In a recent column I wrote about Peggy Lee winning the Oscar as Best Supporting Actress in the 1955 movie “Pete Kelly’s Blues, written and directed by the star, Jack Webb. It’s commonly thought that the award was given for singing the song “Bye Bye Blackbird” in a way that it had never been sung before. What I didn’t mention at the time was that there was another actress, Claire Trevor, who also won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nine years earlier by singing a song in a similar manner in a similar role as the mistress of a powerful gangster. That 1948 movie was “Key Largo” and starred Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.
Peggy Lee was cast as a singer in the plot of her movie while Claire Trevor was not, but both played similar roles — that of a mistress to a tough and brutal gangster who was likely to dispose of her in a vicious manner whenever he became tired of her. While Ms. Lee sang “Bye Bye Blackbird” to herself in a crowd of drunken party goers crammed into an open convertible, Ms. Trevor sang at the command of her lover, played by Edward G. Robinson, while he was holding a gun pointed at her.
The song she sang was “Moanin’ Low” a jazz favorite from 1929 that’s unknown to most people today even though it’s been recorded by Billy Holiday, Lena Horne, Harry James, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Shore, Johnny Mathis and Barbra Streisand, along with countless others. I still remember how frightened and troubled she looked while she slowly and quietly sang with no instrumental backing.
Here’s the background story behind her Oscar-winning performance. The movie was directed by John Huston and was adapted from a 1939 play by Maxwell Anderson. She knew about the song after reading the script but figured she would only be lip-syncing over another person’s voice. She kept after Huston to rehearse the song but he always put her off by saying “There’s plenty of time.” Then, one day when they were through shooting and still in costume, Huston said, “Let’s run through that song.” So, without any rehearsal, she quietly sang it for the crew. The nervousness in that one “take” was exactly what Huston wanted and, although other singers also recorded the song for Huston, most critics consider her “nervous” performance to be the reason she won the Academy Award that year.
Getting back to “Pete Kelly’s Blues” — it was originally a radio program — as was “Dragnet”. When Dragnet switched over to television, its star, Jack Webb, was one of the few who made the transition. It became one of the biggest hits in the new medium. And Webb continued to be the major force in writing, producing and starring in it. He’d always been a fan of jazz, particularly the early Dixieland style and now had sufficient “clout” to get enough monetary backing to turn “Pete Kelly’s Blues” into a movie, starring Jack Webb, of course.
He lined up some well-known musicians who would essentially play themselves. Somehow, though, the movie was not a great success. There were actors who were already stars and others who became stars later. The cast included himself in the title role along with Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, Janet Leigh, Andy Devine (remember him?) Lee Marvin and Jane Mansfield.
While Webb succeeded in both genres, very few radio actors made the jump to television. An example is William Conrad whose voice as Marshall Matt Dillon on “Gunsmoke” projected absolute strength mixed with compassion but he was considered too plump to look believable on a horse, so James Arness mounted and rode the role to fame on television.
Bill Moeller is a former entertainer, mayor, bookstore owner, city council member, paratrooper and pilot living in Centralia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.