Young Man With A Horn, 1950. 7/10

Based on the meteoric career of musician Bix Beiderbecke, Kirk Douglas is trumpet player Rick Martin (Norley Lindgren is Martin as a child). He has mentor Art Hazzard (Juano Hernandez), singer Jo Jordan (Doris Day), and pianist Willie ‘Smoke’ Willoughby (Hoagy Carmichael). Jo introduces Rick to her friend Amy (Lauren Bacall). After struggling and attaining what he’s worked for, Rick starts stumbling, both with Amy and the bottle.

‘Smoke’ starts off, reminiscing about Rick. So, we get the whole childhood deal; the main purpose of which is to show how Rick glommed onto music at an early age. He’s climbing up to nightclub windows to see how it’s done. Invited to come in by Art, the kid’s in his element. They get him a horn to fiddle with, so to speak.

Pretty soon he’s hanging with Art, and playing with his own jazz gang. He ages quickly, so that right in the next scene, he’s doing sets semi-professionally. And now, Shazam! He’s Kirk Douglas. At this point, Art tries to talk sense into him; that being a musician is tough, you play for the crowd, not just for yourself, and so on.

He meets Smoke at the Aragon Ballroom (I suppose that’s the old Santa Monica Pier). The band manager, Jack Chandler (Walter Reed), shows up with Jo. Rick meets the bunch, and auditions. Jo starts in with a dreamy version of The Very Thought Of You. Jack upbraids Rick for jazzing up the number “No low-down jive.” Strictly mainstream dance music here.

Nonetheless, after-hours, Rick plays just such jive; Jo is the only one to hear. She invites Rick to a party; they sit and talk on the pier. She says “you’re a married man…to that trumpet.” Yeah, but they snuggle anyway. Jack, who’d obviously been seeing her, isn’t to happy with the new guy on the team.

Especially as Rick talks Smoky into doing a jazz number; the crowd loves it, but Jack stomps back, steaming. Rick, good-naturedly, just walks off, joking, knowing that he’s fired. Back at Rick’s place, Jo says she fixed it up with Jack, but he knows he only wants to play jazz. “Why do you live in left field all the time?” Ok, but next up is Smoke.

Methinks he’ll have a proposition of some sort. I suppose, because soon they’re playing together, on the road together, sharing a more or less outcast musician’s life. In a sketchy roadhouse, Rick blows off some hoods. They like his attitude, but continue messing with him–so much for that joint. Smoke’s going back to Indiana.

Rick’s back in New York. He goes to see Jo’s performance. She is ‘Too Marvelous’ as the song says. He asks her about Art; ominously, she says he’s “sick.” Nonetheless, they go to catch his act. Looking somewhat the worse for wear, Art invites him to play with his band. Sounds good. “He’s got the habit” Art tells the crowd.

Now he’s on the marquee, playing with a toney band; things are looking up. Phil Morrison (Jerome Cowan) wants him to quit the club where he’s playing for fun, to have him exclusively at his swanky place; it’s the usual problem, at Galba’s (Art’s digs) he can play the way he wants. It’s a no-brainer to choose: Galba’s.

Then we first see Amy, checking herself in a mirror there. She’s with Jo. She reads him very well–that his demeanor shifts as soon as stops playing. She’s just getting started with the clinical stuff (she’s studying to be a psychiatrist). Regarding jazz “Is it purely African?” Rick’s just says, who knows, he just plays it. And, then, jazz is, obviously, a “cheap, mass-produced narcotic.” I see. Also, already, I hate Amy’s character. She has all the subtlety of a news hawker.

“You can call me Amy” she tells him. “I bet I could.” He snaps back, obviously uninterested in her. She proceeds to slice-and-dice Jo, who’s “simple.” A correction is in order, as Rick reminds her that Jo is a talented singer. Amy and Rick end up back at her place. She confesses that she can’t play instruments.

She also lets on that she’d tried to be a writer, and an interior decorator, she’s an “intellectual mastodon.” Anyway, let’s see what Smoke’s up to; revealingly, Jo has to pick him up. At Galba’s, they wait in vain for Rick to show. He’s of course with Amy. She’s the one that needs a shrink, as she continues to unload on him with consistent sarcasm. At least now it’s about her issues.

It’s like listening to someone talking out loud. Speaking of coming out with it, he admits that he “thinks” he’s in love with her. At his place they kiss, then she backs off, abruptly. “What am I?” He complains “some sort of experiment?” Looks like it, Rick. She warns him against the love deal. Despite the haughty disdain, she’s confused “I feel half a dozen ways at the same time.”

She cuts the discussion off with “call me some time” He cuts it up finer with “call you what?” She’ll skeedaddle home in a taxi. Looks like Rick’s moving; Jo comes callinge, to–guess what?–warn him about Amy’s rough edges, shall we say? Kind of awkward, as not only is Amy there, but, we learn, her and Rick have got married.

