“Young Man with a Horn” (1950) starring Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall, & Doris Day

Put down that horn, jazz man… I’m in the mood for love! -Tagline on the movie poster

A lonely/orphan boy in LA, Rick Martin, learns he has a gift for music and falls in love w/ the trumpet. A talented Black trumpeter, Art Hazzard (Juano Hernandez), takes the boy under his wing and teaches him ALL he knows. The issues of identity and race come up in this story, as it’s focus is on a white man playing (traditionally) Black music; the undercurrent of racism (against the Black artists) is present also. The adult Rick (Kirk Douglas) struggles for a time, as his volatile personality and desire to play jazz (rather than standard dance tunes) land him in trouble. Soon, he becomes a star trumpeter featured in a NYC band and makes good money. Rick meets a young socialite studying to be a psychiatrist, Amy North (Lauren Bacall). In the novel by Dorothy Baker (upon which this film is loosely based) the characters of piano player/Rick’s best pal, Willie “Smoke” Willoughby (Hoagy Carmichael), and the singer, Jo Jordan (Doris Day), were African-American.

Rick: I don’t play for people. I play for myself!

Art: Look, boy, a man’s got a lot of living to do in this world. But, you, you’re kind of locked up inside yourself. You’re like a – like bird trying to fly on one wing. You’ll stay up for awhile. Then you’re going to fall.

Douglas’ trumpet licks were performed by Harry James, who also taught Douglas the correct fingering of the instrument. Carmichael was a friend of the real-life jazz musician, Bix Beiderbecke, and helped Douglas w/ his role. Carmichael received a thank-you letter from the director, Michael Curtiz, for his valuable input in several areas of production. Carmichael co-starred previously in Bacall’s 1st film, To Have and Have Not (1944). This was only the 4th film for Day; Curtiz was impressed enough w/ her work to recommend that Warner Bros. consider casting her in a dramatic role. Day gets to sing 3 popular standards, With A Song In My Heart, The Very Thought of You, and Too Marvelous for Words.

Amy: People try to find security in a lot of strange ways. You seem to have solved your problems – at least while you’re playing that trumpet.

Rick: I don’t understand a word you’re saying, but I love the sound of your voice. It’s got a wonderful rough spot in it.

Douglas and Bacall were close friends; they’d gone to drama school together (and have great onscreen chemistry). Bacall recommended Douglas to director Lewis Milestone; he got his first movie role in the noir classic- The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946). One viewer commented that this was the rare movie where Bacall played “a bad girl.” Rick is socially isolated, yet content w/ his life, as long as he has his horn/music. Jo is interested in him, though he is oblivious. Later, Jo introduces Rick to Amy; he doesn’t understand a LOT of what she’s saying, BUT is intrigued. Amy treats Rick V coldly after they’re married. The film contains a reference to homosexuality, although the Hays Code required any mention to be subtle. Amy is a lesbian; she leaves Rick to go to Europe w/ an artist (a woman). Decades later, Bacall told TCM that the reference was so subtle, and being was young/naive, she didn’t understand this until years later! If you like this story, you may want to check out Paris Blues and ‘Mo Better Blues.

[1] The directing from Michael Curtiz is as you would expect very tight to the drama, and the photography from Ted McCord captures the smoke filled nature of jazz clubs perfectly. The acting from the cast principals is never less than above average. […] The music of course is excellent, and as long as one is prepared for the melodramatic turn of events, this is a very rewarding piece.

[2] …the cinematography in this black & white film was amazing–very, very artistic and just beautiful. It reminded me a lot of Film Noir combined with the sensibilities of Ansel Adams.

[3] …film’s outstanding support performance comes from Juano Hernandez who runs the emotional gamut from confidante and advisor to dependent and admirer with his usual dignity and assurance.

-Excerpts from IMDb reviews

“I Walk Alone” starring Burt Lancaster, Lizabeth Scott, Kirk Douglas, & Wendell Corey

Two things I can handle baby… guns and dames! -A tagline for the movie

Frankie Madison (Burt Lancaster- one of my faves since I was a kid) returns to NYC after 14 yrs in prison. Noll Turner (Kirk Douglas), Frankie’s former partner in bootlegging, is now a successful nightclub manager/owner. Frankie is expecting him to honor a verbal “50-50” agreement they made before he was caught; Noll luckily got away. The two men’s friend, Dave (Wendell Corey), is the bookkeeper at the club. The club’s singer is Kay Lawrence (Lizabeth Scott); she is also Noll’s L/T gf. Mrs. Alexis Richardson (Kristine Miller) is the society lady w/ her eye on Noll.

Alexis: You know, you’re quite an attractive man.

Frankie: Keep goin’.

Alexis: How far do you want me to go?

Frankie: I’m at the plate. You’re doing the pitching.

This movie has great dialogue; the screenplay was written by Charles Schnee from a play by Theodore Reeves (The Beggars Are Coming to Town). Some viewers have called it a BIT “too wordy.” Schnee also wrote the screenplay for a must-see film noir, The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), which also starred Douglas. The director, Byron Haskin, worked his way up from commercial movie photographer to cameraman, then became an assistant director (AD) at Selznick Pictures. Haskin was a cinematographer in the silent era; he helped develop the tech that brought sound to the film industry. He began directing in the late 1920s at Warner Bros. Haskin made Disney’s 1st live-action film, Treasure Island (1950).

Alexis: [in Noll grabbing her by the arm] You’re hurting me.

Noll: And you love it.

