Fairly late the other night I was trawling around the channels, glass of French red in hand, looking for something to watch. There was a ballgame from Seattle on, but it was already 4-0 Orioles in the fifth inning and it had that look of a yawner. I flipped over to TCM just as host Ben Mankiewicz was introducing Young Man With A Horn from 1950, starring Kirk Douglas (!), Doris Day (!!), Lauren Bacall (!!!) and Hoagy Carmichael (!!!!). (I felt like the Jack Lemmon character from The Apartment as he finally sits down with his TV dinner to watch some boob-tube after a long, hard day at the office, followed by waiting for the horny, philandering executives to finish using his pad. He gets all excited as the network schmuck announces the star-studded cast of Grand Hotel, “starring Lionel Barrymore (!), Joan Crawford (!!), Wallace Beery (!!!) …”. With each added star, Lemmon’s eyes widen and his jaw drops further, but first there’s “a message from our sponsor”, only to be followed by the same roll call, but then “a message from our alternate sponsor”, at which point Lemmon turns off the box in disgust.) There are no such commercial interruptions on TCM though and of course I watched the whole goddamn movie like the hopeless idiot I am, even though I’ve seen it enough times to know what a corn-fest it is.
The picture has so many drawbacks it’s hard to know where to start, but the main problem is that it’s based on Dorothy Baker’s trashy novel of the same name, a fatuously ripe and over-romanticized tale of an ill-fated, idealistic and misunderstood jazz trumpeter. Against a backdrop of crass commercialism and public indifference, our hero valiantly searches in vain for some pie-in-the-sky, way-out sounds over the end of the jazz rainbow, only to hear the notes he’s been haunted by in the blare of the ambulance siren that arrives just as he’s dying. Sheesshh and oy, vey.
There’s a joke along these lines, about a crummy saxophone player who’s down on his luck and decides to end it all by jumping off a building. But first he wants to play one last rendition of his favourite song, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. A crowd gathers and for the first time he actually plays okay, except that every time he gets to the bridge he forgets the melody and flubs it. Finally someone yells “jump” and he does, only to hear the ambulance siren correctly playing the bridge’s melody just before he dies. Too bad Ms. Baker didn’t decide to jump off a building before writing her execrable book. “Young Man” is loosely – make that very loosely – based on the life of Bix Beiderbecke, who no doubt was rolling around in his grave when the book came out. The movie wouldn’t have done him much good either, although director Michael Curtiz, producer Jerry Wald and a talented team of actors, musicians and other skilled people try their level best to make a go of it. But, as Jake Hanna was fond of saying, “You can’t polish a turd”.
I’ve never been able to resist the movie though, it’s wildly entertaining in spite of itself. There’s a lot of good musicians in it, mostly uncredited of course. Doris Day’s singing is a treat throughout and the score teems with great songs – “Moanin’ Low”, “Chinatown, My Chinatown”, “The Very Thought of You”, “Get Happy”, “Too Marvelous for Words”, “With A Song In My Heart”, “The Blue Room”, “Can’t We Be Friends?”, “Limehouse Blues”, “I Only Have Eyes For You”, “Tea For Two”, and a bunch of others. And the frequent hokey bits – some hackneyed characters and hammy acting, cheesy dialogue and scenes that are howlingly implausible for all sorts of reasons – are unintentionally hilarious. I’m on the floor through half of it and exhausted from laughing when it’s over. There’s nothing funnier than bad writing that doesn’t know it’s bad.
The movie centers around the trumpet playing career of its main character, Rick Martin, played with typically seething over-muscularity by Kirk Douglas. Once he gets hold of a trumpet as a kid and starts playing it, the thing never leaves his side. He’s not shy about blasting away on it at the drop of a hat and when he’s not doing that, he’s forever fondling it or practicing it or ogling it, carrying it around everywhere in a cloth sack even after he becomes a big star, which is just silly. And various characters (especially the female ones, with more than a hint of chiding jealousy) are always yammering on about how Martin is married to the horn, it’s almost a part of him, he’d die without it, blah-blah-blah.
