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June 18, 2013

Young Man with a Horn

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Dorothy Baker - 1938
New York Review Books Classics

Michael Curtiz - 1950
Warner Brothers Region 1 DVD

Back between 1969 and 1971, Martin Brest and I were both at NYU's film school and the then closed-circuit radio station, WNYU. I was a production assistant on one of Martin's student films, a few months before transferring to the newly created undergrad Cinema Studies program. I was better at writing about movies and learned the hard way that I didn't have the kind of personality to lead a film crew. During this time, Martin Brest and I also had our own little radio shows. I was mostly into relatively obscure rock, culty stuff like Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, and could count on my friends to call up to request The Masked Marauders' parody of the Rolling Stones, "I Can't get no Nookie". Martin Brest played jazz records. Old jazz from the 20s and 30s. Woody Allen's soundtrack albums before the ever existed. I always thought that if Martin Brest was going to make a movie, it would be "The Bix Beiderbecke Story".

A film that actually was faithful to Dorothy Baker's novel hasn't been made. One thing that jazz writer Gary Gidden's afterword to the nove makes clear is that these are very real songs the characters refer to. The main character of Rick Martin is modeled after Bix Beiderbecke in regards to the music, and for Rick Martin, music, to the disregard of almost everything else, is his life. The other filmmaker who might make a good film would be Spike Lee, the son of a respected musician, Bill Lee, although Lee would probably emphasize the racial aspects of Baker's novel over the music. It would be an oversimplification, but Baker's novel is the opposite of Martin Brest's most popular movie, Beverly Hills Cop. Where the movie is about a lone black man from Detroit navigating his way through a very white and wealthy American suburb, Baker's novel is about a white man who feels most at home in the company of black musicians and their families.

Baker's narrative spends a much greater time on Rick Martin's childhood which takes up about fifteen minutes of screen time. The film has only one significant black character, Martin's musical mentor, Art Hazzard, who has some of the elements of three characters from the novel, Hazard (spelled with one Z), an established jazz band musician, Rick's boyhood friend, Smoke Jordan, and Rick's musical peer, Jeff Williams. Taking place in the 20s and 30s, the novel also reflects racial attitudes of the time, where "coon" is a popular pejorative. In the movie, Smoke is the nickname of a new character, Willie Willoughby, a white pianist who plays with Rick Martin in several bands. Smoke's sister, Jo, is changed to a white band singer, and love interest to Rick Martin. Given the time that the film was made, the deracination of Baker's novel is not surprising, but it also betrays the heart of the book.

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Aside from Kirk Douglas and Doris Day performing with a jazz band led by Juano Hernandez, racial matters are at most suggested. In the film, the black musicians only play for a white audience. The novel discusses the parameters of racial discrimination be it in the recording industry or musical styles, as well as whether a racially integrated jazz band could find commercial acceptance. Perhaps most radical of all in the novel is that Rick Martin sometimes indicates that he wishes he were black. Juano Hernandez is a shade to kindly and understanding as the father figure and mentor to Kirk Douglas. The film might be considered a mildly progressive work considering its time and as a product of a major Hollywood studio. To put this in additional context, regarding black in Hollywood movies and Warner Brothers in particular, one has to remember that Chester Himes once had a very brief tenure writing story synopsis until the day Jack Warner found out about his employment, stating, "I don't want no niggers on this lot."

Where the film is more direct than the book is in the character of Amy North. The novel has only the fleeting suggestion that Amy and Jo might be lovers. From the novel, ". . . she sat there, both hands on the table, not moving a muscle. only watching Josephine as if she were a horse she'd just put her last cent on." It is also quite possible that one or both of the film's screenwriters, Carl Foreman and Edmund North, were familiar with Dorothy Baker's novel, Trio. The description of that novel suggests that the lesbian academic, Pauline Maury, is a full blown extension of Amy North, who in the book and novel, is still a student, and still tentative in establishing a sexual identity. What the film can't convey as well is how the relationship between Rick and Amy plays out, with the uneducated and socially awkward Rick who understands the world through instinct, while the well-read and intellectual Amy equally misunderstands the man who becomes her lover as well as husband. That Amy leaves the cuckolded Rick, remarkably for a film of its time, for a woman, makes a pun out of the title.

Not to be misunderstood as I do love this movie, even though I know now that Warner Brothers built up a part for up and coming Doris Day at the expense of Dorothy Baker's story. There's some great shots of Kirk Douglas walking, or later, staggering, through New York City, the real New York City, and not a set. Michael Curtiz was the top house director at Warners, and as far as I'm concerned, this is a better movie than the beloved Casablanca. I won't even begrudge the happy ending, which might appear tacked on to anyone who read the novel. Still, I think a film that more accurately reflects Dorothy Baker's exploration of race and music might be a film worth making.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at June 18, 2013 08:52 AM


Solid film. Nice post. The good girl/bad girl dichotomy (Day vs. Bacall) is a recurring trope in Curtiz's '50s films. You also see it in THE EGYPTIAN, THE SCARLET HOUR (so I've heard), and KING CREOLE.

Posted by: C. Jerry Kutner at June 18, 2013 03:04 PM