Comments: Sadly, Peggy Lee made only a few appearances on the silver screen during Hollywood’s heyday. She later attributed this to the fact that her management at the time considered it far more lucrative to keep her occupied on the road. Fortunately, though, all of her major film appearances have either been issued on home video or have been shown regularly on major cable TV channels. Few would argue that Peggy’s most remarkable performance is Peggy’s riveting portrayal of Rose, the breathtakingly frail alcoholic chanteuse in Warner Brothers’ 1955 Pete Kelly’s Blues — a performance that earned her an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actress. (Alas, she lost to actress Jo Van Fleet for her equally gripping performance as James Dean’s prostitute mother in East of Eden). Obviously Peggy was capable of exploring so many other dimensions as a film actress — but this simply didn’t happen. Her many subsequent “characters” portrayed through song alone offer ample evidence of what Peggy might have accomplished before the cameras. Where noted, synposes below are taken from film historian Clive Hirschhorn’s definitive source, The Hollywood Musicals (Portland House, 1991).
Stage Door Canteen
United Artists, 1943
Though Stage Door Canteen offered a soupcon of a plot involving a tender little wartime romance between a soldier (William Terry) and a canteen hostess (Cheryl Walker), it was basically a tribute to the American Theater Wing, who sponsored the enterprise, offering laymen a glimpse of the sort of the entertainment servicemen might, if they were lucky, excpect to see on any given night of the week at the celebrated Stage Door Canteen in New York. In one bumper roundup of talent, producer Sol Lesser managed to persuade Alfred Lunt to wash a few dishes, Katharine Cornell (her only film appearance) to distribute oranges, and, in other capacities, marshalled the talents of Judith Anderson, Henry Armetta, Benny Baker, Tallulah Bankhead, Ralph Bellamy, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Helen Broderick, Ray Bolger, Lloyd Corrigan, Ina Claire, Jane Darwell, William Demarest, Virginia Field, Dorothy Fields, Gracie Fields, Lynne Fontanne, Arlene Francis, Vinton Freedley, Helen Hayes, Katharine Hepburn, Hugh Herbert, Jean Hersholt, Sam Jaffe, Allen Jenkins, George Jessel, Roscoe Karns, Gypsy Rose Lee, Harpo Marx, Aline McMahon, Elsa Maxwell, Yehudi Menuhin, Ethel Merman, Paul Muni, Merle Oberon, Franklin Pangborn, George Raft, Lanny Ross, Selena Royle, Martha Scott, Cornelia Otis Skinner, Ethel Waters, Johnny Weissmuller, Dame May Whitty, Ed Wynn, and the Bands of Count Basie, Benny Goodman (with vocalist Peggy Lee), Kay Kyser, Guy Lombardo and Freddy Martin. The screenplay was by Delmar Daves and it was directed by Frank Borzage. Ninety percent of the box office take went to the American Theater Wing. (Hirschhorn)
Peggy sings: Why Don’t You Do Right? (Joe McCoy)
The Powers Girl
United Artists, 1943
The world of modeling provided the background for United Artists’ The Powers Girl (British title: Hello, Beautiful), whose threadbare plot pirouetted on the passion two sisters — Carole Landis and Anne Shirley — have for George Murphy. E. Edwin Moran and Harry Segall supplied the dialogue (from a story by William A. Pierce and Marvin Wald), and Benny Goodman and His Orchestra, plus Dennis Day, the music, with new songs by Jule Styne and Kim Gannon. (Hirschhorn)
Peggy sings: The Lady Who Didn’t Believe in Love (Jule Styne / Kim Gannon)
Banquet of Melody
Universal short, 1946
Banquet of Melody presented Peggy in her first on-camera presentation of one of her own songs, “I Don’t Know Enough About You,” written and performed with Dave Barbour. Other featured performers: the Delta Rhythm Boys, Rosa Linda, Matty Malneck and His Orchestra.
Peggy sings: Don’t Blame Me (Dorothy Fields / Jimmy McHugh), I Don’t Know Enough About You (Peggy Lee / Dave Barbour)
Paramount short, filmed 1947, released 1952
Midnight Serenade, though only an 18-minute short subject, actually provided Peggy with her first dramatic role. Her leading man was Richard Webb, who later gained fame as TV’s “Captain Midnight.” Dave Barbour also appeared in the short, backing Peggy’s three numbers. As Midnight Serenade has been out of circulation for many years, the titles of the two other numbers in the film are unknown, as is the storyline.
Peggy sings: It’s a Good Day (Peggy Lee / Dave Barbour), two other songs
Hal Roach, filmed 1947, released 1956
This 60-minute film is a composite of performances by various artists, including Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Bob Crosby, Johnny “Scat” Davis, Sammy Davis Jr., Jimmy Dorsey, Roy Eldridge, Duke Ellington, Betty Hutton, The Mills Brothers, Louis Prima, Buddy Rich, Artie Shaw, Jack Teagarden, Rudy Vallee and Lawrence Welk. Peggy’s sequence is the same performance of “It’s a Good Day” as seen in Midnight Serenade.
