First there were Otis Ferguson's articles. Then there was Dorothy Baker's novel. Finally, in 1950, Michael Curtiz (that’s right, of Casablanca) directed the screen version of Young Man with a Horn. Curtiz’s adaptation of Dorothy Baker’s novel improbably cast Hoagy Carmichael as Smoke. (In the book—you guessed it—Smoke is black.) Hoagy opened the film dragging on a cigarette and reminiscing about his old friend Rick Martin: “What a guy!” Carmichael wanted the part because he well understood that he would be playing himself and talking about his old friend Bix. But it must have been tough to pretend, what with Kirk Douglas, in the role of Martin, running around eating scenery. Harry James, meanwhile, blew the opposite of cool on the soundtrack, and the hero didn’t even die in the end but ran away with Doris Day! That in itself was a crime. What little chemistry existed in the film was between Douglas and Lauren Bacall (in the role of the “perverse hussy” Amy North):
AMY: You can call me Amy.
RICK: I bet I could.
In the end, Smoke mused, “the desire to live is a great teacher, and I think it taught Rick a lot of things. He learned that you can’t say everything through the end of a trumpet, and a man doesn’t destroy himself just because he can’t hit some high note that he dreamed up.”
Well, not in Hollywood he doesn’t.
[May 22, 2007]