Young Man With a Horn (1950)

Life hasn’t been easy for Rick Martin (Kirk Douglas).  His parents were killed when he was young, leaving his sister to care for him.  He didn’t have any friends, he wasn’t a good student, but one night he finds himself at a church and he discovers that he does have a passion for music.  He starts off by teaching himself how to play the piano and eventually sets his sights on learning the trumpet.  To earn the money to buy his own trumpet, he gets a job in a bowling alley and one night at work, he hears some great jazz music coming from a nearby club.  When Rick heads over to the club, he meets trumpeter Art Hazzard (Juano Hernandez) and Art takes Rick under his wing and becomes like a father to Rick.

Under Art’s tutelage, Rick becomes a phenomenal trumpet player as he grows up.  Eventually he lands a gig playing in a band, but he doesn’t last long there because the band leader doesn’t appreciate Rick’s love of impromptu solos.  But on the plus side, he does get to meet the band’s singer, Jo Jordan (Doris Day), and the two of them start a relationship.  Jo even helps Rick get a new job after he gets kicked out of the band.  All is going well for Rick and Jo until one night when Jo brings her friend Amy (Lauren Bacall) along to the club.  Rick is immediately drawn to how sophisticated and intelligent Amy is.  Even though Amy resists Rick’s advances and is hesitant about getting into a relationship with him, the two of them get married very quickly.

However, their marriage is anything but blissful.  They don’t spend much time together and when they do see each other, they fight.  The rough marriage takes its toll on Rick and he starts drinking more and more.  Even Art Hazzard can’t get him out of his miserable state of mind.  However, things quickly go from bad to worse when Art is killed in a tragic accident and then Rick decides he wants a divorce.  Rick falls into a deeper depression and his drinking gets even more out of control, costing him jobs and killing his love of music.  But luckily for Rick, getting thrown in a hospital turns out to be the best thing to happen to him because Jo arrives and helps him get a new lease on life.

Young Man With a Horn is one of my favorite types of movies — an underrated gem.  I don’t hear this one get talked about very often, but I really enjoyed it.  I loved Kirk Douglas in it, but Lauren Bacall and Doris Day were also great in it.  Hoagy Carmichael played “Smoke” Willoughby, Rick’s best friend, and I thought he made a great sidekick to Kirk Douglas.  But even with big names like Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall, and Doris Day in the cast, I’d say the real star of the movie is the music.  Legendary bandleader Harry James is the one responsible for all of Kirk Douglas’ trumpet playing and even if I hadn’t liked the movie, I would have at least enjoyed listening to the music.

What makes this film worthy of a queer film blogathon is the fact that Lauren Bacall’s character is a lesbian.  Since this was made in 1950 with the production codes in full effect, they had to subtly hint at that fact.  So subtly in fact that in Lauren’s TCM Private Screenings interview, she said she was so naive at the time that she didn’t even realize her character left her husband for another woman.  When Jo tries to warn Rick about getting involved with Amy, she couldn’t come right out and say, “She prefers women.”  Instead, she says that Amy’s a “strange girl,” “mixed up inside,” and that he’s never known a girl “like her” before.  Early in their relationship, Amy tries telling Rick that she’s incapable of falling in love and we see her turn down his physical advances.  When they end their marriage, she tells him she’s tired of him trying to touch her all the time.  She also tells Rick that she agreed to marry him because basically, she thought she shouldn’t knock it until she tried it and that she thought she’d eventually grow to like it.  However, in Amy’s final scene, there’s a knowing look between Amy and her new girlfriend that makes it pretty clear it’s not necessarily marriage she didn’t like, she just didn’t like being married to a man. (To see some of Lauren’s scenes, click here.)

For more films with LGBT chracters, actors, or are about LGBT issues, visit Garbo Laughs to read the other blogathon contributions.

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11 comments

  1. Great post! I thought about doing this one too actually but then I hadn’t seen it in years. This is much better than what I would have written :)

    I was so mad at Kirk Douglas for going with Lauren Bacall instead of Doris Day! I guess it served him right that Lauren turned out to be a lesbian lol

    I didn’t know she was supposed to be a lesbian either until I saw Lauren Bacall say that in the same interview you mentioned. I was like “Wait what? I guess I should watch that again and try to pick up on it.” haha

    1. I was wondering how much I would have picked up on it if I had seen the movie before that interview. It probably would have gone over my head until Amy’s last scene, that’s what would have made me start thinking, “Hey, wait a minute…” But since I saw that interview first, I definitely knew what “strange girl” was code for.

      And I agree, Kirk Douglas definitely should have stuck with Doris Day.

  2. I can’t believe I’ve never heard of this film, it sounds excellent. I would love to see Lauran Bacall as the coded lesbian type. Really great review, Angela, as always! Thank you so much for contributing to this blogathon and being supportive of it from the start!

    1. Like I said, it’s one I don’t hear talked about too often, which is too bad because it’s very enjoyable. And it has been my pleasure to be part of such a great blogathon!

  3. I like to think of Amy as bisexual based on that line that she says about how nice it would be to know which side of the bed you’re getting out of. Without overstating what goes on in the film, in matters of both sex and race, “Young Man with a Horn” is quite progressive for when it was made.

    1. I did think it was surprising to see how frankly Amy would say things like, “I met a girl the other day. She’s a great painter, maybe she and I will go off to Paris together.” Even with all their attempts at downplaying the lesbian angle, that’s still pretty bold for a 1950s movie since I don’t think most people talk like that about their platonic friends.

      I didn’t consider the race issues, but I agree, it was pretty forward-thinking for a movie made in 1950 to show such a close friendship between a white man and a black man. Especially since it’s not like it was a friendship between a rich guy and his servant, they were on roughly the same level class-wise.

  4. I haven’t seen this film though I have heard of it and of its lesbian relationship. It sounds fascinating, particularly in how the filmmakers had to ‘code’ Bacall’s character because of censorship — wonder if audiences of the movie’s time understood the implications. Thanks for your post!

  5. Hey gang, Maybe you should check out the great documentary about the depiction of gays and lesbians in Hollywood entitled “The Celluloid Closet” based on the book of the same name. That’s where I first learned of this film and that Bacall’s character was a lesbian. “It must be so nice to wake up in the morning and know which door to walk through,” She says. LOL

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