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Review: Michael Curtiz’s Young Man With a Horn

This is a a morality play that only sees in black and white.

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The Young Man with a Horn
Photo: Warner Bros.

Trying in vain to convince us otherwise, the movie business continually churns out stories about artists who realize they need to be great human beings first and great artists second. If they don’t, they perish. Young Man With a Horn is a cautionary tale about jazz trumpet player Rick Martin (Kirk Douglas), whose single-minded pursuit of being a virtuoso only leads him to a life of booze, depression, and a misguided marriage to wayward dilettante Amy (Lauren Bacall). In the clubs, his playing is genius, but his selfishness excludes him from his aging mentor (Juano Hernandez) and the peppy singer who quietly adores him from the sidelines (Doris Day). The only one who can help him is piano player Smoke (Hoagy Carmichael), whose love of music and taste for life helps pull Rick back from the dark side. Dramatically contrived and thematically feeble, Young Man With a Horn benefits more from its atmosphere of smoky gin joints and posh ballrooms. The trumpet playing is rousing (Douglas’s playing is dubbed by the great Harry James), Carmichael gets to shine behind the keyboard, and Day’s vocals on songs like “The Very Thought Of You” spin straw into gold. But the non-musical performances are shallow: Douglas is forceful but one-note, Day is as square and wholesome as a glass of milk, and Bacall purrs along in the same faux-bad girl performance she’s given for the past 60 years. But I suppose that’s fitting for a morality play this black and white, where wild jazz, liquor, and loose women cause the downfall of man.

Cast: Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall, Doris Day, Hoagy Carmichael, Juano Hernandez, Jerome Cowan, Mary Beth Hughes, Nestor Paiva Director: Michael Curtiz Screenwriter: Carl Foreman, Edmund H. North Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 112 min Rating: NR Year: 1950 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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