Peggy sings: It’s a Good Day (Peggy Lee / Dave Barbour)
Peggy Lee and the Dave Barbour Quartet
Snader Telescriptions, 1950
Peggy Lee and Dave Barbour filmed several of their most famous numbers in three-minute spots — precursors to the modern-day music video — for Snader Telescriptions, a company that produced musical fillers for early television programming. These performances were also transferred to 16 millimeter film, in two separate groupings of five songs each, and released to movie houses as musical featurettes.
Peggy sings: I Cover the Waterfront (Johnny Green / Heyman), Mañana (Peggy Lee / Dave Barbour), I May Be Wrong (Henry Sullivan / Harry Ruskin), Why Don’t You Do Right? (Joe McCoy), What More Can a Woman Do? (Peggy Lee / Dave Barbour), I Only Have Eyes for You (Harry Warren / Al Dubin), I Don’t Know Enough About You (Peggy Lee / Dave Barbour), It’s a Good Day (Peggy Lee / Dave Barbour), You Was Right, Baby (Peggy Lee / Dave Barbour), While We’re Young (Alec Wilder / Bill Engvick)
Bing Crosby hardly extended his range in Mr. Music, a genial albeit insubstantial effort that benefited from an agreeable score by Johnny Burke and James Van Heusen, the best number being the oft-reprised “Life Is So Peculiar” — sung by Crosby and guest stars Peggy Lee and The Merry Macs. Marge and Gower Champion did it as a dance; and Groucho Marx, another guest star, joined Crosby to do it in a sketch. Also guesting was Dorothy Kirsten, who sang a duet with Crosby called “Accidents Will Happen.” As for the plot, it was all about a songwriter who’d rather play golf than write songs. Nancy Olson as Bing’s faithful secretary and Charles Coburn as a Broadway producer co-starred. (Hirschhorn)
Peggy sings: “Life Is So Peculiar” w/ Bing Crosby (Johnny Burke / Jimmy Van Heusen)
The Jazz Singer
Warner Brothers, 1953
Although screenwriters Frank Davis, Leonard Stern and Lewis Meltzer dutifully updated narrative elements for the remake of The Jazz Singer, they were incapable of disguising the sentimentality ingrained in Samuel Raphaelson’s play which, at this late date, was an irrefutable argument for a return to the silent cinema. Danny Thomas played the cantor’s son who, in this version, is a Korean War veteran returning home and discovering, to the distress of his father, that he is more attracted by the rewards of Broadway than those of heaven. The basic material proved intractably schmaltzy, rendering the movie as much an anachronism as it had originally been epoch-making. Peggy Lee played the girl Thomas loves. Michael Curtiz directed. (Hirschhorn)
Peggy sings: Lover (Richard Rodgers / Lorenz Hart), Just One of Those Things (Cole Porter), This Is a Very Special Day (Peggy Lee), I Hear the Music Now (Sammy Fain / Jerry Seelen), What Are New Yorkers Made Of?
Pete Kelly’s Blues
Warner Brothers, 1955
Pete Kelly’s Blues, starring Jack Webb, who also produced and directed, was the story of a nightclub trumpeter (Webb) who decides to take a stand against protection racketeers in Kansas, circa 1927. But it never quite made up its mind whether to be a musical or a melodrama, and is best remembered as an unusually violent (for 1955) gangster movie with a strong musical background, mostly composed of songs from the period but with a title number by Sammy Cahn and Ray Heindorf that continued to haunt the memory long afterwards. Peggy Lee as a fading singer who takes to drink was also in it; so were Janet Leigh, Edmond O’Brien, Andy Devine, Lee Marvin, Jayne Mansfield, Martin Milner and Ella Fitzgerald. (Hirschhorn)
Peggy sings: Sing a Rainbow (Arthur Hamilton); He Needs Me (Arthur Hamilton); Somebody Loves Me (George Gershwin / Buddy DeSylva / Ballard MacDonald); Sugar (Maceo Pinkard / Sidney Mitchell / Edna Alexander) / I Never Knew (Gus Kahn / Ted Fiorito) / Bye-bye Blackbird (Mort Dixon / Ray Henderson) / What Can I Say After I Say I’m Sorry? (Walter Donaldson / Abe Lyman) / Oh, Didn’t He Ramble (Bob Cole / J. Rosamond Johnson)
Modern Talking Picture Service short, 1973
This short documentary on performers whose hobby is painting features Tony Bennett, Candice Bergen, Richard Chamberlain, Duke Ellington, Henry Fonda, Kim Novak, Dinah Shore, Red Skelton, and Elke Sommer in addition to Peggy, who is interviewed briefly while at work on an oil painting.
