Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Michael Curtiz | Young Man with a Horn

the sound of brass

by Douglas Messerli

Carl Foreman and Edmund H. North (screenplay, based on the novel by Dorothy Baker), Michael Curtiz (director) Young Man with a Horn / 1950

 There are a great many works of art that require a “willing suspension of disbelief,” but thankfully only a small number that require a “willing suspension of attention” to provide the viewer or reader anything of value. Such a work is the 1950 film Young Man with a Horn, directed by the esteemed Michael Curtiz, who created such classics as Casablanca, Mildred Pierce, and White Christmas. With a story-line that is loosely based on the life of jazz trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke and with notable actors Hoagy Carmichael, Kurt Douglas, Lauren Bacall, and Doris Day, it’s hard to imagine that this film might not be a huge success. Alas, it’s a long haul before you get a few lovely witty moments previous to sinking into long scenes with Douglas playing trumpeter Rick Martin stumbling through the streets of lower Manhattan and Harlem until, in its last 20 seconds, the narrator, Willy “Smoke” Willoughby (Carmichael) announces that the film’s fallen hero reformed himself and became a famous musician—far from the tragic end Beiderbecke and even author Dorothy Baker’s character faced. Beiderbecke died of alcohol-induced pneumonia at the  age of 26.

      It’s not that there aren’t a few pleasurable moments in the first half of this film. Although most it is simply devoted to laying out the structure of the plot, the young Rick played by Orley Lindgren is a real blond charmer as slipping out of his sister’s apartment he discovers music at a local Salvation Army mission and listens in to jazz concerts headed by famed black trumpeter Art Hazzard (Juano Hernández). 

      And when Orley finally gets enough money to buy his trumpet and take free lessons from Hazzard, growing up to be Kirk Douglas, there’s some wonderful solo riffs dubbed by Harry James. And even if you’re not a fan of jazz coronet, composer, singer, and early jazz pianist Carmichael—who actually performed with Beiderbecke, introduced him to Louis Armstrong, and wrote music for him—tickles the ivories very nicely. In one of her finest roles, Doris Day isn’t required to be endlessly sweet and perky—although she generally remains so throughout this movie—and gets the opportunity to show off her quite formidable singing talents as Jo Jordon, the singer under the baton of Jack Chandler’s (Walter Reed) strictly-by-the-score orchestral renditions. She’s got such a beautiful voice, but you can’t but wish that someone might have taught her how to actually “interpret” music. She purrs out her anthems so sweetly, however, that we hardly notice that she  can’t express any other emotion. 

       The rapport between Douglas and Hernández is enjoyable. But unfortunately, as a character “married to his trumpet” Douglas isn’t given a significant range in which to express the acting talents we witness in other works. He mutes his trumpet to the shuffle of dancers’ feet before going on to play the music he really loves in his room alone. Even when he moves on to New York, now featured in Phil Morrison’s (Jerome Cowan) band, the only time he gets to say anything is a few one-liners during after hours at Louis Galba’s (Nestor Paiva) village nightclub where he helps his old mentor Hazzard keep his job by showing up each night to entertain the after-hours crowd. As great of a writer as Carl Foreman was, he was hardly given an opportunity to pen a line until Lauren Bacall walks into Galba’s club.

      It is at that very moment that Young Man with a Horn finally wakes up. Jo (Day) has taken her to club which she frequents, and after a few minutes with Amy North (Bacall’s character), we have to wonder what on earth is Jo doing with this queer figure. And this time I mean that in every sense. As Rick, whom she alone insistently calls Richard, this sexy woman in something incomprehensible. As flat as Rick’s character is—a stereotypically possessed jazz musician who wants nothing but to hit a note that’s never been played before—Amy is a doll blown-up to such enormous proportions that she almost literally floats above all the other film’s figures. She and Rick are the perfect Yin and Yang, opposites who attract one another, but in this case merely out of curiosity. As she puts it soon after meeting the man with a horn under his arm, “I envy you Richard but I don’t quite understand you.” His reply says it all: “That goes double for me.” A misunderstanding of enormous proportions is just what intrigues them and almost ends up destroying them both.

      Yet Amy is quite clear about her oddities from the very first moment they meet. She hates jazz and has come to the club only to study the people—she’s studying to be a psychologist at the university*—since she believes that “jazz is a cheap, mass-produced narcotic.”

      A second later she quite openly reveals—at least to anyone who can read the alphabet backwards—exactly where she sexually stands. In the longest monologue the script permits her, Bacall taps out a cigarette, looks over at Day who’s just begun singing, and with a well-tuned oily alto pretense of adulation voices: “Jo’s wonderful, isn’t she?  So simple and uncomplicated. It must be wonderful to wake up in the morning and know just which door you’re going to walk through. She’s so terribly normal.”

Yes, this is slightly coded language, but just in case you didn’t get it, in the very next scene she invites Rick back to her penthouse apartment, pours him a drink, and suddenly recalls that since she’s got an early class the next morning she has to hit the sack. This is not coded language. She encourages him to finish his drink but not to forget to turn out the lights, before promptly entering her bedroom and slamming the door shut.

