Why you should be talking about Lauren Bacall in Young Man With a Horn (1950)

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At first, Young Man With a Horn (1950, dir. Michael Curtiz) may seem like a less melodramatic Humoresque (1947, dir. Jean Negulesco), and, in many ways, it is. But despite the similar plot and overall message, Young Man With a Horn benefits from one element that is missing in Humoresque: the character of Amy North, our focus for this year’s Pride Month celebrations here at The Old Hollywood Garden.

Based on the novel by Dorothy Baker and inspired by real-life musician Bix Biederbecke, Young Man With a Horn follows the life, career and downfall of trumpeter Rick Martin, played by Kirk Douglas. Hoagy Carmichael, as the piano-playing sidekick Smoke, breaks the fourth wall by telling us about Rick’s childhood and early success. A rags-to-riches story, Rick’s love for music is at the core of the picture and proves to be the ultimate reason for his downfall. But before that, we have all the usual suspects: a mentor and friend in Art Hazzard, played by the trail-blazing actor Juano Hernandez; a singing sensation who’s also in love with Rick, Jo Jordan (Doris Day in an early dramatic role) and, of course, the femme fatale figure in Amy North, played by Lauren Bacall. The movie enjoys a crisp and precise direction by Michael Curtiz, including some shots that seem to indicate he probably hadn’t gotten over having directed perhaps the most beloved movie of all time just eight years prior and was still trying to re-create it – the ‘train leaving the station’ scene, in particular, is a nice chuckle-inducing inside joke. And while the movie is certainly enjoyable and well-made, one aspect stands out: Amy North. Looking back at it in 2019, we can see that Amy is meant to be either a lesbian or bisexual, and while 1950s Hollywood didn’t allow that to be explicit, there are definitely quite a few moments that leave us with little doubt. Making her entrance as Jo’s friend 47 minutes into the movie, her confidence, intelligence and well-spoken manner have an immediate effect on Rick, who says right away that he loves the sound of her voice – don’t we all! They talk, flirt, exchange opinions about Jo and, soon afterwards, they’re back at her place. We learn that she wanted to be a writer, then an interior decorator, then a pilot and finally a singer. When he brings up the fact that she has decided to become a psychiatrist so she can analyze people, she changes the subject and tells him she has to go to bed and that he should turn out the lights when he leaves. This proves to be a pattern with her. Throughout their initial interactions, she’s the rational one, whereas he’s the emotional one. She’s distant and reluctant to share things about her life, and through subtext, we realize what this means. In their first encounter in the bar, for instance, while talking about Jo, she says that it ‘must be wonderful to wake up in the morning and know which door you’re going to walk through’, and later on, she expresses interest in going to Paris with a female friend who’s a painter. When we see said friend, Miss Carson (Katharine Kurasch), at her party later, they seem to be quite intimate with each other and Miss Carson even suggests having dinner and going ‘back to her place’ so Amy can see her sketches. At this point, Rick and Amy are married and he has begun his descent into hell following his friend Art’s death and the realization that his marriage is not what he hoped it would be. They argue, and he calls her ‘sick’ and ‘confused’, perhaps an early example of the misconceptions about LGBTQ+. What’s interesting about this character is that the ambiguity with which she’s portrayed, due to the Hays Code, doesn’t have to mean that she’s necessarily a closeted lesbian who’s trying to fool herself and others. The novel portrays her as having ‘lesbian tendencies’, but perhaps that means she’s bisexual. And looking back at it, this is important considering the continuous under-representation of bisexuality, as well as other identities on the spectrum. I’d like to think this is, at least, a possibility and, if so, how wonderful it is to see it in a film from 1950. As we know, Classic Hollywood was subtle about its portrayals of LGBTQ+, and, yes, downright offensive at times, and while Young Man With a Horn may be guilty of this, Amy North manages to be one of the most refreshing, progressive and well-rounded characters, and a main one at that!

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6 thoughts on “Why you should be talking about Lauren Bacall in Young Man With a Horn (1950)

  1. Paddy Lee

    Amy North is indeed interesting and a fascinating portrayal by Lauren Bacall. She is not, however, my idea of a rational, refreshing and well-rounded character. I find Amy self-absorbed and destructive. These tendencies probably relate to her troubled relationship with her father, and her mother’s suicide. She displays a callous disregard for Jo’s genuine feelings for Rick, and also for the husband she married just so she could experience everything. While Rick didn’t even try to fit in with Amy’s crowd (he has trouble fitting in with any crowd), she didn’t have to smash those lovingly collected Art Hazzard records. A final act of pettiness between the couple. She didn’t care, if she ever did, and was anxious to move on.

    – Caftan Woman

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s what I mean though. I’m not talking about her as a person, which I totally agree with you in that at regard, I meant from the POV of an LGBTQ character in 1950s Hollywood. I think those very traits make her refreshing in terms on portrayal and representation. She has flaws, she’s not one-dimensional, and she’s not a gimmick either, which would have been the norm back then. And she’s a central character, an central LGBTQ character, which was even more unusual.

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      1. Paddy Lee

        True. No one could ever accuse Amy of being one-dimensional. A beautifully made film in all respects. I always show up for the music, but it is the telling of the story that keeps me.

        – Caftan Woman

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Mike Noonan

    Great analysis Carol. It’s interesting watching Hollywood’s subtle portrayal of gays . I think of Edward Everett Horton and David Wayne in” Adam’s rib”.. a good film on this issue is the documentary “the celluloid closet “.

    Liked by 1 person

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