Given this, the film’s other major problem is the stupid decision to hire Harry James to play the actual trumpet tracks Douglas does a creditable job of miming to. (James is also given credit as a “Music Consultant”, something he may have come to regret, but I doubt it, given the pay-day likely involved.) This isn’t a put-down of James, who was a major star and a great trumpet player in his own right. It’s just that the way James plays – aggressive, big brassy sound, a ton of vibrato and decorative high-note stuff – has absolutely nothing to do with the way Bix Beiderbecke (a.k.a. Rick Martin) played. Bix had a singing, silvery tone, left plenty of space in his lyrical phrases, played in the middle of the horn and was said by Eddie Condon to have a “sound like a girl saying yes”. This sounds more like a girl saying “Get lost, I’m busy doing my bicep curls.” It’s a bit like hiring Conrad Gozzo in his prime to do the trumpet parts for a movie about Chet Baker, or Al Vizzutti for Miles Davis, it’s just wrong.
The original choice was Bobby Hackett, who would have been absolutely perfect. Like Bix, Hackett had a burnished, glassy, veiled tone, an unerring sense of melodic invention, great lyricism and taste. More than anybody, he was the inheritor of Bix’s legacy and the upholder of his musical tradition. But the brains behind the movie (such as they were) got nervous about Bobby’s drinking. He was a little, diabetic guy whose fondness for the bottle got away from him now and then, so they opted for James, who was a non-problem drinker and also had the benefit of being a bigger name. This was moronic and cowardly on their part, as Hackett was a thoroughgoing pro, good and reliable enough to have been a studio staffer for years and his playing would have improved the movie by at least 25%. Maybe more, given how much trumpet-tooting there is in it, most of it way too big, too histrionic, too loud. The crowning irony was that they were making a movie here about a trumpet player who drank like a fish, but they wouldn’t take a chance on one who drank a little off camera… oh no, we can’t have that. What a bunch of tin-eared maroons.
Hackett was pretty put-out about this and it’s hard to blame him; it would have been a big pay-day and a major boost to his career, neither of which James really needed. But this kind of thing was always happening to Bobby, because he was much too nice and easygoing a guy to make any big dough in the music business, he really needed a handler. Jackie Gleason ripped him off a few years later in a similar way, when Gleason’s series of mood, “make-out” albums for Capitol sold in the millions, chiefly because of Hackett’s luminously romantic playing. But the fat man, who contributed nothing but his name, the idea, and twirling a baton in front of a wall of strings, refused to cut Bobby in for even a small percentage of the huge profits and Hackett had to settle for double-scale, comparatively peanuts. It left Hackett bitter and distrustful and it’s really too bad. I’ve got nothing against Harry James, but Bobby Hackett would have been much more appropriate and would have made a huge difference to this movie, though I guess the results would have been less funny. When they get it this wrong, all you can do is laugh, if only to keep from crying.
There’s another important trumpet-playing character in the movie – Art Hazzard, played by the little-known actor Juano Hernandez. Hazzard is an older black New Orleans musician loosely based on King Oliver (I guess) with maybe a little Louis Armstrong thrown in for good measure. He becomes Martin’s teacher/mentor and reminds me a little of Doc Cheatham – kindly, gentle, modest and dignified – plus he plays just great: real hot, straight trad-lead, like Oliver, or Muggsy Spanier. I always just assumed that this was also Harry James, altering his style to sound different than Martin/Bix. But after doing some digging, I found out that it’s actually Jimmy Zito, a veteran studio and jazz player, who gets no credit for his musical part. This business of musicians playing features on a soundtrack and not receiving any credit – especially where music is central to the film – has driven me crazy for years and has only grown worse. The next time you watch a movie, check the end of the credits. The name of every last driver, security guard, or member of the catering crew appears on the screen, but if you want to know who played that terrific cello solo or did the really hot percussion work on the soundtrack, forget it. The main composer will get credit and if the movie uses previously recorded songs, the songwriters, main artist and record label will be mentioned, but never the instrumentalists, no. You have to be in a strong union to rate a mention in the credits, and that takes mere musicians out of the loop. Not that I’m bitter about it or anything.
