Young Man With a Horn (1950): Michael Curtiz’s Romantic Melodrama with Music, Starring Kirk Douglas, Doris Day, Lauren Bacall as Lesbian/Bisexual (LGBTQ, Lesbian)

In Young Man With a Horn, a fictionalized biopic of the great jazz musician Bix Beiderbecke, Kirk Douglas plays the lead, here named Rick Martin, with his characteristic commitment and emotional intensity.

Our Grade: B (***out of *****)

Directed by the versatile and prolific Michael Curtiz, the screenplay was adapted by Carl Foreman (before he was blacklisted) and Edmund H. North from a novel by Dorothy Baker.

The tale’s first chapter centers on Rick Martin as a young boy who, after his mother dies, sees a trumpet in the window of a pawn shop. He works in a bowling alley to save up enough money to buy it.

Rick grows up to be an outstanding musician, tutored by jazzman Art Hazzard. He lands a job playing for the big band of Jeff Chandler.

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Chandler orders him to always play the music exactly as written, but the stubbornly individualistic prefers to improvise, and one night, during a break with Chandler’s band, he leads an impromptu jam session, which gets him fired.

It’s quickly established that as an ace trumpeter player, Martin is one of the few white musicians in the black-dominated jazz scene of the 1920s.

Rebelling against the dull conventions of the “respectable” orchestras for which he has been working, Martin finds kindred spirits in torch singer Jo Jordan (Doris Day) and piano player Smoke Willoughby (Hoagy Carmichael), who become close buddies.

 

Rising to popularity with his own group, Martin falls for the wealthy and elegant jazz patron (played by the cool Lauren Bacall). After marrying her, Martin begins to neglect his music, relying more and more on alcohol. When he skips one of her fancy parties to attend the funeral of his mentor, Juano Hernandez, she angrily smashes all his jazz records, which ends their troubled relationship.

Martin loses it completely, and in a powerful scene, he literally breaks down in the midst of playing the pop tune, “With a Song in My Heart.”

YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN, YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN US 1950 LAUREN BACALL KIRK DOUGLAS Date 1950, Photo by: Mary Evans/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection

Happy Ending?

The happy ending of a script that’s otherwise downbeat is rather fake. Unlike the real Beiderbecke, who died of alcoholism at the age of 28, in this romanticized version, Martin is rescued by his friends and his future as a musician seems hopeful.

Gay Directors, Gay Films? By Emanuel Levy (Columbia University Press).

Composer-pianist Hoagy Carmichael, playing the sidekick role, added realism to the film and gave Douglas an insight into the role, being a friend of the real Beiderbecke.

Douglas’ jazz trumpeteering is effectively dubbed by Harry James, while jazz pianists Buddy Cole and Jimmy Zito make uncredited contributions.

In her authorized biography, Doris Day, who plays a secondary role, described her experience making the film as “utterly joyless”–working with Douglas was not pleasant.

In his book, Douglas said that he felt her ever-cheerful persona was only a “mask” and he had never been able to get to know the real person underneath. Day countered that while Douglas had been “civil,” he was too self-centered to make any real attempt to get to know either her or anyone else.

Lesbian Text/Subtext

In the Baker novel, Amy is described as having “lesbian tendencies.” However, abiding the usual Hollywood methods and hints in order to circumvent the Motion Picture Production Code, this is more than implied in the film.

At one point, Amy says: “I met a girl the other day, an artist. Maybe we’ll go to Paris together.” But for Martin, Amy is just “a sick girl, who needs to see a doctor.”

When Amy’s new friend, Miss Carson, meets Martin, she is extremely nervous.

Later on, she observes about Jo Jordan (Day): “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.”

The question is: how did the lesbian affair pass over by the Production Code?

In later decades, sensitive gay viewers read more into the film’s lesbian subtext, and it’s now added to the canon of queer representation in early Hollywood.

YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN, US 1950 LAUREN BACALL KIRK DOUGLAS  Photo by: Mary Evans/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection

Cast

Kirk Douglas as Rick Martin
Lauren Bacall as Amy North
Doris Day as Jo Jordan
Hoagy Carmichael as Willie ‘Smoke’ Willoughby
Juano Hernández as Art Hazzard
Jerome Cowan as Phil Morrison
Mary Beth Hughes as Marge Martin
Nestor Paiva as Louis Galba
Walter Reed as Jack Chandler
Jean Spangler as an uncredited extra

Lauren Bacall with Kirk Douglas and Hoagy Carmichael in “Young Man with a Horn” 1950

Credits

Directed by Michael Curtiz
Produced by Jerry Wald
Screenplay by Carl Foreman, Edmund H. North, based on Young Man with a Horn by Dorothy Baker
Music by Lauren Kirk
Cinematography: Ted D. McCord
Edited by Alan Crosland Jr.
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Release date February 9, 1950
Running time: 112 minutes

Box-office: $1.5 million