Today is Sunday, so it is time for another article in one of our weekly series, 52 Code Films. At the end of each week in 2019, I review the new Code film which I watched that week. I have determined to watch at least one movie from the American Breen Era (1934-1954) which I have never seen before each week this year. If I watch more than one, I review the first which I watch. The purpose of this series is to broaden my knowledge of Code films. So many wonderful movies were made during the Breen Era. Just glancing over some famous actors’ filmographies makes one realize how many great Code films there are yet to see!
Today’s topic is Young Man with a Horn from 1950. I, like all classic film fans, was deeply saddened to hear of Doris Day’s death at ninety-seven on Monday. To honor her life, talent, and memory, I decided to watch one of her Code films which I had yet to see this week. Of the eighteen Breen Era films which she made during her six Code years in Hollywood, I had seen all but three. I realized that we had one of these movies, Young Man with a Horn, on DVD in our collection. I decided that this was the best choice of her three Code films which I hadn’t seen, since it is the earliest. The other two are Storm Warning from 1951 and The Winning Team from 1952. I look forward to seeing those films, as well.
The film opens with a narration by a piano player about his good friend, a famous trumpet player. As he tells the audience the story of this young man’s life, we see his beginning as a young orphan. With a sister who doesn’t care about him, the boy has nothing. One day, he walks by a mission and goes in. Sitting among the drunkards and vagrants singing hymns, he is fascinated by the woman playing the piano. He studies her fingers, enthralled by the music. That night, after everyone has left, he sits at the piano and teaches himself how to play the instrument. When he is shewed away from the mission a few nights later, he decides he needs a smaller instrument. He determines to buy a trumpet which he sees in a pawn shop. While working at a bowling alley to earn the money, he listens to a nearby jazz combo, enthralled by the music. He peers in the window for hours, and the jazzmen finally invite him in. He is befriended by the kindly black trumpet player, who likes the little boy. The generous gentleman buys the trumpet for him and teaches him to play it. Years go by, and the boy is now a man. His mentor tells him that he is going to New York, but he urges his student to stay behind. He tells him that he needs more than the trumpet in his life, but the young man fails to understand his meaning. The young trumpeter gets a job with a dance band, where he befriends the droll piano player who is narrating the story. He also meets the beautiful girl singer. She likes him right away, but she quickly realizes that he is in love with his trumpet and doesn’t want anything or anyone else in his life. The young man wants to play “his own kind of music” by improvising, but he is firmly warned to play the parts as they are written. One night, when the bandleader steps out, the trumpeter encourages the pianist and a few other musicians to join him in improvising jazz. The bandleader comes back in and fires the trumpeter. The piano player quits too, and the twosome tour around the country, playing one crummy dive after another. Eventually, the piano player decides to go back to his rural hometown, and the trumpet player continues alone. He ends up in New York, where he gets a good job and meets up with the girl singer, who is now a big star. He also reunites with his old mentor, whose playing is failing but who is just as kind as ever. After he plays with the big band each night, the young trumpeter goes to the club where his teacher is playing and plays with him. One night, the singer brings a friend of hers to the club and introduces her to the trumpet player. This young woman is an heiress and a psychology student who is highly disturbed because of a bad home life and the feeling that she can do nothing well. She fascinates the trumpeter, and they are soon seeing each other. He stops going to see his mentor at the club, and he misses an appointment to meet with his pianist friend when he arrives in town. The singer goes to the trumpeter to warn him that her “friend” is a strange girl who will ruin his life, but she is too late. They were married the night before. However, the trumpeter soon realizes that his wife resents his music and doesn’t understand it or him. She goes back to school to continue pursuing her degree, and they hardly see each other at all. As he realizes that she doesn’t love him, he drinks heavily to drown his sorrow. Will he be able to find happiness in his life aside from the trumpet?
The young trumpet player is Rick Martin, played by Kirk Douglas. The girl singer is Jo Jordan, played by Doris Day. The cold heiress is Amy North, played by Lauren Bacall. The piano player who befriends Rick is Willie “Smoke” Willoughby, played by Hoagy Carmichael. The trumpet player who teaches Rick is Art Hazzard, played by Juano Hernandez. As a young boy, Rick is played by Orley Lindgren. The bandleader at Rick’s first job is Jack Chandler, played by Walter Reed.
This film was directed by Michael Curtiz. It was produced by Jerry Wald. The production company was Warner Bros. The screenplay was written by Carl Foreman and Edmund H. North, based on a novel by Dorothy Baker. Miss Baker’s novel of the same name from 1938 was loosely based on the life of trumpet player Bix Beiderbecke. Although the novel is credited in the opening credits, the film never acknowledges that it is the life story of Bix Beiderbecke. Rick’s trumpet-playing is overdubbed by Harry James. Art Hazzard’s playing is overdubbed by Jimmy Zito. The music played by Rick and the band is comprised of jazz standards from the 1920s and 30s. Doris Day sings “The Very Thought of You,” “Too Marvelous for Words,” “I May Be Wrong,” and “With a Song in My Heart.”
