old Pigeon Toed Joe and Out of Nowhere. A Capitol EP featured the band with Louisiana, Roses of Picardy, Bflat Blues and Till we Meet Again. Dick's lovely, Bix-like solo on Louisiana was singled out by several critics. At the same time a Columbia album featured the Big 7 on eight tunes from the film and Ray Heindorf conducting a large studio orchestra on four selections. A later LP, Pete Kelly Lets His Hair Down (1958) on Warner Bros., has a unique concept of blues themes titled by different colors.

In 1959 Pete Kelly's Blues made the transition to television as Jack Webb produced a weekly series during the spring and summer of that year. Thirteen episodes were filmed. This time Jack gave the lead to William Reynolds, later of the F.B.I. Also featured was the great singer, Connee Boswell, as Savannah Brown, a take-off on the Ella character. Than Wyenn was back as the 17 Cherry St. Club's
owner, this time as George Lupo. Phil Gordon played Fred, Pete's pianist and buddy. The stories revolved around the musicians' problems, missing persons, murder and various non-musical conflicts. Dick, Matty and the band were back to provide music and Warner Bros. put out a nice LP of music featured in the series. I still have my old copy! The show hasn't made it to DVD yet, but there is still hope for a private collection on Ebay or YouTube.

After the TV run, Dick, Matty and most of the band occasionally played as the
Big 7 at California clubs and jazz festivals. Sad to say, most of the band members have passed. I believe Ray Sherman is still active. He put out some nice sides on the Arbors label.

On future posts we'll survey the various Hollywood bios. (Goodman, Miller, Krupa, The Five Pennies) and some of the jazz oriented films such as Young Man with a Horn, Second Chorus, A Man called Adam and Orchestra Wives.

Pete Kelly's Blues can be enjoyed for it's great musical value, for it's camp and fun dialog or just as great 1950s movie entertainment. Whatever your preference is, you're in for a great show. The film is available on aWarner Bros. DVD.

Wail on, Pete!

1 comment:

Mike said...

This Is a Great Movie for Jack Webb Fans