A "jazz noir" double feature at the Noir City Film Festival Wednesday night kicked off with Frank Sinatra in MEET DANNY WILSON (1951).
That most entertaining film was followed by a 35mm print of YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN (1950), starring Kirk Douglas, Doris Day, and Lauren Bacall, directed by Michael Curtiz.
I had very mixed feelings about YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN. I felt half of it was terrific, and half of it was...not.
Lonely young Rick Martin (Orley Lindgren) falls in love with jazz. He's taken under the wing and taught to play a trumpet by one of the top musicians in the business, Art Hazzard (Juano Hernandez); as Rick becomes an adult (Kirk Douglas), he begins to see career success, working with people like band singer Jo Jordan (Day) and a pianist named Smoke (Hoagy Carmichael).
The first half of the movie was powerful stuff, with a depiction of the jazz world which felt authentic. The power of music to cross the racial divide in that era, with a black musician becoming a father figure to a young white boy, was marvelous. Art and Rick's relationship was touching without being cloying.
Doris Day can never do any wrong as far as I'm concerned, and she's tops as Jo. It just doesn't get any better than Doris singing one of my favorite songs, "With a Song in My Heart," accompanied by Harry James (dubbing Douglas). Sheer magic. Unfortunately, though, Day was woefully underused in the film.
The movie also has a superb performance by the great character actor Juano Hernandez, one of a string of wonderful roles in films such as STARS IN MY CROWN (1950) and TRIAL (1955). There's also the always-excellent Hoagy Carmichael, a terrific actor as well as musician; his filmography is short but choice. The reliable Jerome Cowan has a brief but effective turn as an orchestra leader who gives Rick one of his big breaks.
Unfortunately, the movie falls apart with the entrance of Lauren Bacall as Amy, a strange friend of Day's who ends up in a relationship with Rick. I like Bacall just fine in other films, but here her arch performance as a rude, disturbed woman has an air of unreality to it which contrasts starkly with what has led to that point in the movie, nor is she done any favors by a script which has her do oddball things like invite Rick in for a drink, then abruptly go to bed, telling him to turn out the lights on his way out the door. There are some curious overtones about her feelings for another woman thrown in for good measure, but her character is never really explored or explained.
At this stage of the movie it descends into Melodrama with a capital "M." I'm not a Douglas fan but he'd done a fine, understated job for much of the movie. Once he starts staggering through the streets it was all just a little much for me; it felt silly rather than sincere, and the film wore out its welcome as it tried a little too obviously to be dramatic and "important."
All in all, I was left feeling there's a part of a superb film in this movie; if only some sections could have been scripted and edited differently.
YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN was filmed in black and white by Ted McCord. It runs 112 minutes. The supporting cast includes Nestor Paiva, Mary Beth Hughes, and Walter Reed. Dress extra Bess Flowers, who also appeared in MEET DANNY WILSON, was in this one too!
YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN is available on DVD as a single title or as part of a multifilm Kirk Douglas set. It also had a release on VHS.
It can be streamed via Amazon Instant Video.