This is a good Code film. It is quite dark at times, but I found it to have no Code violations. Although darkness may be a reason for the Rating System to give a film a PG rating, the Code did not require that all films be light and cheerful, contrary to popular belief. The most potentially-troublesome topic in the film is Rick’s relationship with Amy. One could possibly infer that they were living together briefly or having an affair before their marriage. However, this is never clearly implied. One is free to believe that if he wants to, but it is not indecently or even definitely clear. One of the most commonly discussed aspects of this film is the alleged implication that Amy is perverted. This stems from the fact that her character in the novel was. Many say that it is still clear in the movie, despite the PCA’s attempts to tone it down. I was very surprised when I read about that allegation after seeing the movie. I didn’t see that characterization at all. I believe that the self-regulators and the screenplay writers removed it completely. She is a strange woman, to be sure, but not in that way. I think there are plenty of explanations for her strangeness aside from the reason in the novel. She tells Rick that she comes from a strange home. Her father is a wealthy doctor, and her mother was a beautiful woman whom she adored. She had headaches, and her father realized too late that it was a brain tumor. Even then he did nothing to help her, so her mother committed suicide by jumping out of a window. As a result, Amy has a deep resentment for her father and, deep down, for all men, which creates friction between her and her husband. She clearly never loved Rick, although I think she was attracted to him when she first met him. She explains that she married him just for a new experience and because she liked his talent. She didn’t like or understand his music, since she clearly states that she hates jazz. What she liked was the fact that he could do one thing really well, and that gave him fulfillment and confidence. She never could get those things from anything she did, including piano playing, art, singing, psychology, and all her other unsuccessful ventures. No wonder she is a strange girl who can’t be a good wife. I believe that the character of Amy is a selfish, nasty woman who is brilliantly portrayed by Lauren Bacall, but I don’t think that that Code-violating implication is included at all.
I think this is an excellent movie. It was a little unsettling, but it was very riveting and artistically masterful. The acting is very powerful. Hitherto I have seen Kirk Douglas in more lighthearted characters. I thought he was extremely convincing as the obsessed young trumpet player. He did a brilliant job of faking trumpet-playing. I thought Doris Day was lovely in this role, which was her first appearance in a dramatic film. She sings beautifully, and she is so sweet as usual. I also was impressed by the performance of Lauren Bacall, whom I had never seen in a film before. I hated her role, but I thought she played it sensationally. She was very convincing as the cold, confused temptress. Hoagy Carmichael is a great contrast to Kirk Douglas as the piano-playing sidekick. He really played the piano, since he was a musician. An excellent touch of authenticity is that Mr. Carmichael was actually a friend of Bix Beiderbecke, so he lent his knowledge and experience to the production. The music is great, complete with Harry James’s beautiful trumpet music. I was very touched by the relationship between Rick and Art Hazzard, the latter of whom I found to be an extremely dignified black character. There is a major plot reveal here, but I feel that I should say something about the film’s ending. After he feels the trumpet has betrayed him, Rick becomes a drunken vagrant. He is eventually picked up by a policeman and brought to an alcoholics’ ward, where it is discovered that he has pneumonia. Smoke arrives and orders an ambulance to bring his friend to the hospital. While they are waiting, Jo arrives. Rick talks to her about a rosy future in which they are all going to play together. Then, a siren can be heard, and Rick, almost hallucinating, says that the ambulance is playing the note on the trumpet he could never reach. Then, we see Smoke sitting by the piano again, talking about how Rick finally realized that he needed more than the trumpet. Now, he has become a success as a person as well as an artist. We see Rick playing the trumpet next to Jo, who is singing, as Smoke plays the piano with the band. They are clearly in a recording studio. If the scene looks a little familiar, it’s because we have seen a clip from it before. The song, “With a Song in My Heart,” was performed in the same room with the artists in the same costumes in the scene in which the disturbed Rick went to pieces. When I saw this ending, I immediately thought that the happy finale was a later-added tag ending. A little research proved that I was right. Director Michael Curtiz and Kirk Douglas wanted the film to end with Rick’s death from pneumonia, following the story of Bix Beiderbecke’s real tragic life and the novel’s ending. However, Jack Warner insisted that the film have a happy ending. Thus, a little tag conclusion with Hoagy Carmichael was filmed, and an alternate take from an earlier scene was shown to create a somewhat satisfying conclusion. The ending is a little strange and not too sneaky, since I could tell it was an add-on. However, it kept the film from being too depressing. It might have been more satisfying if a real final scene was filmed. However, then Rick probably would have been shown as married to Jo, which would have been divorce and remarriage, giving this film a poor classification. Perhaps it is just as well it ended this way. It almost makes you wonder if it is a posthumous tribute to a great artist. I said all this because I don’t want people to think that Joseph Breen and the PCA required the happy ending. Many people mistakenly think that the Code and its administrators had an aversion to reality, darkness, and sadness. However, as long as it was acceptable and decent, a film could have a very depressing ending and still be Code-compliant. The frequently-uplifting content from Hollywood during the Golden Era often came from the moguls’ desire for positivity, not the self-regulators’. A personal quote from Doris Day sums up the situation quite nicely: “Some of the downbeat pictures, in my opinion, should never be made at all. Most of them are made for personal satisfaction, to impress other actors who say ‘Oh, God! what a shot, what camera work!’ But the average person in the audience, who bought his ticket to be entertained, doesn’t see that at all. He comes out depressed.”
I recommend this film to my viewers, particularly those who enjoy dramas and love music. It is a great film for those who want to expand their knowledge of Doris Day’s career by seeing her in a lesser-known film. They don’t make movies like this anymore. The Code made films decent and wholesome. Dark topics like some in this film were filled with entrancing drama but were completely acceptable. Filmmakers couldn’t do that on their own at any time. Whenever they leave the most lighthearted, carefree, and child-geared topics, they stray into risqueity, violence, and other unacceptability without the Code to guide them. I will conclude with a wise quote from the beloved, incomparable Doris Day: “Vulgarity begins when imagination succumbs to the explicit.”
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