Tag Archives: Hoagy Carmichael

Coding Lesbianism in Young Man with a Horn (Michael Curtiz, USA, 1950)

I’ve often wondered why Lauren Bacall was a film star for so long. She’s often stiff, mannered, and really not very good. Of course she’s very beautiful. But, as we can see in later films like Written on the Wind (Sirk, 1956),  she didn’t photograph that well in colour. I suppose that her performances for Hawks in To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946) sparked a life-time’s interest from several generations of heterosexual men. And I know from personal experience that a certain generation of lesbians became devoted to her on the basis of her performance as Amy North in Young Man with A Horn (1950).

The film is loosely based on the story of Bix Beiderbecke with Harry James dubbing the trumpet. It’s narrated by Hoagy Carmichael as piano-player Willie Willoughby. Nobody does tortured artists like Kirk Douglas, who’s great here as Rick Martin. The film has a wonderful father/son relationship between Rick Martin and black trumpet player Art Hazzard (Juano Herandez). Doris Day sings. And there is great work from Michael Curtiz and cinematographer Ted McCord: there isn’t an image that isn’t worth looking at. The first half-hour of the film charting the background of Rick Martin, how he grew up and how he learned to be a trumpet player must count amongst Curtiz’s best post-war work.

Lauren Bacall only appears 47 minutes into the film but gets a star entrance and definitely makes an impression, the ‘duality’ in her nature rendered visible and contrasted to the ‘normality’ of Joe Jordan, the character played by Doris Day, already being edged out of the frame here and shortly to disappear from the rest of the picture until the end, once Amy/Bacall disappears from view .

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We know from the beginning that she’s not ‘normal’ because, as we can see in the clip below, she’s rich, highly educated, ‘always talks like a book and likes to analyse everything,’ and speaks of jazz and mass culture like she does here:’there’s something about jazz that releases inhibitions; it’s a cheap mass-produced narcotic’: probably exactly the thing Amy needs. By the terms of American cinema of the period (and now), she’s already a weirdo.

Bacall’s thoughts on Doris are a favourite moment in the film. Bacall’s lit so only half her face is showing: ‘Jo’s interesting isn’t she? So simple and uncomplicated. It must be wonderful to wake up in the morning and know just which door you’re going to go through’. Amy/Bacall is constantly contrasted with Jo/Doris: Amy’s not so simple, her identity is at least dual, and yet to be discovered by Ricky and maybe herself.

When Kirk/ Ricky starts to get involved with Bacall/Amy, Doris/ Jo comes to warn him, ‘She’s a strange girl, and you’ve never known anyone like her before…inside, way inside, she’s all mixed up’; ‘precisely what I told him myself but he wouldn’t take no for an answer’ says Bacall/Amy as she enters the picture. It’s too late they’re married (see below):

But it’s not just the contrast to Jo/Day, or all that the characters speak about her being ‘mixed up’ and ‘strange’. There’s her apartment, even, actually especially, after Kirk/Ricky marries Bacall/Amy.  We’re shown how female-centric the house is, and not just because her florid cockatoo is called Louise. Look at the number of statues that are female Grecian figures, the painting inside and outside her bathroom door that are naked women bathing, even her paintings are of women.

Rachel Mosely pointed out to me something I hadn’t noticed: If you click to a closer look on the image of Bacall playing the piano above, you’ll see that the ancient goddess who is the base of the lamp has an extended broken arm that looks more than a little like an extended phallus, as if to indicate that women provide the only sex and power she needs and Kirk can go blow his own trumpet.

Bacall/Amy doesn’t really like men. We can see it in the clip here below where they embrace. She doesn’t like the kiss, it’s the last time she’ll be honest with him. It ends with him saying ‘call you what?’. I think lesbian audiences knew the answer to that one.

‘How do you know about anything until you try it?’ she tells Kirk/Ricky, presumably about heterosexuality:

At the end, she finds a girlfriend, an artist. She loves her sketches and they’re going to go to Paris together. Kirk finally clocks it and calls her as ‘filth’, ‘dirty’ a ‘sick girl who needs help and better see her doctor’; you can also read the bit about him almost ‘forgetting about his trumpet’ but now ‘getting it back’ metaphorically:

 

When Bacall disappears from the picture, the film starts getting sanctimonious and goes downhill and for a phoney happy ending with Jo/Doris.

Movies of the time couldn’t represent lesbianism directly; and Young Man with a Horn certainly offers mixed messages that could be disavowed to the Hays Office. But it offered enough so that a generation of lesbians clocked and treasured it. The representation is laced with the typical homophobic language and perspective of the period but, as embodied by Bacall,  it also evoked beauty in looks, intelligence, and attitude.

