Pete Kelly's Blues (film)

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Pete Kelly's Blues
Videocassette poster for Pete Kelly's Blues
Directed by Jack Webb
Produced by Jack Webb
Written by Richard L. Breen
Starring Jack Webb
Janet Leigh
Edmond O'Brien
Peggy Lee
Andy Devine
Lee Marvin
Ella Fitzgerald
Martin Milner
Music by Arthur Hamilton
Ray Heindorf
David Buttolph
Matty Matlock
Cinematography Harold Rosson
Edited by Robert M. Leeds
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Release dates
  • July 31, 1955 (1955-07-31)
Running time 95 min.
Country United States
Language English
Budget $2,000,000
Box office $5 million (US)[1][2]

Pete Kelly's Blues is a 1955 film based on the 1951 original radio series. It was directed by and starred Jack Webb in the title role. Janet Leigh is featured as party girl Ivy Conrad, and Peggy Lee portrays alcoholic jazz singer Rose Hopkins (a performance for which she received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress in a Supporting Role). Ella Fitzgerald makes a memorable cameo as singer Maggie Jackson (a character played by a white actress in the radio series). Lee Marvin, Martin Milner and a very young Jayne Mansfield also make early career appearances in minor roles.

Much of the catchy dialogue in the film was inspired by the radio series Pat Novak for Hire, in which Webb starred for a time before creating Dragnet.

Film synopsis[edit]

The story opens in Kansas City in 1927 during Prohibition. Jazz cornetist Pete Kelly (Webb) and his Big Seven are the house band at the 17 Club, a lower-level speakeasy at 17 Cherry Street in Kansas City, when Pete is approached by new local crime boss Fran McCarg (Edmond O'Brien), who intends to put Kelly on his own client list. McCarg gives Kelly until the end of the night to talk it over with the band and “make up his mind”.

Before the night ends, Rudy, the overly efficient manager of the club, orders Kelly and the band to go to the house of Ivy Conrad (Janet Leigh), a woman with a reputation for hosting rowdy parties and who has designs on Kelly. Reluctantly, Kelly arrives at the party expecting to hear from McCarg via phone, but when the call comes through, it is intercepted by Kelly’s hot-tempered drummer Joey Firestone (Martin Milner), who, in a drunken stupor, turns McCarg down, telling him to “go get a ticket to nowhere”. McCarg promptly gets the word out as one of his cronies runs Kelly and his band off the road as they drive back to Kansas City.

The following night, the situation is compounded when Firestone roughs up Guy Bettenhauser, McCarg’s right-hand man. Kelly tries to “call off the dogs” by phoning McCarg, and even sending someone out to track him down, but to no avail.

As the night nears the end, Kelly begins to think they're home free, but just as the band finishes their last number, two gunmen burst through the front door of the club. Kelly tries to save Firestone by sending him out the back door, but two of McCarg’s men drive by and shoot him to death in the alleyway.

Tired and frustrated by his drummer’s murder, and of the subsequent departure of Al, his clarinetist (Lee Marvin), Kelly returns to his apartment to find Ivy inside waiting for him. Although Kelly initially resists her advances, the two soon strike up a relationship, which turns into an engagement.

In an unsuccessful attempt to quell the heat, McCarg invites himself to the 17 Club and tries to befriend Kelly, first by telling him that Bettenhauser acted alone in Firestone’s murder, and second, to present him with a new band member: his moll, Rose Hopkins (Peggy Lee), a would-be singer, now a heavy drinker, much to McCarg’s consternation. The problem soon comes to a head when Rose, celebrating Pete and Ivy’s engagement, has a little too much to drink, and due to an inattentive crowd, can’t bring herself to sing. An enraged McCarg pays her in kind by chasing her to her dressing-room and beating her senseless.

Kelly’s frustration further manifests itself when Ivy, feeling left out by Kelly’s secrecy and devotion to his work, decides to go her own way. Al drops in to see Kelly and tell him about his new job (which Kelly soon learns to be a lie), to express his feelings about Firestone’s death and Kelly’s having sold himself and his band out to McCarg, and also to take back the mouthpiece he loaned to Kelly when they first met. The two come to blows, but quickly patch things up and Al decides to return to Kelly's Big Seven (he also sheepishly puts the mouthpiece back on Kelly's horn saying, "It won't fit a clarinet").

Realizing that Al is right, Kelly tries to get back in good graces with his friends by first going to McCarg to pay him off and get out from under his umbrella, but McCarg will have none of it. Kelly then goes to detective George Tennel (Andy Devine) to try to come up with a plan to bring down McCarg. But Tennel has news for Kelly: Bettenhauser has skipped town, and Rose, the only other person besides McCarg who would know Bettenhauser's whereabouts, has suffered a nervous breakdown, permanently leaving her with the mentality of a five-year-old. In a futile attempt to find Bettenhauser, Kelly visits Rose at State Hospital, but she does not even remember him, much less McCarg or Bettenhauser.

Kelly returns to the 17 Club to find a message for him to meet someone at Fat Annie’s, a nearby roadhouse just inside the Kansas State line. The person waiting for him turns out to be Bettenhauser himself, who wants to cut a deal. He first tells Kelly that McCarg had hired outside guns to kill Firestone. Second, if Kelly can come up with $1,200 by daybreak, Bettenhauser will help him to beat McCarg. Kelly agrees. Bettenhauser tells him he can find cancelled checks and papers in McCarg’s office at the Everglade Ballroom.

Back at the club, Kelly arms himself, but is stopped at the door by Ivy, who wants a last dance with Kelly. Still being secretive about his ties with McCarg, Kelly insists he doesn’t have the time. At the closed Everglade Ballroom, Kelly finds the papers he needs, but before he can get out, the darkness and silence are pierced by a loud orchestrion which starts playing. Kelly investigates and finds that Ivy, adamant about a dance with him, had followed Kelly to the ballroom, started the music and turned all the lights on. Kelly fearfully agrees to a last dance with her, and soon finds himself surrounded by McCarg and two of his men, one of them being Bettenhauser.

Realizing he has been set up, Kelly shields himself and Ivy with one of the tables and a shootout ensues. Bettenhauser, armed with a sawed-off shotgun, climbs up into the ceiling to get a better shot at Kelly, but Kelly shoots him first, sending him plunging through the ceiling onto the mirror ball which, along with Bettenhauser, crashes down on the dance floor. McCarg’s other man tries to take a shot at Kelly, but Kelly throws a chair at him, causing him to misfire and instead hit McCarg, who falls to the floor, mortally wounded. Seeing this, the gunman surrenders, throwing his gun to Kelly saying, “I got nothin’ to gain.” Kelly and Ivy beat a hasty retreat from the ballroom, stepping over McCarg who lies dying in the doorway.

The film ends back at the 17 Club with business as usual — the band still playing, Ivy and Pete back together again, and Rudy still cutting corners wherever he can.


  1. ^ 'The Top Box-Office Hits of 1955', Variety Weekly, January 25, 1956
  2. ^ 'Defiant Ones' Is Festival Favorite: Kramer and Stars in Berlin; Webb Readies Newspaper Tale Scheuer, Philip K. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 02 July 1958: B7.

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