Art Hazzard leads a couple of good-sounding bands with hot players in the movie, but it’s anyone’s guess as to who the real musicians are. The first band is pure New Orleans (in case there’s any doubt, they’re playing at a joint called “Club Dixie” and are called “Art Hazzard and his Dixie Stompers”, or “Southern Syncopators” or something equally dumb.) There’s a guy playing drums who sounds and looks like Zutty Singleton and it turns out (again after some online digging) it is Zutty. Well, I’ll be damned. He’s a perfect choice, one of the great original N.O. drummers and a terrific showman to boot, it’s a miracle they opted for such authenticity here. The second band is a more urbane, supper-club style combo, wearing tuxedos and with an accordion, if you can believe it. (They still sound good though, kind of like Joe Mooney meets Jonah Jones, or something equally weird.) Apart from Harry James and Zito, one can make some educated guesses as to who the real musicians are, based on the soundtrack LP which came out later on Columbia, but was actually a re-recorded effort. There are James stalwarts such as saxophonists Corky Corcoran, Babe Russin and Willie Smith, Bob Stone on bass, Stan Wrightsman or Buddy Cole on piano, Tony Rizzi on guitar and Archie Rosate (clarinet) and Ziggy Elmer (trombone), the last two of whom I’ve never heard of. Anyway, they all sound really good and are one of the movie’s strengths, so how about some credit?
The movie actually starts out not too badly, with Hoagy narrating the tall tale’s beginning of how the young Rick Martin (played by Orley Lindgren) never knew his father and was orphaned when his mother died by the time he was about ten. The introverted, lonely kid then bounces around and is eventually taken in by his aunt, who’s too busy with various boyfriends to give him much supervision. (Take note and beware, juvenile delinquency and/or a budding jazz career can only be just around the corner.) Left to his own devices, he takes to wandering around town and is drawn to a mission one night by the sound of a hymn being sung. He goes in and takes a back pew among the various rubbies, transfixed by the schoolmarm pianist’s chords to “In the Sweet By and By”. After everyone leaves for the soup-kitchen, Rick goes to the piano and slowly teaches himself to play the hymn by ear, until somebody shows up and tells him to beat it. On another nocturnal prowl, he hears some wondrous music emanating from a roadhouse and climbs up a telephone pole to a perch in the window, transported by the hot jazz pouring out. It’s Hazzard’s Dixie mob, playing “Chinatown” and they sound fabulous. The kid is so knocked out he falls from the window and is noticed before he can run away. The musicians ask him to come in and are quite welcoming, especially Hazzard, who senses something “special” in the boy. (Yeah right, like hardened jazz players were going to take much interest in a hayseed, ofay kid.) Anyway, they play “Moanin’ Low” for him and he tells Hazzard this is the best music he’s ever heard and that he wants to play trumpet. The kindly Hazzard takes the kid under his wing and helps him find a good trumpet, even helping to pay for it, and starts giving him lessons. He cautions the kid not to develop “a roll” – dropping the mouthpiece too far down on to the lower lip, which cuts way down on endurance and projection – something trumpeters call a “fish-hook” in the real world.
Okay, a little overdone in the heart-warming department, but so far, so good. It’s at about this point that Kirk Douglas enters the picture and some real problems begin. I’m a big Kirk Douglas fan, I really am, but he’s all wrong for this part, just totally miscast. He’s too blond, athletic, healthy-looking and way long on testosterone; Monty Clift, Dick Powell or Hurd Hatfield would have been better. Whereas Bix was a sickly looking, skinny, introverted and sensitive guy, Martin (as played by Douglas with that chin dimple) looks like he could have played quarterback for the Nebraska Cornhuskers, for Chrissakes. To be fair to Douglas, he did do a good job of learning to play the trumpet – the basics of embrouchure and fingering – so that he looks believable, although his facial expressions while playing are pretty hammy. He continued to play trumpet after this as a hobby and wasn’t half-bad, I’ve seen him guesting on some old Jack Benny specials and he played more than passably. Anyway, between the casting of the actor and the trumpet playing they got the protagonist all wrong, but Hollywood was banking on the fact that hardly anybody at that point knew or remembered anything about Bix, or even that Rick Martin was supposedly based on him – and they were right. As H.L. Mencken once famously put it, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.” Brother, did he say a mouthful.
