YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN (Michael Curtiz, 1950)

Semi-sensational in the dark style of his Mildred Pierce five years earlier, Michael Curtiz’s Young Man with a Horn, allegedly based on the life of jazz musician Bix Beiderbecke, slides bumpily from individual story into moral fable. This is one film that gets thinner and thinner, and more and more ridiculous, as it hums along. The same can be said for the performance of its star, Kirk Douglas, which is at its best early on, when the actor is given something to play, but gets more and more ridiculous as jazz trumpeter Rick Martin comes to exemplify more and more blatantly the false adage that a great artist must be a great human being first. This aspect of the material may have been lifted from The Citadel (King Vidor, 1938), from A.J. Cronin’s medical novel.
     One may therefore wish to give Curtiz a pass and blame instead the authors of the script, Carl Foreman and Edmund H. North, and Dorothy Baker, whose novel they adapted; only, one finds strengthened the argument that Curtiz pursued just such a moral fable in the case of Mildred Pierce, to wit, one which warns that fate will slap down a woman who attempts to succeed in the “male world” of business. This, though, is an interpretation, possibly wrong, possibly right, but even if right incomplete, while there isn’t much else to Young Man with a Horn.
     But the possibility that most interests me (until the slide) about this film suggests an alternative theme: the vexing conflict between those who have a certain talent and calling and those who feel at a loss as to which course to pursue in life. The embodiment of the latter disadvantage is Amy, Rick’s wife, played with ferocious complexity by a stunningly gorgeous Lauren Bacall. Rick’s name perhaps reminds us that the hero of Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942), also named Rick, seems at different times to belong in either camp.
     Given that Jo Jordan secretly loves Rick, why does she arrange to introduce friend Amy to him? Three possible explanations suggest themselves. One, Jo is testing Rick’s affection for her (Jo)—attempting to assign Rick’s feelings for her to the realm of certainty. (When we are struggling with self-doubt and in love, we sometimes do stupid things.) Or, two, Jo may be unconsciously trying to prove Rick’s lack of love for her and thereby give herself at least the impetus to move on. Three, if one prefers a more elusive reading of the material, Jo may unconsciously be testing Amy’s affection for her. Unfortunately, we will never have the faintest glimmer of Jo’s motivation because the character is ineptly, inscrutably played by slack-faced Doris Day, whose singing throughout—Jo is a band singer—also is monotonous beyond measure. There is punishing irony here, to wit, that former band singer Day makes no sense as band singer Jo.
     Hers is the worst acting in the film; who contributes the best? Juano Hernandez as Art Hazzard, the brilliant though humble jazz trumpeter who befriends Rick when Rick is an orphaned child, tutors him generously, and whose death in a street accident makes the grown Rick (we are assured) a better man.
     Harry James dubs Rick’s flights of art on the trumpet as Rick pursues—I’m not making this up; the film identifies this—the high note that the instrument cannot deliver; indeed, music is one of the film’s four alluring elements. Hernandez and Bacall are two others, while Ted McCord’s noirish black-and-white cinematography is the fourth.
     Early on, Curtiz and cutter Alan Crosland Jr. attempt a bit of visual simulation of jazz, but nothing comes of this. Hoagy Carmichael’s on-camera narration, as piano-playing “Smoke,” is florid and condescending. Trenchant (although more or less lifted from Billy Wilder’s 1945 The Lost Weekend) are scenes of Rick walking and walking city streets.

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