José Arroyo

 

Canyon Passage (Jacques Tourneur, USA, 1946)

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An atmospheric Western, almost a noir. Whilst watching it, I asked myself ‘is it still possible to watch Westerns today’? Here, ‘Indians’ are treated with more sympathy than usual. Honey Bragg (Ward Bond), with his lack of ethics and rampant desires, is the real villain of the piece. But we still see the natives as barbaric, anonymous, and vengefully mowing down beautiful blonde women with adorable babies. If one can put that to the side, and the film is unusual in giving the natives cause — this is a retaliation — or abstract it into symbolism that can stand for something else, Canyon Passage offers deep pleasures of composition and lighting, a world where the sublime natural beauty of Oregon’s mountains, forests and rivers is at the same time a shadowy backdrop to all-too human failings: doubt, desire, greed, want, weakness.  Dana Andrews, looking like a sourer version of Mel Gibson in his youth, plays the hero, Logan Stuart. Lucy Overmire (Susan Hayward) is who he ends up with. Brian Donlevy plays George Camrose, the genial but morally weak friend who keeps getting the hero in trouble. I’d never seen Hoagy Carmichael in colour before and he looks unusually handsome warbling his tunes. A very blond Lloyd Bridges is surprisingly lithe and sexy as a moral anchor of dubious reliability. Patricia Roc is Susan Haward’s rival for Dana’s affections. They all play a game of ‘want vs should’ in beautiful world so wild and densely forested that even the light that manages to seep through is itself the source of a shadows. It’s a world filled with danger, death, and in which moral dilemmas get played out in turn by each of the protagonists in ways that shape their fate. ‘. This can now be seen in a glisteningly gorgeous print on MUBI.

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Oregon bound

 

José Arroyo

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Ward Bond framed by dying leaves, and with not too long to live himself
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Hoagy Carmichael, for once handsomely lit.
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Where Jeff must have gotten it from: a very blonde, lithe and sexy Lloyd Bridges makes an impression.

 

 

 

 

To Have and Have Not (Howard Hawks, USA, 1944)

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A Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, USA, 1942) knock-off, with a poor imitation of an Ilsa and Victor Lazlo sub-plot that threatens to drag the film down in the last half, and still one of the most entertaining films of all time. Once, To Have and Have Not being very loosely based on an Ernest Hemingway novel with a script worked on by William Faulkner brought it a certain cachet: two Nobel-prize winners for literature on the credits of one film. It  also created a certain notoriety; that Hollywood could treat such literary giants so cavalierly was  proof of its philistinism. But for cinephiles, it’s Jules Furthman’s name on the screenplay that generates excitement. He wrote Shanghai Express (Josef Von Sternberg, USA, 1932), Bombshell (Victor Fleming, 1933), China Seas (Tay Garnett, USA, 1935), and for Hawks alone, The Big Sleep (1946) and Rio Bravo (1959); which is to say, he wrote some of the most memorable female characters in the history of cinema and dialogue that is still indelible today.

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In To Have and Have Not we get to hear Bacall say, ‘It’s better when you help’, ‘You know how to whisle don’t you Steve: just put your lips together… and blow’, ‘this money is mine and so are my lips. What’s the difference?’, and so many other great lines. Of course, the way Bogart and Bacall says them helps. To Have and Have Not is Bacall’s first film (she was 19) and it made her one of the greatest stars of the post-war period and a cinematic immortal. In her autobiography, By Myself, she recounts how the famous ‘look,’ which she created and was to be publicised as, was simply due to nerves: She was shaking so much that she tried to hold her chin in to prevent it from showing. You can see the stiffness in the performance. But one can’t deny the power of her presence. She’s beautiful, insolent, free: like Dietrich in Shanghai Express but slangier, rangier, home-grown American. With the possible exception of The Big Sleep, also for Hawks, Bacall was never to be better on-screen.

To Have Have Not offer many pleasures.  Bogart and Bacall of course; action in exotic locations; the witty way it’s imagined and executed. Some think Walter Brennan’s performance as Eddie, Harry Morgan’s (Humphrey Bogart) alcoholic sidekick, cutesy and overblown. I love it. His double-takes are still a source of wonder and enjoyment to me. I also admire how  the depiction of the relationship between Eddie and Harry, which could just have remained at the level of cartoon, is lovingly built up  as a loving relationship between men. The legendary Marcel Dalio also sparks up every scene he’s in as Frenchy, the nightclub owner. As if all this weren’t enough, there’s Hoagy Carmichael, one of the greatest American songwriters, playing piano for Bacall (ostensibly voiced voiced by Andy Williams though there’s some controversy about this) on some classic songs: his own (‘How Little We Know’) and those of others (‘Am I Blue?’ Music by Harry Akst and lyrics by Greg Clarke). I have a particular love for this one, which it seems to me would be better known but for its choice of language: ‘this is a story about a very unfortunate coloured man…’

José Arroyo