The other main characters are walking clichés too, but at least are more appropriately cast. Hoagy Carmichael, as he often did in numerous film appearances before and after this, plays a character loosely based on himself, in this case the pianist “Smoke” Willoughby. As usual, he’s often at the piano wearing a beat-up fedora, a cigarette jammed in his yap, as he dispenses the folksy philosophy and world-weary wisdom with a drawl like a cross between Will Rogers and Jiminy Cricket. All the while playing bluesy fills, an ashtray with about fifty butts in it at his elbow. He functions here as a narrator of the film’s beginning and end and plays a loyal pal and sidekick to Rick, often quitting bands in sympathy when Martin gets the boot for various jazzy peccadilloes. Hoagy doesn’t do much singing in the movie nor are any of his songs used, which is pretty odd given how many other ones appear and how often his tunes turn up all over the place in films right up to this day. Not to mention that Bix played a few of them in his time…..Oh yeah, I keep forgetting, this flick doesn’t really have much to do with Bix. Of course, Hoagy was a friend of Beiderbecke’s in real life and it would be interesting to know his take on Hollywood’s bungling of his friend’s life story. He likely adopted a practical, “take the money and run” stance, as they were going to make this turkey with or without him, and would have likely cast somebody like Harry Morgan, Eddie Albert or George Tobias in his stead. The movie’s creators don’t use him as fully as they might have, but this is Hoagy fucking Carmichael here and trust me, the movie’s better with him in it.
Doris Day’s character is not all that far-removed from her real life persona either, and her role in this movie made her a movie star. It’s actually a meatier part than many of the ones she would later play, which I guess isn’t saying much. She plays an ambitious, practical big band singer named Jo Jordan: cheerful, wholesome and with a heart of gold, natch. Day does a lot of singing and sounds really good; if you like her vocals, you’ll like her in the movie. Jo and Rick are attracted to each other but keep things platonic as they realize any romantic involvement between them just wouldn’t work out. However, she does introduce Martin to her friend Amy North, a moody femme fatale who proves to be Rick’s undoing. Not many had anything bad to say about working with Day, but apparently Kirk Douglas couldn’t stand her, finding all her smiling cheerfulness to be shallow and two-faced. Day returned the favour, saying that acting with Douglas was one of the most wooden experiences of her career and that he might have been an interesting guy but it was hard to tell because he was so wrapped up in himself. Fun times on the set.
With her icy poise and purring tigress voice, Lauren Bacall is perfect as the predatory Amy North, who Martin falls for and marries with predictably disastrous results. Amy is rich, spoiled, neurotic, possessive, cynical and an intellectual dilettante who randomly flits between various interests – psychology, painting, interior decorating, piano, ant husbandry, you name it – just what every jazz musician needs. She’s all languorous and bored, fond of analyzing and dismissing everything with a studied, Upper West Side contempt, but inside she’s empty and knows it. She’s condescending toward Martin, but envies him for having a centre to his life – music – whereas she’s just a bitchy dabbler.
She also has the swellest apartment you ever saw. It’s about the size of The Smithsonian and stocked with an amazing range of doo-dads that look like they could have been bought at a garage sale from Citizen Kane’s Xanadu – ornate mouldings, a Steinway grand, several cockatoos, brocade tapestries, fancy lamps, carved closets, art-deco furniture, the works. And then there’s the bedroom, which is about the size of Grand Central Station, with a pair of beds suitable for Antony and Cleopatra. There’s a pretty funny bit where Amy asks Martin to take her to his place and he hesitates, explaining that his digs are just in a musicians’ hotel and he’s a bit ashamed of them, but she persuades him and he takes her. You’re expecting it to be all messy and seedy like a room at the Bryant Hotel or something, but, though smaller, his place is pretty swanky too. Wooden mouldings, framed pictures and mirrors on the walls, a full bar with all the trimmings, nice wallpaper, gleaming furniture. He’s all fumbly and apologizes for the state of the place, but the only mess is a couple of shirts strewn over a couch and a few records piled on top of each other, big deal. It’s way too nice and neat to be a jazz musician’s pad, it cracks me up.
There are some other bits they got howlingly wrong, like the sequence of events after Martin lands his first gig with a semi-name big band after completing his apprenticeship with Hazzard. He shows up at a dance pavilion and there’s Hoagy alone on stage at the piano. After greetings, the two jam on a number and Hoagy gives the kid that signifying look, as if to say “Oh boy, we got a hot one here, a genuine jazz genius” and Rick tells of his humble ambition to play a “kind of music nobody’s ever heard before.” This claptrap is interrupted when bandleader Jack Chandler shows up with the singer Jo Jordan on his arm and the other guys start magically appearing out of the woodwork to set up. Chandler’s a real prick of a drill-sergeant and he lectures the band as he passes out some new arrangements, reminding them that they’re here to play for dancing, so watch the tempos, and he doesn’t want to hear any “blues, or low-down jive”, a line that breaks me up every time. They launch into the first number and despite Chandler’s admonishment, Rick throws everything but the kitchen sink into his ad-libbed obbligato behind Jo’s vocal. Filling every inch of space with as many corny, loud hot licks as he can think of, he makes Clyde McCoy sound like Tony Fruscella. Chandler stops the band and asks Martin what the hell he thinks he’s doing and the frisky trumpet-whiz seems genuinely astonished that the leader is ticked off – “What, you mean you want to play these numbers the same way every time?” – “That’s the general idea, that’s why I bought these arrangements. Now let’s take it from the top.”
