Warner Home Video
Release date: July 22, 2008
Long requested by visitors to PeggyLee.com, the DVD version of Warner Bros.’ 1955 musical drama Pete Kelly’s Blues, featuring Peggy in her Academy Award-nominated performance as Rose Hopkins, finally makes its debut. Directed by and starring Jack Webb of Dragnet fame, the cast also includes Janet Leigh, Edmond O’Brien, Andy Devine, Lee Marvin and, in a small role allowing her to sing two songs, the great Ella Fitzgerald.
Upon its release in the summer of 1955, reviews of the film were mixed at best. “Pete Kelly’s Blues is an incredible waste of tantalizing music and decor designed for the sole purpose of letting Jack Webb strut his stuff almost exactly as before,” wrote Howard Thompson in the New York Times. A Time magazine critic observed that “the funniest frame was not meant to be funny: Actor Webb is seen standing beside a wooden Indian, and for a moment it is hard to tell them apart.”
Reviews of Peggy’s performance, however, were consistently positive. “Peggy Lee scores a personal hit with her portrayal of a fading singer taken to the bottle,” wrote Variety. Thompson of the New York Times wrote that “the singer belts out a handful of old and new tunes in fine style… and acts with rather charming self-consciousness.” Newsweek wrote that “the surprise of the film is the performance of popular vocalist and songwriter Peggy Lee, who plays the role of an aging, alcoholic nightclub singer. Whether she is taking one unsteady drink too many or babbling pathetically in a mental ward, Miss Lee demonstrates that she can have a movie career without the aid of music.”
Canadian critic Frank Morriss noted in 1955 that Webb “manages to get some effective performances out of his cast, especially in the case of Peggy Lee, who had the courage to portray an alcoholic and broken-down jazz singer instead of the svelte and icy personality that she generally affects. Miss Lee is the mistress of the gangster overlord, Edmond O’Brien, who gives a thoroughgoing account of a cold-blooded and ruthless exterminator. O’Brien is a sturdy actor, but it is Miss Lee with her underplaying, particularly in a poignant asylum scene, that you will remember longest.”
Veteran jazz singer Mark Murphy certainly remembers Lee’s underplaying. In a 1998 interview, Murphy said that Lee “had this amazing presence; she carried a cloud of interest with her wherever she went. In Pete Kelly’s Blues, Jack Webb directs her to walk onto the set with her back to the camera, and even without seeing her face you feel the magnetism.”
Peggy was nominated for a 1955 best supporting actress Academy Award alongside Betsy Blair (Marty), Marisa Pavan (The Rose Tattoo), Jo Van Fleet (East of Eden), and Natalie Wood (Rebel Without a Cause). Although the Oscar went to Jo Van Fleet for her performance as James Dean’s mother in East of Eden, Peggy took home the newly-launched Audience Award trophy, presented by theater owners, as most promising new actress. (She’s pictured here with Tab Hunter, awardee for most promising new actor based on his performance in Battle Cry.)
Decca Records was fortunate to have both Peggy and Ella Fitzgerald under contract in 1955; both singers were nearing the end of their affiliations with the label. Decca released the album Songs from Pete Kelly’s Blues featuring Peggy on ten songs (including some she did not sing in the film) and Ella on two. The album spent ten weeks on the Billboard charts, peaking at number seven. Decca also released four of Peggy’s songs on two singles. #29608 paired two songs from the 1920s, “Sugar” and “What Can I Say After I Say I’m Sorry,” while #29605 paired two songs written for the film by Arthur Hamilton: “He Needs Me” and “Sing a Rainbow.”
Warner Home Video reports that its Pete Kelly’s Blues DVD “has been been digitally remastered for 16×9 anamorphic presentation in its 2.55:1 original aspect ratio, and has a new 5.1 Dolby digital soundtrack derived from the original four-track theatrical mix.” Bonus features include two Oscar-nominated shorts from 1955, Gadgets Galore and 24 Hour Alert; and the Looney Tunes cartoon The Hole Idea, also from 1955. As with many Warner Home Video releases of classic films, the bonuses, though not directly related to the main feature, give the home viewer a sense of “a night at the movies” during the year of the feature film’s release.
Warner Home Video releases three other jazz-infused films on July 22: the similarly-themed musical drama Blues in the Night (1941, also making its DVD debut), ‘Round Midnight (1986), and Bird (1988).