Monday, October 12, 2009

Pete Kelly's Blues

I remember thumbing through the entertainment section of the newspaper one summer morning over 10 years ago when I found an article about the worst television shows of all time. I took some exception to the article, mainly because I knew enough about the history of television to know that the truly bad programs were obscure, not generally popular. Among the inclusions in the author's list that I disagreed with was Dragnet, which was singled out for Jack Webb's performance as Joe Friday.

Webb's Dragnet originated in radio (1949-57), spawned a theatrical film (1954) and two television series (1951-59 & 1967-70). Joe Friday is certainly Webb's best-known role in his career for having spread across so many decades and separate generations, but the restrained, monotone he adopted as Friday was not the full measure of his talent, as fans of his radio career are well aware.

On radio, Webb once starred in his own comedy program, strangely enough! The zany Jack Webb Show ran in 1946. He also turned up as a guest star in many dramatic programs where he played a variety of characters, including the Escape episode "Ring of Thoth" in which he played a French mummy (seriously! check it out!). But after Dragnet, Webb's fans know him best as the wiseguy Pat Novak in Pat Novak for Hire (1946-49). Pat Novak is one of the best-regarded detective programs among fans of radio drama because of its clever dialogue. Virtually every episode followed the same plot: Novak walks in on some shady dealings and Inspector Hellman (Raymond Burr) tries to pin a crime on him; he turns to his boozer friend Jocko Magidan (Tudor Owen) to help dig up evidence to vindicate himself. Here's a typical piece of Novak's dialogue:

"They were the sort of guys who might have been born, but you didn't want to bet on it. The one in the door was a big guy with bushy eyebrows that met near his nose, and the way they ran across his face, you got the idea he got tired of the old ones and grafted on a vine instead. His face wasn't much better. It looked more like a relief map than a face. It was pockmarked and the color of moldy bread. And you knew if a woman kissed him, she'd get blood poisoning."

Novak and Hellman's violent exchanges definitely stood out against those of most fictional detective-police relations of the time. A typical show like Boston Blackie depicted a thick-headed police officer who unreasonably blames the protagonist for everything until the hero shows him up and humiliates him. Novak would always succeed, but had to take a physical beating from Hellman along the way; Hellman's menacing presence ran so much deeper than any other radio police official, there was clearly no love between them.

Anyway, now we arrive at 1951 and Webb produced a new radio program called Pete Kelly's Blues. Its run on radio was limited to a few months but it followed a pattern similar to Pat Novak. Set in the 1920s, Kelly was a trumpet player in a jazz band who constantly ran afoot of organized crime and had to keep himself clear in the eyes of the mob, rather than the police. Dialogue on the show was much like that used on Novak:

"My name’s Pete Kelly. I play cornet. You’ll find us at 417 Cherry Street, Kansas City, it’s a standard speakeasy. Before prohibition the building housed a cleaning and dying plant. It hasn’t changed much. The vats came in handy. Its still tough to get a clear gin but a lady likes the idea of a drink to match the color of her dress. The lease is owned by George Lupo. He’s a flat, friendly little guy who wouldn’t harm a fly. There’s no money in harming flies. We start every night about ten and play til the customers get that first frightening look at each other in the early light. Lupo’s working on a scheme to push the dawn back for at least one more hour. I don’t think he’ll make it, but I wouldn’t want to risk a buck against him."

Somehow, Webb was able to translate Pete Kelly's Blues to another medium, as he had done for Dragnet. In 1955, it became a motion picture directed by Webb himself and featuring plenty of jazz music with some numbers by Peggy Lee and Ella Fitzgerald and a supporting cast with Janet Leigh and Lee Marvin.

As on the radio program, Pete Kelly is a 1920s bandleader just barely keeping out of trouble with the mob. When his drummer is murdered by gangsters, Kelly has to fall in line with mobster Fran McCrag, but he can see that if he stays under his thumb, darker times are ahead. Again, the dialogue is faithful to the radio version:

"If you're looking for a new way to grow old, this is the place to come. 1 7 Cherry Street, Kansas City. It's a speakeasy one flight down. It was a brownstone at first. After that an undertaker had the place, but he went to Chicago to get a piece of the flu epidemic and Rudy Shulak took over. Rudy got a booze contract out of Joplin and bought some tablecloths, it's been a gin bin ever since. There's even a little business on the side for shut-ins. Rudy's a puny little guy. Sew an extra button on his vest, he'd fall down. But he's all right. The beer's good, the whiskey's aged, if you get here late in the day. On top of that, he knows where to spend money. He knows where to save it. And he's good to the help. He pays scale with a $5 kickback. I play cornet and run the band. We play from 1 0 till 4 with a 20-minute pizza break. The hours are bad but the music suits us. There's one other thing about Rudy's and that's trouble. You can get it by the yard, the pound, wholesale or retail."

Part of what makes the film version of Pete Kelly's Blues so captivating is the visual style, all the more remarkable coming from a director who spent most of his time at the other end of the camera (and is also the film's leading man). There are some terrific shots in this movie, notably the shoot-out scene in the climax set on a ballroom floor with great wide shots of three gunman encircling Kelly and his girl.

Pete Kelly's Blues is a rather obscure film, all told, but it's well worth checking out; if you never thought much of Webb as an actor, it might change your mind. It will certainly open your eyes to his skill as a director!

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