I guarantee this whole scene would never have happened this way, because a rookie like Martin would never have had the nerve to show off and overplay like this, not back then. This is because there was a code of discipline and a pecking-order in the music business and other walks of life in those days that’s pretty much gone now. And even the greenest rube like Martin would have known about this because it would have been drummed into him by guys like Art Hazzard. This discipline wasn’t just enforced by bandleaders, but by the veteran sidemen as well; if a kid actually played the hotshot like this, the other guys would have nailed his scrotum to the floor and had him for breakfast.
Later there’s a riotous scene where Chandler has to leave a gig early and puts Smoke in charge of the band. Rick sees his chance and talks Smoke into getting a few of the guys to form a Dixieland-style band to jam on a good old hot number. They play “Get Happy” and sound just terrific, the audience surrounding the bandstand, snapping their fingers and really digging it. For some reason, Chandler comes back in the middle of this (maybe he forgot his cat-o’-nine-tails) and just flips out, firing Rick and Smoke on the spot for allowing this outrage to happen. This is just silly. Big-time bandleaders like Tommy Dorsey and Woody Herman were forever leaving gigs early to have a quick dinner, get laid or go hear another band and try to raid their best players, whatever. They’d leave somebody in charge and knew the guys would loosen up and have a little musical fun after they’d left and didn’t care, it was a way for the sidemen to blow off steam and good for morale, it’s how bands were kept together. More often than not, new arrangements would come out of the jamming guys did in these situations, it was certainly that way with Woody’s bands. Back then, there was a time for discipline and a time for being loose, but this Captain Bligh boob didn’t know the difference.
So Rick and Smoke set out together on the road for a series of penniless misadventures, playing crummy gigs in various dives, including one hilariously mishandled run-in with The Mob that Martin would never have survived in the real world. Eventually they go their separate ways, but are reunited when they both land in the big-time with the highly successful band led by Phil Morrison (supposedly Paul Whiteman, played by Jerome Cowan, who’s too thin for the part). By this time, Rick is a star soloist and gets billing, and golly-gee-willikers, Jo Jordan is also with the band. After their first night, Rick hears that Art Hazzard, who he hasn’t seen in a long time, is playing at an after-hours club called “Galba’s” and wants Jo to come with him to hear Art. Jo agrees, but cautions Rick that Art has aged and slowed down a bit, so Rick might be a bit disappointed. You’d expect Galba’s to be a rundown speakeasy, but it’s more like The Stork Club, with a tony clientele in tuxes and gowns lounging around slurping martinis and digging the swishy sounds of Hazzard’s band with the accordion player. Rick hears Art and a shadow passes across his face – “You’re right Jo, he’s lost something”. This nonsense always breaks me up because there’s nothing wrong with Hazzard’s playing at all – his sound, swinging lines and clean articulation are all intact – only he sounds softer, because he’s using a cup mute, something Martin has apparently never heard of. Hazzard sounds like Buck Clayton for Chrissakes, but as far as Martin is concerned he’s sold out and is all washed up because he’s playing soft, and we can’t have that. Geez, what a hick and of course, Rick has to get up there to help the old man out, show him how it’s done with some hotshot high-note stuff and mugging for the audience. It’s corn central but naturally everybody laps it up. It’s during this first visit to Galba’s that Rick is introduced to Amy North.