      In a follow-up scene she weasels her way into Rick’s rickety flat, where, when she refuses a drink, he finally figures out its time to make his move. He hugs and kisses her, only to have her pull away, gasping “No. It’s not you,” followed up with what, self-admittedly, is the most honest line that writers Foreman and North have put in her mouth: “Instead of being angry, you should be grateful. You think you’re falling in love with me. Well don’t. Don’t take any chances with me. ...I feel a half dozen things at the same time.” Code for, “I’m so confused about my sexuality.”

      Again she leaves him standing cold in the dark as the elevator speedily takes her down to the lobby. The only reason, after pausing at the front desk, that she makes a U-turn to Rick’s place is to wipe the smirks off the faces of the clerk and the elevator boy. 

      The two marry, without Rick even knowing it, for another of her psychological experiments, an attempt, after a life lived “like an intellectual mountain goat, jumping from crag to crag, trying everything,” to see if the musician’s absolutely grounded vision might help her to return to the normality of settling on a single rock.

      Almost the moment they’ve signed the marriage license, however, she has become determined to return to her studies, and given her day-time classroom requirements and his late-night performances, the two hardly ever again get the opportunity to one another.

       When they do pause for a word or two, she admits that she has failed her courses and suggests that she has met a woman artist with whom she might travel to Paris.

         If Rick and Amy have forgotten why they even married, so has Curtiz forgotten most of his previous characters, and now quickly brings up the fact that Rick hasn’t played at Galba’s for months, probably costing his old friend Hazzard his job. And Jo, now a renowned singer, who warned him that Amy was a “strange girl,” is suffering from her motherly instincts in her worries over Rick. 

         But by this time Rick has forgotten the old cast as well, and he’s suffering so deeply about the fact that Amy has utterly rejected him that even Douglas’ dimple is quivering in pain. Smoke’s words don’t move him away from the bar and even a visit by his mentor makes him explode in anger. A moment later the elderly black trumpeter is hit and killed by a passing car.

        Only then does Rick briefly return to sanity, taking in Hazzard’s funeral and blowing off a little steam by performing a tribute to his remarkable teacher on his horn. He returns to the get-together Amy has pleaded with him to attend just as the party’s over , even her guests admonishing him on their way for having missed the event.

        As he goes to open the door, his wife appears with her artist girlfriend Marge (Mary Beth Hughes), commenting “I’m dying to see the rest of your sketches,” to which Marge replies, “We’ll have dinner out and go back to my place.” In case you live you live on Pluto, I’ll remind you that “come up and see my sketches sometime” is a campy quip that translates into an invitation for gay boys to get together for a little fun.

         Even the whisky-headed cornetist finally puts two-and-two together, if he’s married to his horn, Amy has chosen a woman of tuck under her arm. It’s amazing how hard the film’s creators had to work during the good-old-Hays days to wink to the audience that Amy was a lesbian, who, as she puts it in the next few frames, is “sick of [her husband] trying to touch [her].”

         She’s equally sick of “the sound of brass,” and destroys his rare collection of jazz recordings to prove the fact.

         It’s almost funny, but so awfully sad, that to protect themselves the director and his writers are now required to describe the only fascinating figure in their film through Rick’s last words to her: “You’re a sick girl, Amy. You need to see a doctor.” At least they didn’t literally kill her off. But they might as well have, for we never see her again, and their film falls apart for that very reason. Ironically, a few minutes earlier Amy shouted at Rick: “I’d like to kill you,” to which Rick replied, “You almost did.”

         I’d argue she succeeded. For the rest of the film we watch only a dead man, as I mention in first paragraph, trudging the New York City streets in a drunken stupor. He purposely buys a trumpet from a pawnshop clerk—unlike the beautiful instrument he bought as a boy—that’s broken and will no longer play, as if the filmmakers were openly commenting on the rest of their movie.


        Despite Smoke saving his pneumonia-stricken friend from dying, and Jo rushing to his bedside to buck up with the man with whom she’s not so secretly in love with her sunny predictions for his future life, Rick and the story never quite roll back into action. We hear the good news of his recovery second hand, and we don’t believe it for the moment before the screen announces The End.

        If nothing else, Young Man with a Horn proves queers make things happen. Everything else, as good as it is, is just theme music. Maybe Smoke is right, young kids want the lyrics not the music.

*Quite ridiculously, the university at which Amy is attending classes is UCLA. At one point, from the dark streets of New York, she and Rick are seen heading up the brick stairs to Royce Hall, outside of which they stand for a few moments while she describes her father’s role as a doctor and her lover of her mother. I’ve taught a couple of courses in that beautiful building and attended many a concert in its auditorium. And I’d recognize those steps leading to it any day, since I once fell down them one dark night in search of my temporarily lost car.

Los Angeles, March 16, 2021

Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (March 2021).


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