Pete Kelly's Blues (film)

Pete Kelly's Blues is a 1955 musical-crime film based on the 1951 original radio series. It was directed by and starred Jack Webb in the title role of a bandleader and musician. Janet Leigh is featured as party girl Ivy Conrad, and Edmond O'Brien as a gangster who applies pressure to Kelly. 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 cameo as singer Maggie Jackson (a character played by a white actress in the radio series). Lee Marvin, Martin Milner, and Jayne Mansfield also make early career appearances.

Pete Kelly's Blues
Front cover of VHS for Pete Kelly's Blues
Directed byJack Webb
Produced byJack Webb
Written byRichard L. Breen
StarringJack Webb
Janet Leigh
Edmond O'Brien
Music byArthur Hamilton
Ray Heindorf
David Buttolph
Matty Matlock
CinematographyHarold Rosson
Edited byRobert M. Leeds
Distributed byWarner Bros.
Release date
  • July 31, 1955 (1955-07-31)
Running time
95 min.
CountryUnited States
Box office$5 million (US)[1][2]

Much of the dialogue was written by writers who wrote the radio series Pat Novak for Hire (1946-1949), and the radio version of Pete Kelly's Blues (1951), both of which Webb starred in for a time before creating Dragnet.


Jazz cornetist Pete Kelly (Webb) and his Big Seven are the house band at the 17 Club, a speakeasy in Kansas City in 1927 during Prohibition. New local crime boss Fran McCarg (Edmond O'Brien) wants a percentage of the band's meager earnings. When the band is opposed, Kelly decides to decline and see what happens.

However, before the night ends, Rudy, the manager of the club, orders Kelly and the band to go to the house of wealthy 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 and leaves a message for McCarg to call him there. When the call comes through, it is intercepted by Kelly’s drunk, hot-tempered drummer, Joey Firestone (Martin Milner), who turns McCarg down. Kelly and his band are run off the road as they drive back to Kansas City.

The following night, Firestone roughs up Guy Bettenhauser, McCarg's right-hand man. Kelly desperately tries to patch things up, but to no avail. As the band finishes its last number, two gunmen burst through the front door of the club. Kelly tries to save Firestone by sending him out the back, but Firestone is shot to death in the alleyway. Tired and frustrated by his drummer's murder, and the subsequent departure of Al (Lee Marvin), his clarinetist and long-time friend, Kelly, returns to his apartment to find Ivy waiting for him. Although he initially resists her advances, the two strike up a relationship that turns into an engagement.

Later, all the local band leaders meet secretly to decide how to respond to McCarg's pressure. When Kelly tells them he will put up no resistance, the rest go along as well. Detective George Tennel (Andy Devine), who is trying to take McCarg down, tries to enlist Kelly's help but is refused.

McCarg tries to befriend Kelly, telling him that Bettenhauser acted alone in Firestone’s murder. He also presents Kelly with a new band member: his moll Rose Hopkins (Peggy Lee). Rose, celebrating Pete and Ivy's engagement, has a little too much to drink, and, due to an inattentive crowd, cannot bring herself to sing. An enraged McCarg chases her to her dressing room and beats her senseless. Kelly then turns to Tennel, who informs him that Bettenhauser has skipped town.

Al drops in to see Kelly. The two come to blows over Kelly's handling of the situation, but patch things up, and Al rejoins the band. Realizing he handled the situation wrong, Kelly tries to buy his way out but McCarg intimidates him into continuing. Meanwhile, Ivy, feeling left out by Kelly’s dedication to his music, decides to go her own way.

Kelly gets a message to meet someone who turns out to be Bettenhauser. He tells Kelly that it was McCarg who ordered Firestone's death, but if Kelly can come up with $1,200 by daybreak, Bettenhauser will help him get 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 by Ivy, who wants a last dance with him. He insists he does not have the time. Kelly finds the papers he needs, but before he can get out, a loud orchestrion begins playing; Ivy had followed Kelly to the ballroom, started the music and turned all the lights on. Kelly fearfully agrees to a last dance, but soon finds himself surrounded by McCarg and two of his men, one of them being Bettenhauser; Kelly has been set up.

A shootout ensues. Bettenhauser climbs up into the ceiling to get a better shot, but Kelly shoots him first. McCarg's other man tries to shoot Kelly, but Kelly throws a chair at him, causing him to hit and mortally wound McCarg instead. Seeing this, the gunman gives up.

Back at the 17 Club, it is business as usual - the band playing, Ivy and Pete back together again, and Rudy still cutting corners wherever he can.


See also


  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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