Once a week on Monday, Uncle Bardie shares a movie with his Readers he gives a big two thumbs up. It will simply be a short excerpt or a trailer. Uncle Bardie might even throw in a reflection on the movie. If so, it will make an appearance below the video. So pop some popcorn and give yourself a treat. This week’s movie is “Young Man with a Horn” (1950):
The trumpet. The kid picks it up and blows. A sound comes out. Not a good sound but a sound. The boy doesn’t play trumpet. Yet. But he has the longing. This is the instrument for him. Oh sure, he’s picked up piano. But piano is not the instrument he’s meant for. That’s the trumpet.
And what he wants is to play that trumpet and give it a sweet sound. A sound so sweet it makes him float. But it doesn’t come out without work. Without practice. Without a teacher.
Outside a bar across from the bowling alley where he sets pins he hears the kind of music he just has to play. Inside that bar, the men are playing jazz. This isn’t a smooth jazz either. This is a jazz that separates the men from the boys. A jazz that’s got some swing.
“Young Man with a Horn” is that story. It’s also a story of how the Muse can be a real bitch when she wants too. Adapted by veteran screenwriters Carl Foreman and Edmund H. North from the novel by Dorothy Baker, it’s loosely based on the life of the early jazz great, cornetist, pianist and composer Bix Beiderbecke.
The movie is directed by Michael Curtiz. His resume’ of 173 directorial credits includes “Virginia City” (with Errol Flynn), “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (with James Cagney), “Casablanca” (with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman), “Mildred Pierce” (with Joan Crawford), and “Life with Father” (with William Powell as Father). After “Young Man”, he would go on to direct (John Wayne in) “The Comancheros”, (Elvis Presley in) “King Creole”, “We’re No Angels” (Bogart again with Peter Ustinov, Aldo Ray and Basil Rathbone), (Gary Cooper, Lauren Bacall and Patricia Neal in) “Bright Leaf, and “White Christmas” (with Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye and Rosemary Clooney). By the time he directs “Young Man”, this is a director who knows how to direct and get the best out of a story and a cast and crew.
And what a cast. Three young actors who are about to emerge as major stars in the fifties: Kirk Douglas is Rick Martin, the boy who shoots for the stars. Lauren Bacall is his first wife and Doris Day is the woman who won’t settle. In addition, the great Puerto Rican actor, Juano Hernandez, brings authority to the role of Art Hazard, Rick’s mentor. Giving the piece a strong music cred is the great Hollywood composer Hoagy Carmichael who knew the real Bix Beiderbecke. He is Rick Martin’s Horatio, his sidekick and the narrator of the story. Harry James plays the trumpet for the soundtrack. His horn adds authenticity to the music of the swing era and a foretaste of what jazz is about to become with the likes of Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie “Bird” Parker.
The film’s opening scene is one of my favorites. Hoagy is doing what Hoagy did best. He’s at the piano, then he turns to the camera and begins his spiel: “My name is Willie Willoughby, but you can call me Smoke.” Smoke, what a great name for a sidekick. “I play piano in a run of the mill dance band. Kind of monotonous, but there were times when I got my kicks. Not so long ago either. Like when I palled around with Rick Martin. The famous trumpet. What a guy. We were in the thankless business of piecing together little notes and phrases of music into a mumbo jumbo that somehow turned into jazz.” That’s the authority of a musician speaking respectfully of another musician.
He continues, “Strictly off the cuff but a lot of fun. ‘Course Rick is practically a legend. People ask me about him and those times. Ordinarily I don’t talk about him. But I think a lot about him.” Perhaps with those words, Hoagy was remembering his friend, Bix, who died tragically early.
Rick Martin has a bit of Pip from “Great Expectations” in him. Like that Pip, he is an orphan, raised by his sister. Only his sister ain’t married. She dates around a lot, which leaves the kid on his own to roam through the city, trying this and that and the other. Mostly he’s attracted to music like a bear is to honey. A piano in a church. A trumpet in a pawn shop window. Then, from that bowling alley where he sets up the pins, he hears a trumpet player. Rick knows the player is the real deal. He has the ear for all things musical. Was born with it.
The sound has a lot of Gabriel in it and a lot of swing to. Man, that music takes our Pip away from all his troubles. That horn man is Art Hazard and Art takes on Rick as a student. He has found a true soul brother. Before you know it, Rick’s all grown-up and ready to join the big boys. He goes off to New York to play big band. “No blues and no lowdown jazz,” he’s commanded.
That’s not for him. He’s got a stubborn streak in him as long as a June day. He tries to play other people’s way. Those others play for a job. He plays because it’s his calling. Soon we’re seeing he’s going to play the way he’s going to play. Which means he’s going to aim for the stars. The Muse expects no less.
Like so many of these stories, he gets sidetracked. He marries the wrong woman. The marriage fails because he’s a little boy lost when he’s not playing music or not surrounded by music and musicians. As he tells her, “That trumpet is a part of me. The best part.”
He continues to wrestle with the angel till he’s flat on his back and can’t get up. Talent can do that to an artist if they follow their passion singleheartedly. “You’ve got one love. That little tin baby of yours,” Doris Day tells our Pip. With Rick, he has an itch. To scratch, he has to play the way the angels play.
For much of the 20th century, jazz was the American music. Artists like Rick Martin sought to play notes that weren’t supposed to be played. Those artists were our Mozarts, our Beethovens, our Bachs. Pip doesn’t reach that note but he does push the music. Trying for that note can just about kill an artist. Sometimes the artist has to fall to pieces before he can tame that desire and make it work for their art. Life may knock Rick down but that trumpet never does. “We can’t say what we mean,” he says. “You just got to feel it.”
So why do I love this movie enough to see it a dozen or more times and want to see it again? Maybe it’s because it’s about the music and those who care about the music. I would say that is a pretty darn good reason. Wouldn’t you?