Young Man with a Horn has a third act problem. It’s got too many of them as it tries to find a way not to end on a down note. As a result, each third act gets more depressing, more dire, and correspondingly adjusts the expected bounce-back. But Horn’s got a bookending device with co-star Hoagy Carmichael; he’s narrating the film, telling everyone about this great jazz trumpet player he knows… played by Kirk Douglas.
At its worst, Horn’s aggressively misogynistic. At its second-worst, it’s passively misogynistic. At its third, it’s just Oscar bait for Douglas; it’s basically fine at that level. Douglas eats through the performance, bringing just as much intensity to his trumpet solos as when he’s listening to love interest Lauren Bacall talk all book smart around him. It’s an intense, measured performance. There’s just too much of it because there’s too much movie.
The film takes fifteen minutes for Douglas to show up, instead opening with Orley Lindgren playing the character as a kid. He’s an orphan, living with a disinterested (but seemingly okay) older sister, Mary Beth Hughes (who’s got maybe a scene and a half); one day, walking around L.A., he happens into a mission where he hears the good word but more importantly… a pianist is accompanying the hymns. Once the needy are sufficiently contrite, they get to eat, leaving the piano open, and Lindgren just starts playing. It turns into the trumpet because the trumpet’s cheapest in the pawnshop, then Lindgren soon happens upon Black jazz trumpeter Juano Hernandez and his band. Hernandez will take Lindgren under his wing and teach him to play, becoming a surrogate father, but the film can’t say it.
Once Lindgren ages up into Douglas, it’s conveniently time for Hernandez to amscray so Douglas can make some white friends. The closest Horn ever comes to talking about race is when big-time band leader Jerome Cowan gives Douglas crap for playing music with “those…” but then Douglas interrupts him, and it’s over. Not doing more with it means Hernandez has got a whole lot less to do once he and Douglas reunite when Douglas ditches him in a time of need for awful lady friend Bacall.
Before then, however, Horn introduces its love interest, Doris Day. She’s the singer in his first real band, where he also meets Hoagy Carmichael (who’ll pretty much be white Hernandez, which means he gets to be around a lot more and, you know, narrate the movie). Day thinks Douglas’s brash, talented, and captivating. He likes having a girl share the excitement about music. That section of the film is where director Curtiz and cinematographer Ted D. McCord establish the style and quality it’ll hold for the rest of it. Horn’s gorgeously directed, gorgeously shot. Once Douglas is onscreen, there’s a single tepid-looking sequence—Day and Douglas’s first date on a pier, which is way too obviously soundstage. Otherwise, the film’s phenomenal looking. There are eventually these great location New York City exteriors. Other than the passersby getting too interested in the film cameras, they’re superb. Luckily, the studio stuff is well done; even though it’s unfortunate they didn’t make it all on location, it satisfactorily syncs up. Alan Crosland Jr.’s editing is vital in that department too.
The plot has Douglas meeting, losing, then reuniting with most supporting cast members. Day will go from Los Angeles dance halls to New York theaters, for example. The film uses the career progression to perturb Douglas’s arc—at one point, Carmichael mentions all you need is friends in high places to give you jobs at the right time—and he’ll eventually meet bored rich girl Bacall.
And once they met, he’s smitten and on the road to ruin.
Though the film’s never particularly good about the timeline of their relationship. Given how little the film does with Bacall, most of the time spent on their courtship is a waste. Her arc’s where the film’s aggressively misogynistic. Also, Bacall’s supposed to be playing a lesbian (which she didn’t realize at the time, apparently), which would just make it homophobic too. It’s a really lousy arc, and Bacall seems checked out fairly early.
The passive misogyny is Day, who’s literally just around to talk about Douglas and dote on him. Day does as much as she can with it, but some of her best scenes are the singing numbers, including the one where Curtiz has to force himself to direct a boring singing number. Day gets a thankless part, even if she’s the most interesting character for much of the film.
Carmichael’s fine. He’s really likable, but his part’s pointless. He’s just there because Hernandez can’t be.
Similarly, Hernandez is fine but doesn’t have enough.
Cowan, Nestor Paiva, and Walter Reed are okay as Douglas’s various bosses. Reed’s got the most to work with (Douglas’s stealing Day away from him), but all three are basically cameos.
The film rallies a little bit between the second and third third acts, where they lay into the New City location shooting, and for a minute, it seems like they might bring it all around with the end. They don’t—studio-enforced finale—but they sustain the uptick for a good while.
Young Man with a Horn’s got a great lead performance in search of a great lead role, a solid and underused supporting cast, and some fantastic filmmaking. It’s also got a troubled script and finish.