Kansas City has tons of atmosphere, terrific jazz, and a palpable sense of history.
This is only fitting, since the film is the late director Robert Altman’s cinematic tribute to the wide-open city of his boyhood.
In the first scene Altman and co-writer Frank Barhydt (another Kansas City kid) introduce us to Blondie O'Hara (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a none-too-bright telegraph operator who enters the Ward Parkway home of wealthy Carolyn Stilton (Miranda Richardson), pulls a gun, and announces she's taking the terrified woman hostage.
The story then flashes back to earlier that day when Blondie's punk husband Johnny (Dermot Mulroney) dons blackface and robs a visiting African-American businessman.
Gambler/gangster Seldom Seen (Harry Belafonte) won't have his customers treated that way; in short order his thugs have snatched Johnny, who now sits in the basement of Seldom's Hey Hey Club, listening to the swinging jazz being played upstairs and awaiting his fate.
That's why Blondie has kidnapped Carolyn. She figures that Carolyn's husband (Michael Murphy), an adviser to FDR, can pull strings to get Johnny released. Until that happens she and her hostage will drive around town avoiding the cops and crooks trying to track them down.
Because it’s 1934 and there's a hotly contested election going on pitting reformers against "Boss" Tom Pendergast's machine, the authorities are too busy to devote many resources to chasing Blondie. To further complicate matters, Carolyn spends most of her time in a cocoon of laudanum-induced fuzziness.
The film continuously shifts between the two fugitive women – who drift from a barroom to Union Station to a boarding house that is the home of teen-age future-jazz-great Charlie Parker – and Seldom Seen's club, where Altman treats us to the picture's high points, a series of spectacular live-on-camera jazz performances.
At its most fundamental level Kansas City is a "buddy" picture about two utterly dissimilar women thrown together by circumstance and forced to rely on each other for survival.
Not that there’s much communication between them.
Leigh’s Blondie is poor white trash (she even delivers her lines through a set of stained false teeth) whose entire life is a second-rate Jean Harlow imitation. In her speech she imitates the tough broads she's seen on the silver screen; her every comment and gesture is a pose stolen from movies and radio shows.
Richardson’s Carolyn is a fuzzy-headed laudanum addict who in recent years has rarely left her house; she regards Blondie as some sort of alien creature.
Slowly these two women from opposite sides of the track share a growing awareness of the other’s life, love, and limitations.
Meanwhile Belafonte (he was named best supporting actor by the New York film critics for his performance) paints a creepy/compelling portrait of corruption as the serpentlike Seldom Seen, a smoothly vicious character enamored only of money and music and exuding sardonic bitterness toward the white power structure.
"Even if they don't need it," he spits with disgust, "they got to have it."
Very nearly stealing the show, however, is character actor Steve Buscemi (now a leading man, thanks to HBO’s Boardwalk Empire) as Blondie's brother-in-law, a crass ward heeler who firmly believes that elections were made to be stolen.
When it was released the critics weren’t sure about Kansas City dramatically, but all agreed that its depiction of our town was right on the money. Central to this is the vintage music, performed by real jazzmen and woven throughout the movie.
One suspects, in fact, that the jazz is the main reason Altman made this film. And after witnessing a classic “cutting contest” in which two saxophonists try to outdo one another on the bandstand, you’re sure of it.
Other films in the series “Goin’ to Kansas City”
Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:
- January 7: Mr. & Mrs. Bridge (1990) Rated PG-13
- January 14: Kansas City Confidential (1952) Not Rated
- January 28: Kansas City (1996) Rated
Admission to these films is free.
The series complements Greetings from Kansas City, the current exhibit of vintage post cards now on display at the Central Library.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.