Considering how much Bix Beiderbecke drank and that it eventually killed him, the movie’s funniest aspect is its standoffish treatment of the demon hooch. In the early going, Martin is forever drinking milk, if you can imagine. He doesn’t have his first real drink till he meets Amy over halfway through the picture. She offers to buy him a taste and asks what he’ll have and he answers. “Gee, I dunno, I’ve never had a drink before” and Bacall looks at him as if to say, “Huh?”. No Bogey is our hero Rick. From then on, he has the occasional drink, but there’s no sign that he’s overly fond of the stuff, he seems to be able to take it or leave it. He and Amy get hitched and enjoy a brief spell of marital bliss, but then things start to go south. She gets restless and resents his obsession with his records and the trumpet, deciding she must yet again return to school to find herself by taking a six-week course in God knows what, the psychology of the chinchilla or surrealist knitting, or something. This means she gets up early and is gone all day and he plays all night, so they never see each other. Our boy starts to get a little tense about this, but even so, the only sign that he’s hitting the bottle is when he goes into a bar alone one day and orders a shot. The bartender says something like, “It’s kinda early, ain’t it bub?” and Rick snarls back “Shut up and pour” and he proceeds to sit at the bar, seething and brooding as only Kirk Douglas could. Art Hazzard, looking really old now, shows up to check on Rick, who’s stopped dropping by Galba’s. Rick is pretty harsh with him, giving him the bum’s rush, saying he has to go his own way and that he can’t keep carrying Art forever. The old trumpeter nods wearily and shuffles out into the street, where he’s promptly hit by a car and dies soon after.
Rick only finds out about this later that night on the gig and he’s devastated, especially because of the shabby way he treated Art. He goes to Hazzard’s funeral and while the choir is singing, grabs the trumpet from on top of the casket and plays “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen”. It’s supposed to be all soulful and moving and everything, but you have to ask – one white guy at an all-black funeral, and he’s the one they let play? I don’t think so.
Going to the funeral causes Rick to miss the cocktail party Amy has thrown so she can show him off to her smart circle of friends. He shows up just as it’s ending and she’s drunk and really steamed at him. He has a few drinks and they get into a big fight, she freaks out and starts throwing his 78s around and smashing them, it’s all over. Now, if those were my records, I would have thrown her out the window right there, or shoved one of her goddamn cockatoos down her throat, but Rick just turns and marches out the door with nothing but his horn. He goes to his gig with Whiteman’s band and, having had a few and being a little upset, he flubs his big solo feature pretty badly. After the gig he catches hell for this from the leader, who smells the booze and says “If there’s one thing I won’t tolerate in my band, it’s a lush!”.
Now, this is to laugh, to actually fall down laughing. Whiteman’s band, and a bunch of other white ones in that period, were just teeming with drunks. Bix, Jack Teagarden, Stan King, the Dorseys, Dick McDonough, Hackett, Davey Tough, Bunny Berigan, Pee Wee Erwin, George Wettling and a bunch of others, booze was their fuel, for God’s sake. Hell, Whiteman was fond of a belt himself and if you look at old photos of these bands, you can see the bloodshot eyes and practically smell the gin oozing out of their pores. It killed some of them eventually, but it took years of daily, heavy drinking for this to happen. Jesus, Bix was just a tiny guy you could blow over like a feather, and he withstood this regimen for years before it caught up to him. Not our strapping, corn-fed, brawny hero Rick Martin though, he falls apart like a cheap suitcase after a mild bender that might have lasted a couple of weeks at most, maybe even days. Apparently, he just wasn’t made of the stern stuff that it took to be a jazz musician in those days. As W.C. Fields once said of a hated child actor after spiking his baby bottle with gin, “The kid’s no pro, he can’t hold his liquor.”
So, Rick quits the band before the leader can fire him and Smoke joins him. They decide to get a bunch of the guys together and play some real music just for fun in a long, after-hours jam session that night at a dingy bar somewhere, just like in the good old days. It’s actually one of the better sequences in the movie, the music is hot and sizzling, feels real. Martin is pretty hammered and wants to keep going when the guys start packing up around six in the morning, because they have a ten o’clock session that morning. Hoagy tries to talk some sense into him, but Rick is starting to ramble on about getting close to finding those magic, impossible, hidden notes over the rainbow….Oh brother, bring me a bucket.
