BluRay/DVD Reviews

PETE KELLY’S BLUES (WB Archives)

By • Dec 12th, 2014 •

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Pan & Scan prints, their WarnerColors faded, were circulating as 16mm versions, and were shown on TV, and from these degraded sources very little praise could be lavished on the film. In addition there was the odd, idiosyncratic central performance by Jack Webb. If anything could match his emotionally stunted thesping, it would have to be the cast of Werner Herzog’s HEART OF GLASS, all of who were hypnotized into near-comatose states before the camera rolled.

So, it’s a near-miracle of celluloid prestidigitation to see the results of the Archives’ restoration. First of all, it’s amazing that they thought enough of it to single it out for HD treatment. But as the credits rolled by, I was struck by some of the talent involved in the production team. Most impressive, and I would love to find out whose choice this was, was Harper Goff as Production Designer. Goff designed the Nautilus for Disney’s 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, and damned if he doesn’t reprise that look for the Jazz clubs of Kansas City in the 1920s. Built for the CinemaScope lens (which was used for 20,000 LEAGUES), they are tight, claustrophobic spaces, with stained glass colors punctuating their long, horizontal interiors. I expected to see Captain Nemo peering in through one of the portholes. The design is unique and wonderful, a lure for the eye. Honestly it’s reason enough for owning the disc.

But then there’s the cinematography – specifically the use of the super wide screen frame. 1955 was early CinemaScope, and few directors or DPs knew how to utilize that space creatively. There are whole Scope films of the period where you can fast forward the disc on your monitor and see the actors staying pretty much anchored in the middle of the image. The sides, well, that was just seen as a gimmick to hopefully bring people back to the cinemas and away from their diminutive TV screens. Harold Rosson shot the outrageous MADAME SATAN for DeMille in 1930, TARZAN THE APE MAN in ’32, the creepy remake of Chaney/Browning’s WEST OF ZANZIBAR – KONGA also in ’32, RED DUST, THE WIZARD OF OZ, DUEL IN THE SUN, THE ASPHALT JUNGLE and SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN. But these were before CinemaScope. His only previous widescreen film was STRANGE LADY IN TOWN, also for Warner Bros. Nonetheless, Rosson’s really on his game here, using the wide space to emphasize estrangement between characters, etc. If anything it’s a bit overstated, but I liked it and enjoyed seeing where his flexible frame would take us. Rosson’s final film was EL DORADO, the elegiac Hawks/Wayne western of 1966, a fitting farewell, in 1.85.1. He died in 1988, aged 93.

Equal credit for the use of frame-fill should be given to Jack Webb. Alright, he’s an easy target performance-wise, but he was a daring director when it came to special design, and he loved jazz. He’d tried the subject as a radio show earlier in the decade, and revived it as a TV show later on. None of the three mediums embraced the subject whole-heartedly. Too bad.

Webb could play the instrument, and he had a number of authentic jazz musicians in the film, including Peggy Lee – who was nominated for an Academy Award, and Ella Fitzgerald. Their presence is a whole other reason for owning the BluRay. Another impressive decision on Webb’s part was to cast against type. Lee Marvin, Edmond O’Brien, and Andy Devine are really given the opportunity to stretch in their roles.

What I learned from the Warner Archive department about this restoration was that work actually began on it several years ago, for a DVD release that wasn’t marketed well. A new 5.1 mix has improved the sound (important for a film about jazz musicians, wouldn’t you think), and the materials have been scrubbed to perfection. The WarnerColor’s collapsed yellow area was worked on extensively in the lab. (Films made in the ’54-’59 period have been particularly subject to yellow area deterioration.) Paradoxically, with films like PETE KELLY’S BLUES, which didn’t do well theatrically, the original elements tend to be in the best condition. So the winning combination of relatively undamaged printing materials, plus the special handling given it by the Archive powers-that-be, has resulted in the BluRay you can now obtain, and I recommend you do just that. Whether it works in its entirety for you, or as an oddity of lasting value, it is an item worthy of being owned.

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