So back story into why I sought out Young Man With a Horn to today’s review. I reviewed a documentary called The Celluloid Closet a few months back that discussed this film in regards to a character (played by Lauren Bacall) being a lesbian. I adore Ms. Bacall and seeing an iconic actress attempting to convey the 1950s idea of lesbianism seemed fascinating to me. If only that was more than a spot during the film’s overly long two-hour runtime. While Young Man With a Horn isn’t a terrible film it’s not a particularly good film. It has good elements but from the sanitized story to the different pieces that are shoved in during the second hour, I wasn’t as engaged with this movie as I wanted to be. A good movie for fans of good jazz music, but merely an “okay” film for everyone else.
From the time he was a child Rick Martin (Kirk Douglas) wanted to play the trumpet. As he rises through the ranks of being an acclaimed musician he’s torn between two women, one being his disturbed wife (Lauren Bacall) and the sweet girl of his earlier days (Doris Day).
Boasting a two-hour runtime one would think the plot synopsis would be a bit more elaborate. Nope, the film is jarringly divided into three acts. The first sets up Rick’s childhood, losing his parents, and the discovery of his musical prowess. He grows up, establishes a connection with an African-American jazz musician named Art Hazzard (Juano Hernandez) and meets Jo (Doris Day). Act two introduces Amy (Bacall) who becomes Rick’s wife. He grows to find her mentally unbalanced after the suicide of her mother and a more than passing interest in girls. The third act details Rick’s fall from grace and the question of whether he’ll pick himself up.
It’s a fairly straight biopic in that regard…if it was true. The movie was “inspired” by the life of jazz musician Bix Beiderbecke. Inspired in that Douglas’ character Rick Martin is meant to be Beiderbecke. I’m not at all an authority on the true-life story but according to Robert Osborne‘s opening narration the film is a loose adaptation and culminates with a very happy ending (let’s just say Beiderbecke didn’t live a long life). It didn’t affect my viewing of the film although I did feel the ending was sappy and undeserved by Rick.
Douglas is a good actor but I didn’t find him to be a revelation in this role. He seems to lack any passion as Rick Martin. Sure he says the trumpet is his life but I never really felt that. He just came off like a cocky trumpet player. He’s the rebel “constantly going out to left field” when he should be staying within the arrangements. We see him constantly improvising during routines and getting angry, and that’s about all the character depth we get. It doesn’t help that the second hour is devoted to his relationships and he lacks chemistry with both Day and Bacall. The relationship with Bacall is stereotypical in that she changes him, makes him miserable, and essentially ruins the rest of his life. You know from the get-go who Rick should end up with because both ladies are such caricatures of good and evil.
Let’s start with Bacall. I actually enjoyed her character and found her to be incredibly dark and complex, and therefore she has to be the devil incarnate in a way. She’s studying to be a psychologist as a means of learning more about her backward mental state and possibly why her mother killed herself. The fact that Amy is alluded to be a lesbian makes the psychology angle more absorbing because is she into women to recapture her mother’s love…or is she merely a woman who loves other women? Of course being the 1950s Amy is seen as mentally deranged and is personified as the “wrong woman” for Rick but I loved Bacall no matter what.
It doesn’t help that Rick becomes a total chauvinist pig during his scenes with Amy. Again, how am I supposed to sympathize with him as a musician when he treats his wife like garbage? Sure they make a point of making Amy a bitch but Amy is incredibly forthright about her relationship with Rick. She wants a marriage between equals, between friends. Rick coldly replies “I’m not your friend, I’m your husband!” Wow, I really want to see this guy be redeemed for his wayward ways. So how is this Amy’s doing? Obviously, he’s felt this way for a while before she “did him wrong.” I guess we’re supposed to believe that even though he’s friends with Jo, that once they’re married she’ll be his property.
Doris Day is good in this role if only because Jo is so underwritten. As mentioned before she’s the girl whose been with Rick from the beginning when he had nothing. She’s pure and virtuous and has been described as “Pollyanna-ish” by people on IMDB. We all know Rick and her are meant to be together and she’s even seen as the savior who brings Rick back from death.
I just kept questioning whose story are we telling? We spend an uneven amount of time between Rick and Jo. We see Jo struggling as a singer, eventually finding some success and it follows her for a time. Then the movie follows Rick even though his best friend (played by Beiderbecke’s friend Hoagy Carmichael) is narrating Rick’s story! Then why spend all this time on Jo? Then there’s the musical sequences that make this film feel like a musical. I was far too frustrated with Young Man With a Horn. Lauren Bacall has about 15 minutes of screen time, and while it’s superb, it’s not enough to make a dent in this movie. The film may be a must-see for jazz fans or fans of Douglas and Day but that’s it.
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.