Rick is on the session that morning and shows up a little wobbly. It’s a date featuring Jo singing “With A Song In My Heart” with a big studio band. It’s just another record-date, like guys did several of a day back then, but you’d think this was THE STUDIO SESSION OF THE CENTURY or something, a very big deal. So they start a take and Jo is singing the ballad with Rick playing an obbligato behind her, about three times louder than necessary of course. Then he takes a half-chorus solo, building and building in volume and stratospheric range until he goes for one of those magical notes and cuffs it, just kacks horribly. Everything grinds to a halt and he’s stunned – how could he miss that note? (Here’s a tip – it ain’t on the horn, dumbo.) He tries for it again and again, nothing coming out but strangled squeaks. Jo tells him not to worry, they’ll get it right later, but the studio chief announces, “That’s all for today, fellas” and as one of the guys is packing his sax up, he nods in Martin’s direction, rolls his eyes idiotically and says, “Boy…he’s really all washed up now….”. But, he was a big star just two days ago, you mean to tell me he’s through just like that, after one small flub? I’m holding my sides with that line each and every time.
Rick’s failure is supposed to be the dramatic climax of the movie and I might have found it harrowing half a lifetime ago. I guess I’m getting a little cynical, but I’m rolling around on the floor when I see it now. I mean, come on, get serious, give me a break. Like, given the cast of characters in jazz history, this was the first time anyone ever showed up drunk or hung over on a record date? Or high on heroin or pot, for that matter? And after one clam, they cancel the session? Never, they’d do another take or call a break and sober the guy up with some black coffee or phone somebody who could finish the date. With a studio booked and dozens of guys on hand to be paid, they’d never just call the session with the meter running. Hard-drinking trumpet players like Bunny Berigan, Billy Butterfield and Bobby Hackett did countless sessions backing singers like this and I guarantee you they were loaded or at least a little rocky on some of them. But they knew how to handle it, how to play softly with a hangover (now there’s an idea), to stay within their limitations, know their place, play with some moxie and taste. It’s called being a professional and has nothing to do with being a good boy, avoiding bad habits, or getting a good night’s sleep before each and every session, get real. Oh, and as for losing dear friends suddenly, the jazz business gives you plenty of practice at that, I can tell you. The trouble with our boy Rick Martin is not that he drank too much or even that he married the wrong dame, though she didn’t help. The trouble is that he never had the self-indulgence or naiveté knocked out of him, he’s still a wide-eyed, wholesome amateur after all these years. Or maybe it was that he was invented by one terrible hack of a writer.
After everyone splits, Martin is in the studio alone and dazed, still trying for that note and Douglas here is at his most melodramatic, his “Kirkiest”. He throws the horn to the ground and stomps on it, his face twisted in a grimace, his body wracked with agony. You half expect that he’s gonna cut his ear off, but no….that came in another picture. Next comes the obligatory skid row montage, as Martin really falls apart, getting tossed out of ever-crummier dives, staggering around looking sicker and funkier by the second, till he finally passes out in the gutter, literally. Wow, that didn’t take long. A kind-hearted cab driver (where do they get this stuff?) who nearly runs him over drops him off at a cheap sanitarium, which is more like a fleabag hotel. Smoke and Jo somehow find him and are going to take him to a proper hospital. Rick comes to as the ambulance is arriving and when he hears the siren, he says, “Listen Jo, there it is! That pure sound, those beautiful notes I’ve been hearing, there they are!” Unlike in the book, Rick doesn’t die here, although you kind of wish he would, just so he’d shut up. Enough already.
But no, as Hoagy narrates, our hero gets treatment, kicks the booze, gets his head straight and makes a full recovery. The movie closes with another studio pass at “With A Song In My Heart”, this time with Rick looking clear-eyed and playing tastefully behind Jo, everything is just swell. I’m telling you, if you’re going to eat this much corn, try to have plenty of butter and salt on hand.
Someone once said that Hollywood turns everything it touches to shit and there’s some truth to this, but I love movies anyway, I really do. Given the expense of making them and the logistical complexity of co-ordinating all the various disciplines involved, it’s a miracle that any of them, even the bad ones, get made at all. I’ve had fun trashing Young Man With A Horn, but I’m only half-serious in doing so. As I said, it’s highly entertaining and contains a lot of good music, it certainly beats a lot of the crap that’s being churned out these days. The key to enjoying it is to forget that it’s supposed to have anything to do with Bix, or jazz reality. If you don’t have any insider knowledge of Bix or jazz history – or don’t care – this is easy and you can just enjoy it as mindless entertainment. If you do have the knowledge, this movie can either drive you crazy or have you on the floor with the big whoppers it tells. I watch it for the laughs all the way, otherwise I might start hearing those siren sounds and end up in a psycho ward.
© 2014 – 2017, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.