At their (her) place, she’s announcing she’s going back to school. His reaction is unfair; because he has what he wants, but she doesn’t. A iconic fifties’ quite from Rick “I’m not your friend, I’m your husband!” Hey, Rick, read some self-help stuff…But there is the matter of their conflicting schedules, no time to be together.

He wants to “talk things out” with her. Problem is, he also needs to check in at Galba’s, Art’s not doing well. Neither is Rick. Getting soused a lot. Now Art comes to see him. “I’ve been busy!” Rick acts like Art’s come begging; Art correctly figures that it’s Rick that needs help, of a different kind, though.

Art’s wobbly crossing the street, and gets hit by a car. Rick hurries to the hospital–it looks bad. Indeed, it’s “too late.” His mentor, his life’s anchor, is gone. Back home, he finds Amy playing the piano–is she just learning? What’s for sure is that she’s junked school, again. Strangely, she’s having a party to ‘celebrate’ her flunking out. I hope we get to see that bit. I was just about to say that she’s for once being open and genuine with him. But, then, she slaps him; maybe too open.

Art’s funeral makes a very moving scene; Rick plays there as well. With supreme selfishness, she complains that he ditched her party (we don’t get a look, except a peek at Amy’s new friend) for the funeral. It’s pretty much like denying Rick himself, as, clearly, Art made him what he was, in so far as a person can.

She’s throwing a fit. He tells her, behind that facade of class “inside…[she is] nothing but filth!” Another in-your-face comment “You’re a sick girl, Amy. You ought to see a doctor.” That’s another way of saying that she should look at herself in the mirror just now.

Back in the club, Rick’s finishing a set. Pete goes after him for drinking on the job. But Morrison goes to far by insulting Art’s style. Time to quit. Time to play for kicks in New Jersey. After playing all night, the guy’s wanna bug out–not Rick. But the big guy passes out. When he comes to, he tries to talk Smoke into doing some old numbers their way.

Smoke tells him times have changed. They get cleaned up. Back in the City, in a recording studio, they’re backing up Jo. Rick, of course, has to play his own way. “Man, he’s really washed up” says one to another. Tellingly, Jo hands him his horn, as though giving his life back. He seems bent on self-destruction.

Breaks the trumpet. Back to Smoke’s narration: “he went to pieces. But not in any small way.” He’s getting bounced from bars…but comes upon a Salvation Army meeting; perhaps it’s their singing, as soon he buys a broken trumpet dirt cheap. He looks like he’s crawling through every New York City film-noir set.

He stumbles. A passing cab runs over his trumpet, the driver takes him to a drunk bin: an “Alcoholic Sanitarium.” Fortunately, Smoky finds him; well, great, now Rick’s got pneumonia. Jo comes to see him. She’s saying just the right things; the oddest thing is, he perks up at the sound of the approaching ambulance. To him, it sounds like a trumpet. Last thing we see is the world the way it should be: Jo singing, with Smoke and Rick playing.

Entertaining stuff. Some very good performances, supporting cast included. Day’s songs fit elegantly into the romantic mood. Hernandez is never patronizing, and always supportive and respectful. Who wouldn’t want a friend like that?

Douglas has that eager determination, which is always tempered by the vulnerability that he projects so well. Then there’s Bacall. She is maybe a bit too icy for us to buy as a convincing rival to Amy; but I suppose that’s the script gnawing on us.

In the first place, what’s the basis of her friendship with Jo? The two couldn’t be more different; I could see if they’d grown up or went to school together, but we’re not given background to establish any common ground. And, more importantly, what’s her attraction for Rick? Yeah, she technically ‘classy’, but only in an abstract, academic way.

If she actually were a psychiatrist, instead of just pretending to be one, then we might have a more stable personality for her. Or something. As it is, she’s just a high-maintenance wannabe. The other problem isn’t so obvious, and may be unintentional.

In a sense, she’s the personification of what a fifties’ woman wasn’t supposed to be. Let’s see: highly educated, higly critical, elitist, career-minded, outspoken, not deferential to anyone, single, no kids…At least she’s not a Communist. Well, enough red flags, anyway.

We can see Amy, then, as a stereotypical ‘bad woman.’ It might be fairer to say, more simply, that she’s a bad person. I can’t think of one scene where Amy shows unfiltered love or empathy, even to herself. As a character study, she’s fascinating.

But Rick just seems oblivious by choosing her over Jo; particularly since he was with Jo well before Amy came on the scene. An unfortunate consequence of dealing with Amy’s complex personality is the ton of time all this melodrama adds. The movie’s a bit too long. But lots of great scenes along the way.

Farmermouse thought the songs and accompanying music was cool, so he’ll give this seven seedy clubs. 7/10.


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