Jack Webb’s Blues

The only frame grab I was able to get from my slightly defective DVD.

PETE KELLY’S BLUES — I didn’t rush out and buy the new DVD because I’m broke but I eagerly accepted an offer of a disc ripped from the old VHS (widescreen, thankfully). It begins with that ugly old Warners Home Video CGI logo accompanied by the harsh synth fanfare, but when the film starts, boy do things get better.

Less punctuated and punchy and syncopated in its approach than Dragnet, the TV show that Webb attained big success with (though aspiring Webbheads might like to try his early radio shows), but unexpectedly lush and slinky. Every now and then, Dragnetwould step outside and cease the snappy shot-countershot Q&A style, letting rip with a big crane shot (as in the episode The Big Producer, where Webb soars over an abandoned movie backlot), and it’s this style that PKB builds on, pouring on colour and extreme widescreen. Webb still delivers gimmicky viewpoints from inside the pizza oven and behind the shelves, but he adds long take trackings shots and eccentric lighting effects — one primitive disco comes with its own optical mixer, wiping the screen red, green, blue…

Regular Dragnet scribe Richard L. Breen provides reams of snappy, poetic or just plain weird dialogue. When saxophonist Lee Marvin leaves the band, Webb tells him he’ll never find anyone who can “sit all the way down” in Marvin’s chair.

And then there’s production designer Harper Goff’s novel interpretation of a mental hospital: a bunker with a toy piano. Hollywood has delivered numerous takes on the snake pit idea, but this one, though concrete in its appearance, has to be one of the most expressionistically bizarre.

The institutionalisee is Peggy Lee, who sings and proves to be a superb actress, and for a bonus we get two numbers by Ella Fitzgerald. PKB was a labour of love by jazz enthusiast Webb.

A beautifully framed and designed New Orleans funeral in the opening credits starts a brief history of a cornet, until it lands in the hands of our protag. WWI is over and Pete Kelly forms an impoverished, minor league jazz band. He falls in love with a superb girl (Janet Leigh).

(That’s apparently Harper Goff on banjo!)

But then gangster Edmond O’Brien tries to muscle in, extorting 25% of the band’s takings and icing the drummer when he resists. When O’Brien tries to foist a girl singer on Kelly, suddenly the movie swims into focus as prime inspiration for Frank Tashlin’s THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT, with O’Brien actually playing the same role. As if to cement the resemblance, a brunette Jayne Mansfield teeters into shot as a cigarette girl.

A girl, not helping it.

Webb and O’Brien are destined to square off, and they do, but that plot thread counts for little, in a film which is smooth and mellow and not really reliant on dramatic tension as it’s normally understood. Webb, “the coolest man in the world”, as Fiona declared him, commands attention without seeming to, and comes across as simultaneously tensely wound and utterly relaxed, which can’t be easy, except with him it’s as natural as breathing.

6 Responses to “Jack Webb’s Blues”

  1. Veery tasty.

    Raymond Durgnat was a huge Pete Kelly’s Blues fan, putting it right up alongside Minnelli, Sidney and Quine. A considerable digression for the Termite Bresson. A shame he didn’t try this style again.

    Mansfield in The Girl Can’t Help It is of course iconic. I’d love to talk with Mariska Hargitay about her mother and her career sometime.

  2. There ARE instances of this style in Dragnet — whenever he could get a crane and a wide-open space, I guess. That episode, The Big Producer has a sweeping swooping scene on a studio backlot, and Webb also recreates a western movie brawl, without actors, only sound effects and camera moves.

    Have never read anything about Mansfield from her daughter, so that would be fascinating, if she’s willing to discuss the subject.

  3. I’m sure it’s a very sensitive issue for her as she and her brother Zoltan were asleep in the back seat of the car and awoke from the crash to find their mother dead.

  4. Absolutely. And then you have the natural reticence of a celebrity to discuss their parents, when they’ve made a success for themselves independently. Plus, she was pretty young when she lost her mother.

    Anyhow, just don’t ask her about Anton LaVey.

  5. I do know she was quite close to her father, who lived to see her win an Emmy before he passed away. She saluted him from the stage at the awards ceremony. It was very touching.

  6. I love him as Bobo in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? Definitely his best role.

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