Young Man with a Horn (film)

Young Man with a Horn is a 1950 American musical drama film directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall, Doris Day, Hoagy Carmichael, and Juano Hernandez.[2][3] It was based on a novel of the same name by Dorothy Baker inspired by the life of Bix Beiderbecke, the jazz cornetist. The film was produced by Jerry Wald. The screenplay was written by Carl Foreman and Edmund H. North.

Young Man with a Horn
Theatrical release poster
Directed byMichael Curtiz
Produced byJerry Wald
Screenplay byCarl Foreman
Edmund H. North
Based onYoung Man with a Horn
by Dorothy Baker
StarringKirk Douglas
Lauren Bacall
Doris Day
Hoagy Carmichael
Juano Hernandez
Music byLauren Kirk
CinematographyTed D. McCord
Edited byAlan Crosland Jr.
Distributed byWarner Bros.
Release date
February 9, 1950 (1950-02-09)
Running time
112 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$1.5 million[1]


As a young boy, after his mother dies, Rick Martin sees a trumpet in the window of a pawn shop. He works in a bowling alley to save up enough money to buy it. Rick grows up to be an outstanding musician (adult Rick played by Kirk Douglas), tutored by jazzman Art Hazzard. He lands a job playing for the big band of Jack Chandler, getting to know the piano player Smoke Willoughby (Hoagy Carmichael) and the beautiful singer Jo Jordan (Doris Day).

Chandler orders him to always play the music exactly as written. Rick prefers to improvise, and one night, during a break with Chandler's band, he leads an impromptu jam session, which gets him fired.

Jo has fallen for Rick and finds him a job in New York with a dance orchestra. One night, her friend Amy North (Lauren Bacall) accompanies her to hear Rick play. Amy, studying to be a psychiatrist, is a complicated young woman still disturbed by her own mother's suicide.

She claims to be incapable of feeling love, but Rick and she begin an affair, which consumes him so completely, he begins to slip away from his old friends. Jo eventually tries to warn him against getting too involved with Amy, suggesting that she will hurt him because "way inside she's all mixed up", but Amy arrives while Jo is talking to Rick, and the two are revealed to be already married. Jo hopes he will forgive her words.

Amy does not enjoy Rick's music and is not particularly interested in his career. She decides to return to her studies to become a doctor. Rarely together at the same time because of their demanding schedules, they begin to quarrel; it soon becomes evident to Rick that Amy sometimes does not even come home at night. All this affects Rick profoundly; his mood deteriorates and he begins drinking. Art Hazzard finds him in a bar and tries gently to offer advice and help. Rick feels guilty that he has let their friendship slide, but he takes his frustrations out on Art, this man who has done so much for him. Rick does not know that when Art leaves the bar, he is struck by a car and severely injured. Later, arriving late for his job at the club, Rick hears about Art and rushes to the hospital. Before he can see him, however, he is told that Art has died.

At home, Rick finds Amy restlessly playing piano. She tells him she failed her finals and that now she is considering perhaps trying again or maybe going to Paris, with a young woman artist she has met, and becoming a painter. She fairly admits marrying him was in her mind simply something to try, and that she is jealous of the security Rick has in knowing what he is good at and being able to do it. She slaps him when he softens toward her and offers comfort. The next night, after Art's funeral, Rick returns home at the end of a cocktail party Amy has thrown. She is drunk and supposedly angry at him for not showing up to meet her friends. They argue viciously and he tells her she is sick and should see a doctor. He says he has a new experience to offer her, that of him leaving her.

Rick becomes an alcoholic who gets fired from the orchestra and neglects his music. At a recording session with Smoke and Jo, he plays erratically and loses control of his instrument, trying to reach a magic note he has dreamed of. He destroys his horn and drops out of sight, wandering aimlessly, getting thrown out of bars. One night, he collapses in the street and a cab driver takes him to an alcoholic sanitarium. He has pneumonia, however, and the officials there call Smoke, who arranges for Rick to be moved to a hospital. Jo hurries to his side and helps him recover his health, and both his love of music and of her—a happy ending found neither in the novel nor in the life of Bix Beiderbecke.



The film is notable as being an example of 1940s film noir with a central character who is bisexual. In the Baker novel, Amy is described as having lesbian tendencies, and using the usual Hollywood connotative methods and hints to circumvent the Motion Picture Production Code, this is also implied in the film. Regarding Jo, Amy says: "It must be wonderful to wake up in the morning and know just which door you’re going to walk through. She’s so terribly normal."[4][5]

Production notes

Composer-pianist Hoagy Carmichael, playing the sidekick role, added realism to the film and gave Douglas insight into the role, being a friend of the real Beiderbecke.[6] Famed trumpeter Harry James performed the music Kirk Douglas is shown playing on screen.[7]

In her authorized biography, Doris Day described her experience making the film as "utterly joyless", as she had not found working with Douglas to be pleasant. In the book, Douglas said that he felt her ever-cheerful persona was only a "mask" and he had never been able to get to know the real person underneath. Day countered that while Douglas had been "civil", he was too self-centered to make any real attempt to get to know either her or anyone else.[8]


According to The New York Times, "banalities of the script are quite effectively glossed over in the slick pictorial smoothness of Michael Curtiz's direction and the exciting quality of the score. The result is that there is considerable good entertainment in Young Man With a Horn despite the production's lack of balance."[7]

In spite of the screenplay, the Times praised the performances of Douglas, Day, and Carmichael, but noted "the unseen star of the picture is Harry James, the old maestro himself, who supplies the tingling music, which flows wildly, searchingly, and forlornly from Rick Martin's beloved horn. This is an instance where the soundtrack is more than a complementary force. It is the very soul of the picture because if it were less provocative and compelling, the staleness of the drama could be stultifying."[7]

Radio adaptation

Young Man with a Horn was presented on Lux Radio Theatre March 3, 1952. Kirk Douglas recreated his role from the film. The one-hour adaptation also starred Jo Stafford and Patrice Wymore.[9]

See also


  1. "Top Grosses of 1950". Variety. January 3, 1951. p. 58.
  2. Variety film review; February 8, 1950, page 11.
  3. Harrison's Reports film review; February 11, 1950, page 22.
  4. Russo, Vito (1987). The Celluloid Closet. Harper and Row. p. 100. ISBN 0-06-096132-5.
  5. Benshoff, Griffin (2006). Queer Images: A History of Gay and Lesbian Film in America. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 36. ISBN 978-0742519725.
  6. Johnson, David Brent. "The Road to Stardust: Hoagy Carmichael And Bix Beiderbecke in 1924". Retrieved 25 June 2013.
  7. "Kirk Douglas Seen as 'Young Man With a Horn,' New Bill at Radio City Music Hall". The New York Times. February 10, 1950. Retrieved 2012-06-05.
  8. Hotchner, A. E. (1975). Doris Day: Her Own Story. William Morrow and Company, Inc. ISBN 978-0688029685.
  9. Kirby, Walter (March 2, 1952). "Better Radio Programs for the Week". The Decatur Daily Review. p. 42. Retrieved May 28, 2015 via
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