Sunday, March 14, 2010

Young Man with a Horn (1950)

Our latest installment in the Hollywood Jazz Movies series is a longtime personal favorite, Young Man with a Horn. As a kid getting into the trumpet and jazz music this film left a big impression.

As I grew older I could see the corny Hollywood treatment of a take on a Bix Beiderbecke-like trumpet star. However the film still holds up and has a wonderful musical score by Harry James, Doris Day and the talents of Ray Heindorf and his great studio orchestra.

The film's origins were first in a series of articles by Otis
Ferguson, one of the first writers to cover jazz. He wrote two pieces on Bix Beiderbecke for the New Republic titled Young Man with a Horn followed by Young Man with a Horn Again. Writer Dorothy Baker borrowed Ferguson's title for her 1936 novel of the same name. Her novel followed the triumphs and downfall of a Bix-like jazz cornetist named Rick Martin. The transfer to film was proposed several times but finally made by Warner Bros. in 1950. The original choice for the trumpet ghosting was Bobby Hackett. Bobby would have been perfect with his melodic , flowing style in the Bix tradition. The studio decided on the bigger name and went with Harry James who provides wonderful playing even if it's not very Bix-like. (Ironically, when Rick first plays with Smoke we hear some Bixish changes and runs from Harry. After that he sticks to his own style).

The film was produced by Jerry Wald and directed by one of Warner's top men Michael Curtiz (Casablanca) with screenplay by Carl Foreman and Edmund North based on the Dorothy Baker novel. Ray Heindorf was Musical Director and came up with some great orchestrations along the original song Melancholy Rhapsody. James was also listed as Musical Adviser and Trumpet Soloist.
The exellent cast was headed by Kirk Douglas as Rick, Doris Day gave a fine performance as vocalist Jo Jordan. Lauren Bacall plays the dark, troubled Amy North who is briefly married to Rick. Hoagy Carmichael plays Willie "Smoke" Willoughby, a pianist and friend of Rick's. Hoagy's casting is perfect as he was a close friend of the real Bix.(he narrates the story). Other key roles go to Mary Beth Hughes as Rick's sister Marge, Nester Paiva as clubowner Louis Galba, Jerome Cowan as bandleader Phil Morrison, Orey Lindgren as the young Rick and Juano Hernandez as Art Hazzard, Rick's musical mentor. The time line runs from the 20s to the 40s.

The story follows the life of Rick Martin who as a youngster has lost his parents . Rick is living with his sister Marge , who hasn't much time for Rick. An early incident mirrors the real story of Bix. Rick finds he can pick out tunes on a piano by watching a pianist playing hymns at a local mission. Bix himself showed an early talent for piano without any formal training.
While working as a pinboy at a bowling alley Rick hears the sounds of a jazz band at a nearby bistro. Here he meets Art Hazzard, a talented black trumpeter and a genial man who takes an interest in Rick. The Art-Rick relationship is not unlike the one that Louis Armstrong enjoyed with King Oliver. Rick loves the sound of the trumpet and Art buys him a used horn and teaches him the rudiments.(Fellow musicians love his warning of getting a Roll-bad placement of his trumpet embrochure) From there on Rick is sold on the life of a musician despite Art's own misgivings on the profession.

We follow Rick's progress as he works his way up from kid bands to carnival shows and jazz bands. Kirk Douglas steps in as the adult Rick who has been hired by Bandleader Jack Chandler(Walter Reed)..
Chandler's band is a typical "sweet" band of the period . Here Rick meets Chandler's pianist Smoke and Jo the female singer. Rick finds a fast friend in Smoke who knows Art Hazzard and loves to play jazz. Jo is also taken by the slightly wayward newcomer. Chandler isn't into jazz. At Rick's first rehearsal with the band he thinks he can ablib during Jo's vocal. This prompts Chandler to read Rick the riot act- No Blues or Low-Down Jive! Jo who has been dating Chandler is taken by Rick and a romance starts to blossom. Rick's stint with the band ends when he, Smoke and a few of the boys jam a tune in Chandler's absence. (a spirited Get Happy by Harry and some of his Boys). Althogh Smoke doesn't get fired he decides to stick with Rick and they job around the country. (these scenes are shades of Hoagy's midwest days with Bix).

Eventually Rick finds his way to New York City where he sees Jo, now a singing star. Rick asks about Art who is playing at a little club called Galba's. Rick meets Jo there who tells Rick that Art doesn't play like he used to. (the soundtrack horn by Zito is very Louis-ish-not exactly past his prime!). Rick sits in with Art and they have a happy reunion. Phil Morrison, a big name bandleader is at the club, he likes what he hears and on Jo's recomendation hires Rick for his large commercial orchestra. Rick gets Smoke a job in Morrison's band too and for a while things are fine. (Rick is featured with the band but not on pure jazz numbers). The Morrison character is based on Paul Whiteman who featured Bix heavily in his symphonic jazz orchestra.

