Jazz on Film: "Young Man With A Horn" (1950)

Aug 14, 2014

"Young Man with a Horn," starring Kirk Douglas, Doris Day and Lauren Bacall, was adapted for the screen from what might be the first jazz novel of the same name by Dorothy Baker in 1938. Her novel was a highly fictionalized account of the life of cornetist Bix Beiderbecke. The film's director Michael Curtiz is best known for the classic Humphrey Bogart/Ingrid Gardner "Casablanca." He made eight films with Bogart and another 12 with Errol Flynn. "Young Man With A Horn" came late in his career.

Set in the Jazz Age of the 1920s, and with Hoagy Carmichael as "Smoke Willoughby" playing the role of the narrator, the film follows a fairly traditional Hollywood narrative arc. In Act One we meet Rick Martin (Kirk Douglas) who has a lonely childhood with essentially no family and no direction until he discovers his love for music and develops a single-minded dedication. He finds a mentor in an older black trumpeter named Art Hazard, played with nature ease by Juano Hernandez. The film shows an early example of race relations between Rick and the older Art that is beyond color and portrayed as simply human, not unlike what we saw between Bogart and Dooley Wilson's (Sam) characters in "Casablanca."

In Act Two, Rick begins his professional journey despite Art's warning of the hard life of a jazz man. Rick's self-confidence and unwillingness to compromise and play only the notes in front of him causes problems and, despite the encouragement and support from his friends Smoke and singer Jo Jordan (Doris Day), he remains a stubborn loner in the world of big bands and dance orchestras. Eventually he goes his own way and makes a success of himself with his small group.  Then he is introduced at a party to Amy (Lauren Bacall), a jazz debutante who is also studying to be a psychologist. It is here where the film's story gets more than a little confused. Rick falls in love with Amy and marries her but almost immediately they have problems. His single-minded artistry and chauvinism reduces any chance for a real relationship they might have had. Her career path in psychology was a kind of new vocation in the 1950s and especially for women. It is here that perhaps Curtiz was trying to say something about modernity and feminism although it comes across as a bit stiff and out of sync with the film's rhythms. The film is also one of the early references to homosexuality with suggestion that Bacall's character is bisexual but since it was the 1950s she is simply called "a very sick girl" by Douglas. The strains of married life begin to affect Rick's playing in Act Three and a major falling out with Amy plunges him into an alcoholic downward spiral where in a heart-breaking scene he loses his control of his playing in the middle of "With A Song In My Heart."

The film has the traditional good girl (Doris Day) - bad girl (Lauren Bacall) and the guy in the middle as well as a fairly stereotypical portrait of wild jazz, liquor, loose women all leading to an inevitable downfall and redemption. "Young Man With a Horn" indulges in many of the clichés associated with the standard Hollywood of its day, but it treats the clichés with a certain level of respect, giving even the most familiar moments a definite power. As director, Curtiz seems to understand and is able to portray the texture and feel for the loneliness and yearning that is infused in the story. Together with cinematographer Jerry Wald they capture the sometimes stifling solitude that is found in the city, as well as the frenetic joy and release that music can bring. Sure, it's corny and predictable Hollywood storytelling but the real reasons for watching this film are its music and the cinematography.

The music is truly first rate and there is plenty of it with Rick Martin's trumpet ghosted by Harry James. It features and a great mixture of big band swing, small group, as well as Doris Day's torch singing in a role that wasn't too far from her own experience as the girl in the band. For those who only know Hoagy Carmichael as a composer ("Stardust," "Georgia On My Mind"), they may also enjoy his laconic, cool acting style as well as his piano playing.  Visually, the film is a fantastic wash of urban life both on the streets and the world of jazz both in high society and low.

When I first wrote this piece a week ago I mentioned an interesting piece of trivia: this film is 64 years old and surprisingly all three of its stars, Kirk Douglas (97), Doris Day (90), and Lauren Bacall (89) were still living. Sadly, Miss Bacall passed away on August 12th. Individually, they all starred in more important and better known films than "Young Man With A Horn."  But for all its limitations - and especially for jazz lovers, this is film worth watching and savoring for its music and the classic black and white portrait of life in the city during the Jazz Age.