Jasper’s in a Jam
George Pal Puppetoon short, 1946
Peggy Lee, backed by Charlie Barnet and His Orchestra, provides the vocal for “Old Man Mose” in this eight-minute “Puppetoon,” which uses wooden and clay figures with adjustable features filmed with the meticulous “stop-motion” process, similar to the later “Gumby and Pokey” features.
Peggy sings: Old Man Mose
Women strap on six-guns in Nicholas Ray’s unintentionally hilarious, gender-bending western. A guitar-playing loner wanders into a small-town feud between lovelorn saloon-owner Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge, the town’s resident lynch-mob-leading harpy. This fascinating cult favorite has had film theorists arguing for decades: Is it a parody, a political McCarthy-era allegory, or a Freudian exercise? The off-screen battles of the two female stars are equally legendary. Stick around for the end credits to hear Peggy Lee sing the title song. — Video Hound’s Golden Movie Retriever (Visible Ink, 1996)
Peggy sings: Johnny Guitar (Victor Young / Peggy Lee)
Lady and the Tramp
Buena Vista, 1955
Walt Disney’s first full-length animated cartoon in Cinemascope was Lady and the Tramp, and although it had its moments, most notably a delicious sequence involving a pair of scheming Siamese cats, it lacked the flair and the imagination — both in its narrative line and in execution — of some of the studio’s earlier works. The story of a romance between a Cocker Spaniel called Lady and a mutt named Tramp whom she meets while braving the harsh realities of the outside world, the cleverest scenes were those in which Disney’s band of animators brought a decidedly human likeness to their canine subjects — but its overall tendency to cuteness was more appealing to children than to their parents. Lending their voices to the occasion were Peggy Lee, Barbara Luddy, Larry Roberts, Bill Thompson, Stan Freberg, Verna Felton, George Givot and The Mello Men. Songs by Sonny Burke and Peggy Lee. (Hirschhorn)
Peggy sings: He’s a Tramp / La La Lu / The Siamese Cat Song / What Is a Baby? (all songs by Sonny Burke and Peggy Lee)
20th Century Fox, 1955
Peggy’s voice was heard throughout this Kirk Douglas film, singing the Alex North / Jack Brooks song “I Belong to You” on the soundtrack. This rendition is the same as the one heard on Peggy’s Decca recording (Decca single #29429, recorded 1/19/55, released 2/21/55).
Peggy sings: I Belong to You (Alex North / Jack Brooks)
Pieces of Dreams
United Artists, 1970
Peggy performs the title song, with orchestra conducted by Michel Legrand, in this drama starring Robert Forster and Lauren Hutton.
Peggy sings: Pieces of Dreams (Michel Legrand / Marilyn Bergman / Alan Bergman)
Orion Pictures, 1981
The outstanding soundtrack to this film features, in addition to Peggy, Chet Baker, Sarah Vaughan, Joe Williams, Julie London and the Manhattan Transfer. Peggy’s song is heard, though not in its entirety, in the background of a scene.
Burt Reynolds, a tough undercover cop, is hot on the trail of a crooked crime czar. Meanwhile, he falls for a high-priced hooker. Well-done but overdone action, with much violence. Based on the William Diehl novel. — Video Hound’s Golden Movie Retriever (Visible Ink, 1996)
Peggy sings: Let’s Keep Dancing (C. Crofford / J. Durrill / B. Troup / S. Garrett)
Martin Scorcese’s absurd, edgy black comedy that’s filled with novel twists and turns and is often more disturbing than funny. An isolated, uptown, New York yuppie (Griffin Dunne) takes a late-night stroll downtown and meets a sexy woman in an all-night coffee shop. From there he wanders through a series of threatening and surreal misadventures, leading to his pursuit by a vigilante mob stirred by ice cream dealer Catherine O’Hara. Something like “Blue Velvet” with more Catholicism and farce. A dark view of a small hellhole in the Big Apple. — Video Hound’s Golden Movie Retriever (Visible Ink, 1996)
Peggy sings: Is That All There Is? (Leiber / Stoller)
In the early 1950s, while signed to Decca Records, Peggy supplied the songs to the “soundtrack” albums for two of Bing Crosby’s Paramount films, The Road to Bali and White Christmas, in which she didn’t actually appear. That’s because the female stars of these films, Dorothy Lamour and Rosemary Clooney respectively, were prevented from recording for Decca due to their existing recording contracts with other companies. Praise God for contractual obligations!
The Road to Bali
Peggy sings: Merry Go Runaround / Moon Flowers (Johnny Burke / Jimmy Van Heusen)
Peggy sings: Snow / Sisters / Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me / White Christmas/Finale (Irving Berlin)