Soon Rick is spending his free time at Galba's jamming with Art, much to Morrison's dismay. The club is packed and Morrison thinks Rick is keeping Hazzard's job for him. One night Rick runs into Jo and a girlfriend Amy North, a very attractive but dark and troubled girl.Despite Jo's warnings, Rick and Amy begin an affair and eventually marry. Here the dramatics get very heavy as the odd-couple marriage slowly deteriates with Rick out all night and Amy trying to find herself with various classes by day.( I love the scene of Rick playing his Art Hazzard records while Amy tries to sleep!) The job with Morrison starts to strain too. Eventually Rick starts drinking and forgetting about Art.Things blow up with Morrison and Amy and when Art tries to help a drunken Rick out(he's lost the job at Galba's) Rick lashes out at him. Art gets hit by a car trying to cross a street and Rick is devastated. Rick gets to the hospital too late but plays Art's horn at his funeral service. These scenes are a bit heavy handed but still effective.

The plot gets even heavier as Rick drowns his troubles in booze. At a recording session with Jo and Smoke Rick, gets hung up on a high note and keeps blowing and missing until he breaks down. (although played seriously, this segment is very funny!). The band members file out of the studio, one uttering "He's all Washed Up!". Jo and Smoke try to console Rick but he kicks them out and promptly breaks his horn over a table in a fit of rage!
Finally we get the required "pathetic" scenes of Rick wandering around the city in a stupor. He picks up an old battered horn at a hock shop-sort of a security blanket to have under his arm. Rick winds up in a seedy drunk hospital only to be rescued by his true friends, Smoke and Jo. We end with a happy postscript as Smoke tells us of Rick's recovery and new credo of not letting his horn overtake his life. In a return to the earlier record date ,Rick makes the note this time and we go out on that happy note.

The cast was an excellent one. Kirk Douglas gives his usual fine job with the right dose of intensity. (he's a little hammy at times, but that's the charm of these bios). Doris Day gives a fine performance as Jo. Along with her great singing she brings her All American girl image with a touch of vulnerability.She obviously loves Rick and we assume they will finally connect at film's end. Lauren Bacall has a tough part as the dark, unlikable Amy. She's very good and musicians will get a kick out of her breaking Rick's prize jazz records! Juano Hernandez is excellent as Art Hazzard. His humility and gentle manners score along with his obvious love for Rick. (Hernandez plyed a similar role of a veteran jazzman in 1961 on the Route 66 TV episode Good Night Sweet Blues. (a wonderful episode featuring Ethel Waters, Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins and Jo Jones). Hoagy Carmichael was a very capable actor, he excelled at playing the good-natured buddy( To Have and Have Not, Best Years of our Lives). His real-life association with Bix brings a touch of authenticity to the proceedings. Orey Lindgren did a nice job as the young Rick. (his career seemed to end after child roles). Nester Paiava as Galba was an old pro adept at playing crooks, buddies, policemen or here a clubowner.

Of course, the music is the movie's major selling point. Ray Heindorf, one of Warner Bros. best musical directors contributes a fine score. His Melancholy Rhapsody played thru out is a beautiful mood piece as is the Big City motive used at numerous intervals. Harry James, although not a Bix stylist brings his considerable talents to Rick's horn. He was at the peak of his powers and on the ballads and jazz tunes is huge. Favorites such as The Man I Love, Limehouse Blues, I Only have Eyes for You, Get Happy, Can't we be Friends and With a Song in my Heart all benefit from his great horn. His duet with Art (Zito) on You took Advantage of Me features great blowing by both trumpeters. (Art sounds pretty good for a Has Been). Doris also never sounded or looked better. Her pure, swinging sounds are heard on I May be Wrong, The Very Thought of You, With a Song and Too Marvelous for Words. Hoagy, a competent pianist was dubbed by studio pro Buddy Cole. An old 20s favorite, Lovin' Sam (the Sheik from Alabam) is sung by Smoke and Rick during the Barnstorming sequence. Another old favorite, Moanin' Low is played by Art when he meets young Rick. Some of Harry's band members pop up on the soundtrack including Hoyt Bohannon(trombone), Willie Smith(alto) and Corky Corcoran(tenor).
Other studio pros such as Babe Russin, Nick Fatool, Stan Wrightsman and Archie Rosate make contributions.

Despite the usual Hollywood gaffes and corny dialog the film holds up nicely all these years later.
Casual viewers new to jazz can appreciate the fine acting, atmosphere and music. Jazz musicians and collectors can enjoy the music of James, Day and the fine studio players. (along with the usual assortment of hackneyed lines).
The soundtrack album which goes back to 10' lps is still available on CD from Sony/Columbia and the DVD is available from Warner's.
Young Man with a Horn makes for fine musical and dramatic entrtainment.
Till next time- Keep a Song in Your Heart