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Young Man With a Horn

Posted by martinteller on April 19, 2013

Since he was a boy, orphan Rick Martin (Kirk Douglas) never wanted to do anything but play the trumpet.  He was trained by one of the best, Art Hazzard (Juano Hernandez).  When he’s old enough to strike out on his own, he hooks up with a dance orchestra, featuring the singer Jo Jordan (Doris Day).  But Rick doesn’t want to play the standards, he wants to play jazz.  When he leads the band in an impromptu jam, he gets chucked out.  He takes his piano player buddy, “Smoke” Willoughby (Hoagy Carmichael) with him.  Rick starts to make a name for himself, playing the upscale clubs with Smoke during the day, and the seedy jazz joints with Art at night.  But when he meets the wealthy, sultry Amy North (Lauren Bacall), his career goes downhill, despite the warnings of his friends that you need to be a human being first and a musician second.

If you’re looking for a jazz-heavy noir, you’d be better off with Blues in the Night.  Bacall is kind of a femme fatale, and there’s kind of a downward spiral arc at the end, but for the most part there’s not much noir vibe here.  It’s pretty routine rise/fall/redemption kinda stuff, but Curtiz’s direction makes it solid entertainment, if nothing spectacular.  The film’s message is fuzzy but the story beats are satisfying.  It’s said to be based on the life of Bix Beiderbecke, but judging by some comments on IMDb and Beiderbecke’s Wikipedia entry, there are few similarities.

As we look at the performances, they’re all pretty much in the “good but not great” range.  Douglas gets to do some stretching, from his early naivete to washed-up and tortured.  His trumpet miming (actual playing by Harry James) is quite good, he really looks like he’s hitting the notes.  Day is a goody-two-shoes as usual, but at least she’s somewhat likeable in this role, and the songs she sings (of which there are plenty) are enjoyable.  Bacall isn’t giving it her all, and she doesn’t show up until halfway into the film, but she has one or two dynamite scenes.  The character is interesting in that she’s not so much a bad girl as merely rudderless, inexperienced, and mixed up.  Her hints of bisexuality are intriguing, too.  Carmichael, who also serves as the movie’s narrator, is rock solid.  Hernandez shines as Douglas’s mentor and father figure, a wonderfully warm presence.  He was terrific in The Breaking Point too, and looking through his filmography I found two more movies to add to my watchlist (which always seems to grow more than it shrinks).

Maybe the story is a little familiar and doesn’t go anywhere especially intriguing, but the music is fantastic, the actors are enjoyable, the direction and cinematography is sharp and polished, and the film is refreshing in its approach to race for its time.  Worth seeing for fans of jazz, Douglas, or just good ol’ classic Hollywood.  Rating: Good (73)


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