Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955): Crime and Jazz in 1927 Kansas City, Starring Peggy Lee in Oscar-Nominated Performance

Like “Love Me or Leave Me,” also made in 1955, “Pete Kelly’s Blues” is set in the late 1920s, the Golden Age” of Prohibition, mixing a crime-gangster saga with great jazz music.


Pete Kelly’s Blues


Jack Webb, better known for his “Dragnet” TV series, produced, directed and starred in the film, based ona pedestrian screenplay by Richard L. Breen, which benefits from the widescreen color photography of Hal Rosson. It is based on the 1951 original radio series.

Bandleader Pete Kelly (Jack Webb) gets involved with gangsters, giving in to pressure from bootlegging mob boss Fran McCarg (Edmond O’Brien). Pete hires the boss’s girfriend, Rose Hopkins (Peggy Lee), as a singer, and in the end, she is the one to provide the evidence needed to bring the boss down.

The music features great singers such as Ella Fitzgerald, who renders marvelously the tun “Hard Hearted Hannah,” Herb Ellis, and Peggy Lee (see below).  It is noteworthy, that Fitzgerald’s memorable cameo as singer Maggie Jackson was a character played by a white actress on radio.

The supporting cast includes Janet Leigh, Andy Devine, Lee Marvin, Martin Milner, and Jane Mansfield in her first appearance

The portrait of a Kansas City speakeasy leaves much to be desired. The violence in the final shootout, set in a deserted dance hall where Webb guns down O’Brien, is done with colored lights flashing and is most impressive.

The film boasts a bravura opening, a New Orleans jazz funeral, on par with that depicted in “Young Man with a Horn” and particularly Douglas Sirk’s “Imitation of Life.”

Much of the dialogue in the film was inspired by the radio series Pat Novak for Hire, in which Webb starred.  The story is narrated by Webb in wry and detached voice-overs.

Detailed Synopsis

The tale begins 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 speakeasy at 17 Cherry Street in Kansas City, when Pete is approached by crime boss Fran McCarg (Edmond O’Brien), who plans to put Kelly on his own client list. McCarg sets a deadline for Kelly to make up his mind.

Rudy, the efficient manager of the club, orders Kelly and the band to go to Ivy Conrad (Janest Leigh), who’s known for hosting rowdy parties. 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 Miller), who, in a drunken stupor, turns McCarg down. One of McCarg’s cronies runs Kelly and his band off the road while they drive back to Kansas City.

The situation gets worse when Firestone roughs up Guy Bettenhauser, McCarg’s right-hand man. Kelly believes that they’re home free, but just as the band plays their last number, gunmen burst into the club. Kelly tries to save Firestone but McCarg’s men shoot him to death in the alleyway.

Tired and frustrated by his drummer’s murder, and by the departure of his clarinetist Al (Lee Marvin), Kelly returns to his place, where Ivy inside is waiting for him. Although Kelly initially resists her advances, the couple begins a relationship.

McCarg tries to befriend Kelly, telling him that Bettenhauser acted alone in Firestone’s murder. He then presents him with a new band member, his moll, Rose Hopkins (Peggy Lee), a would-be singer, now a drinker. Indeed, celebrating Pete and Ivy’s engagement, Rose gets drunk, and can’t sing, causing McCarg to beat her.

Feeling abandoned by his devotion to his work, Ivy decides to go her own way. Al feels that Kelly has sold himself and his band out to McCarg. The two fight, but then patch things up. Al decides to return to Kelly’s Big Seven, putting the mouthpiece back on Kelly’s horn saying, “It won’t fit a clarinet.”

Realizing that Al is right, Kelly tries to get out of McCarg’s control, but to no avail. Kelly then asks detective George Tennel (Andy Devine) to help him in bringing down McCarg.  But Tennel informs Kelly that Bettenhauser has skipped town, and Rose has suffered a nervous breakdown, permanently damaging her. Kelly visits Rose at State Hospital, but she does not even remember him, much less McCarg or Bettenhauser.

Kelly returns to the 17 Club and finds a message to meet someone at Fat Annie’s, a nearby roadhouse. The person waiting for him turns out to be Bettenhauser, who wants to . kill Firestone.  But if Kelly can pay $1,200 by daybreak, Bettenhauser will help him to beat McCarg.

Back at the club, Kelly arms himself, and at the closed Everglade Ballroom, he finds the papers needed, when loud music starts playing.  Kelly soon finds himself surrounded by McCarg and Bettenhauser. Realizing he has been set up, Kelly shields himself, but a shootout ensues, in which Bettenhauser is killedMcCarg’s other man tries to shoot Kelly, but Kelly causes him to misfire and instead hit McCarg.

The film ends back at the 17 Club with business as usual–the band playing and Ivy and Pete together again.

Made on a budget of $2 million, the movie was popular at the box-office, earning $5 million.

Lines to Remember:

Rose Hopkins: “Well, there won’t ever be no patter of little feet in my house-unless I was to rent some mice.


The movie inspired a TV series.

Oscar Alert

This was Peggy Lee’s fourth film, having appeared (also as a singer), in two films before making a dramatic debut in the second version of “The Jazz Singer,” in 1950.

For “Pete Kelly’s Blues,” Peggy Lee was nominated for a Supporting Actress Oscar in a contest that included Jo Van Fleet, who won for playing a madam and James Dean’s estranged mother in Kazan’s drama “East of Eden,” Betsy Blair in “Marty,” Marisa Pavan in “The Rose Tattoo,” and Natalie Wood in “Rebel Without a Cause.”


Produced and directed by Jack Webb
Screenplay by Richard L. Breen
Music by Arthur Hamilton, Ray Heindorf, David Buttolph. Matty Matlock

Cinematography Harold Rosson
Edited by Robert M. Leeds

Production company: Mark VII Limited

Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures

Release date: July 31, 1955

Running time: 95 min.