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Young Man with a Horn (1950)
You know the story: Lonely orphan boy, Rick Martin, discovers he has an ear for music and learns to play a pawn-shop trumpet with the help of jazzman, Art Hazzard (the great Juano Hernandez). He grows up to be Kirk Douglas and a famous jazzman in his own right only to have it all fall to pieces thanks to booze and a bad marriage. Adoring girl singer, Jo Jordan (Doris Day), waits it out and saves him from himself.
Young Man with a Horn is the film adaption of the best-selling novel of the same name by Dorothy Baker. The book is loosely based on the "music, not the life" of Bix Beiderbecke, the great jazz cornetist whose personal story took a less redemptive trajectory than did Rick Martin's in the film. Beiderbecke was indeed a musical genius and prodigy, but he managed to drink himself to death before the age of 30.
Rick Martin, on the other hand, is a single-minded perfectionist who has little time for anything else in his life but music. He drinks milk, mostly, and his one friend, "Smoke" Willoughby (Hoagy Carmichael) helps him navigate social situations and show up for work. Halfway through the picture, however, girl singer Jo introduces Rick to her smoldering, cynical friend Amy North (Lauren Bacall), an aspiring psychologist. Amy doesn't like the sound of jazz, she's just in it for the faces (whatever that's supposed to mean). She also likes to size people up, analyze them, and say things deliberately to put them off. She envies and disdain's her friend Jo's simple niceness and declares Rick "interesting" and decides to call him "Richard," which he doesn't particularly like, but Amy is so very beautiful. She also has a lavish apartment and a silent cockatoo. She's hot, she's cold. She's bait. She's switch. She's an unhappy dilettante: too rich and unloved with too much time to dwell on her shortcomings.
Naturally, they get married, much to Jo's distress. Not because Jo loves Rick (which she does), but because Amy is strange and unhappy and Really Wrong for Rick. They have so little in common: remember, Amy doesn't like jazz and jazz is Rick (sorry, "Richard')'s life. She stops going to medical school, then tries to go back once she gets bored with married life. She flunks her exams, which complicates some of her more serious self-esteem issues. They grow distant pretty quickly. Rick starts to drink for real and gets mean to his friends, particularly his old friend Art Hazzard, with whom he has harsh words just in time for Art to get hit by a car and die.
After he learns of Art's death, Rick goes home to maybe get a little consolation from his wife. There he finds Amy at the piano, playing the one song she knows how to play (after expensive lessons). It's a wonderful scene: she plays haltingly, without emotion, finally pounding the keys in frustration. When she realizes he's watching, she's mean to him -- because he plays music beautifully, full of emotion. Later, she's even meaner, if honest about their incompatibility and her own inadequacies, which consume her. There is even a hint that her next adventure will involve a beautiful woman painter. But it won't involve him.
Grief and impending divorce drive Rick deep into drink. He loses his cushy nightclub job, which he kind of hates anyway: that music isn't his music. He actually winds up in a skid row sanitarium with pneumonia and is rescued by Smoke and Jo, his true friends.
Rick makes it at the end of the picture, which may have been bittersweet for Hoagy Carmichael, who has been narrating this story and who was Bix Beiderbecke's pal in real life. Carmichael, as Smoke, tells us Rick's struggle was to learn how to be a human being first and an artist second, and that maybe the struggle to hit that perfect note isn't something to ruin your life over.
Personally, I've never completely bought into the idea that one has to be tortured to be a true artist. As Lauren Bacall demonstrates pretty well in this movie, you can be pretty tortured and contribute nothing beautiful to the world, just be "an intellectual mountain goat, leaping from crag to crag, trying everything." Not that there's anything wrong with that; just don't torment people along the way.
If you haven't seen this film in a while, I recommend giving it another look. There's something about Hoagy Carmichael and Doris Day that always put me in such a good place, and it is a surprisingly nuanced picture for 1950. The race stuff isn't overdrawn: Art, Rick's father figure, is a Black guy whom he treats with respect and admiration from boyhood; Amy's intellectualism isn't the thing that makes her neurotic or what makes her a bad woman -- she's just not nice. And Lauren Bacall is very good at striking this balance for such a young thing of 24.
This post is my contribution to The Lauren Bacall Blogathon, sponsored by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.
Please visit Crystal's site to read the other entries detailing aspects of this lovely woman's life and career.
p.s. For the record, Bix Beiderbecke played the cornet and Harry James, the Marni Nixon to Kirk Douglas's horn in this film, is playing the trumpet. I'm not sure I could tell the difference on a recording, but it turns out there is one:
I'll do just about anything a movie tells me to do. Unless it tells me wrong...
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