Judge Joe Armenio doesn't think any hepcat worth his trumpet would dump Lauren Bacall for Doris Day, no matter how crazy Lauren was.
"You're married to that trumpet. I certainly wouldn't want to come between you."—Jo Jordan
Michael Curtiz's 1950 film Young Man With a Horn is based on a novel by Dorothy Baker, which was, in turn, "inspired by" the life of the great jazz cornetist Bix Beiderbecke (1903-1931). Of course, given this third-hand provenance and the necessary Breen Code adjustments, the film tells us much more about the conventions of Hollywood melodrama than it does about the life of Bix. That aside, the movie is a well-crafted, well-acted entertainment that doesn't make a whole lot of sense.
Facts of the Case
Young Man With a Horn begins with a trite framing device: Jazz pianist Smoke Willoughby (Hoagy Carmichael, The Best Years of Our Lives) turns to the camera to tell the story of his friend, trumpeter Rick Martin (Kirk Douglas, Out of the Past). As a young boy, the lonely Rick (played as a child by Orley Lindgren) finds solace in jazz, and the great black trumpeter Art Hazzard (Juano Hernandez, Kiss Me Deadly) takes him under his wing. As a young man, Rick struggles between the demands of his art and the need to make money, and becomes involved with two women: kind band singer Jo Jordan (Doris Day, The Man Who Knew Too Much) and neurotic intellectual Amy North (Lauren Bacall, The Big Sleep).
Predictably, Young Man With a Horn wants to have it both ways. The film portrays Rick Martin as a fiercely devoted jazz artist whose work is too strange for his narrow-minded employers, but the music sounds safely middlebrow (Douglas's trumpet licks were dubbed by popular swing bandleader Harry James, and often sound just as bright and sweet as the dance-band sap he's supposed to be rebelling against). There was no shortage of alienated jazz musicians in 1950, which was near the tail end of the controversial bebop movement, but 1950s Hollywood would never have made a jazz film that focused on a protagonist who created dissonant music, or had an aggressively strange personality, or was black. So the film is set in the safe past of the 1920s, and all of the overheated dialogue about the loneliness of the uncompromising artist, coming from a film so eager to please, is hypocritical.
Things also become ideologically confused around the halfway point, when Bacall's character enters the picture. Art Hazzard has already complained of his loneliness to Rick, and warned him that the life of the solitary genius is a difficult one. Jo Jordan, with whom Rick has a chaste romance, has told him that he needs distractions and companionship, since his single-minded obsession with music can only lead to madness. When Rick gets involved with Amy, however, the film starts to see monomania as a good thing, and domesticity as dangerous. Amy is everything that Rick isn't, in an excessively schematic way: She's clinical and analytical, and he's simple and instinctual. She's a dilettante, and he's consumed with music. She's fiercely jealous of his talent, and begins to hate him for it. Amy's status as villainess is largely based on the fact that she distracts him from his music. So is Rick's single-mindedness a good thing or a bad thing? The film shrugs and moves on to the next confrontation. Rick's relationship with Amy also doesn't make much psychological sense. It certainly seems plausible that he'd fall for her; she is, of course, Lauren Bacall, all mystery and sultry imperiousness. But his transformation from child-genius to bickering husband is too jarring and abrupt, and the film never really recovers.
The alternative to Amy is Jo, who is sweet, trusting, and open, and who represents the right kind of domesticity, the kind in which Rick can find happiness. The dramatic tension in the film comes from wondering whether Rick will come back to Jo, or get lost in either his damaging relationship with Amy or a hopeless quest for musical perfection. I don't think it's very surprising, or too much of a spoiler, to say that the film ignores the facts of Bix Beiderbecke's life and death, and provides implausibly sunny solutions to these dramatic problems.
The tragic figure in the film is Art Hazzard. Like many sympathetic black characters in left-leaning Hollywood films of the period, Art is a victim, a martyr to an unjust system whose death gives the white hero the necessary clarity to turn his own life around. Canada Lee's character serves a similar function for John Garfield in Robert Rossen's boxing movie Body and Soul, made in 1947. Like Lee's character in that film, Art has a sort of moral purity that comes from victimization, but he's also passive and doomed, and relegated to being Rick's conscience rather than being a central character on his own.
When he made Young Man With a Horn, Michael Curtiz was 64 years old and a veteran of more than a hundred films in his native Hungary, across Europe, and most famously, in Hollywood. Curtiz has never had much of a reputation, especially in the United States; even his best films (for example, the Errol Flynn adventures Captain Blood and The Adventures of Robin Hood, and, of course, Casablanca) tend to be seen as the product not of their director's vision but of their stars' charisma and the smoothly-running Hollywood assembly line. Like a lot of American directors, Curtiz is more appreciated abroad: His influence on German director and lover of melodrama Rainer Werner Fassbinder is often noted, and Fassbinder was apparently writing a book about Curtiz at the time of his death. Young Man With a Horn doesn't do much for me to alter the conventional view; Curtiz seems here like a skilled craftsman, good at quickly producing nicely-shot, well-paced films that don't stand up to much scrutiny.
Warner Brothers' presentation of the film is no-frills; the only extra is a "Doris Day Trailer Gallery" for which the term "gallery" seems like an exaggeration. It includes only the trailer for Young Man With a Horn and one for 1951's Storm Warning. The movie is given a full-frame presentation, preserving its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The transfer has its share of specks, but the black-and-white is admirably sharp, and the mono sound is serviceable.
Young Man With a Horn is probably most notable for its performances. Kirk Douglas is fine in an early showcase role, showing off some trademark bug-eyed, jut-jawed intensity, but the script often undermines him, demanding too many shifts in tone and motivation. Lauren Bacall is always fascinating to watch, even when her character seems shipped in for no particular reason from another movie. The film isn't terrible; it's the work of charismatic stars and a skilled director, and it passed painlessly over me, but I probably won't be thinking about it very much in the future.
Guilty on one count of silliness, and one count of giving Hoagy Carmichael corny expository narration.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Doris Day Trailer Gallery
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