As the hosts on Out of the Podcast commented: “You can tell everyone is young and hungry in this one.” This is Lancaster’s 5th film at age 33; the actor (6’2″ tall/classically handsome) started out as an acrobat, which explains his strong physical presence. He can fight (and make it look believable), as we see in this movie! Douglas (5’9″ w/ a striking face) came from the theater world and studied The Method; this is his 4th film at age 30. It MAY seem strange to some viewers to see Douglas as a villain; this was the case in his early roles. This is the 1st of 7 movies that Lancaster and Douglas made together; they also became close pals.

Noll [to Kay]: Sure, that’s why men take women to dinner – to have someone to talk about themselves to.

The husky-voiced Scott (who is NOT the most confident/versatile actor) raises her game here, perhaps b/c she is cast opposite (future) Hollywood heavyweights. Scott acted w/ Lancaster and Corey in Desert Fury (a weird movie, BUT may interest noir-istas). Frankie and Kay have strong romantic chemistry; Lancaster looks at Scott in a sweet/gentle way. Kay’s songs were NOT sung by Scott; her voice was dubbed. I loved ALL of Kay’s outfits (chosen by Edith Head); they are classy and seductive. Check this movie out!

[1] It’s the kind of movie where the stars are more memorable than the story.

Scott and Douglas, for example, really shine. Scott does some of the best acting of her career as the conflicted glamour girl. But I especially like Douglas’s slimy version of a smooth-talking mastermind who’s so self-assured, you can’t wait to see him get what he’s got coming.

[2] There’s a lot to like in the film- particularly the acting. In addition, the camera-work is great, as is the beating scene… The street scenes late in the film had a great use of shadows- a film noir trademark.

-Excerpts from IMDb reviews

John Garfield’s 1st Movie: “Four Daughters” (1938)

Adam Lemp (Claude Rains), the Dean of the Briarwood Music Foundation in upstate NY, has passed on his love of music to his 4 young adult daughters – Thea (Lola Lane), Emma (Gale Page), Kay (Rosemary Lane) and Ann (Priscilla Lane)- who live w/ him and his maiden sister, Aunt Etta (May Robson), in their loving/cozy family home. Thea plays the piano, Emma plays the harp, and Ann plays the violin. It’s Kay who shows the greatest promise- she’s the singer. The girls exasperate their father w/ their love of popular music, since he loves classics (esp. Beethoven). The sisters support each other and share clothes. Each girl is an individual w/ her own distinct personality and wants, incl. the type of man each wants as a husband. Emma (practical, but secretly romantic) has been courted by their next door neighbor/shy florist- Ernest Talbot (Dick Foran). Thea (who calls herself “the clever one”) wants to marry Ben Crowley (Frank McHugh), a middle-aged/upwardly-mobile banker. The youngest sister, Ann, thinks she doesn’t want to get married. Their lives change when 2 new men come into their lives. The first is Adam’s old friend’s son, popular music composer, Felix Deitz (Jeffrey Lynn), quickly gets a job at the foundation using his natural charm/enthusiasm. The second is a scruffy/cynical musician from NYC, Mickey Borden (25 y.o. John Garfield in his big screen debut/1st Oscar nom), who Felix hires to orchestrate a new composition.

It took me some time, BUT I realized that I’d seen a version of this story before! My parents used to re-watch the 1954 musical remake (Young at Heart); Mickey was played by Frank Sinatra and Ann was played by Doris Day. Four Daughters was to be a big-budget production starring Errol Flynn (fresh from his success on The Adventures of Robin Hood), BUT was re-worked into a modest domestic drama. It was designed as a vehicle for Priscilla Lane, which also happened to have roles for her sisters- Lola and Rosemary. Warner Bros. gave this movie to director Michael Curtiz as a small assignment to tide him over as Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) was coming together. Surprisingly, Curtiz delivered a film that was critically acclaimed and a box office success, earning 5 Academy Award noms!

Mickey [telling his life story to Ann]: They’ve been at me now nearly a quarter of a century. No let-up. First they said, “Let him do without parents. He’ll get along.” Then they decided, “He doesn’t need any education. That’s for sissies.” Then right at the beginning, they tossed a coin. “Heads he’s poor, tails he’s rich.” So they tossed a coin… with two heads. Then, for a finale, they got together on talent. “Sure,” they said, “let him have talent. Not enough to let him do anything on his own, anything good or great. Just enough to let him help other people. It’s all he deserves.” Well, you put all this together and you get Michael Bolgar.

Mickey was originally written w/ actor Van Heflin in mind; he could’ve done a good job. Garfield (who’d been studying the craft of acting since HS) based Mickey on his friend/musician- Oscar Levant; to see them together, check out Humoresque (1946). When Lynn did his screen test to play Felix, he was also shown Garfield’s screen test; he predicted that the newcomer would steal the show. Looking at this film w/ our (modern) sensibilities, it doesn’t take long to realize who is the real star. In any other case, the (tall/slim/conventionally handsome) Lynn would be the draw. Next to the (naturalistic, yet dynamic) performance of Garfield, he doesn’t stand a chance! As one astute viewer commented: “Mickey shows up loaded with bruised charisma to burn and pulling the focus of the story to him without even trying.” Check this movie out- you may enjoy it!

[1] The role was superbly played by John Garfield, and it brought him not only stardom but also, and perhaps more important, won for him his place in cinema history as the screen’s first rebel hero.

[2] Unlike some actors who appear in several films before their screen image gels, Garfield established his immediately, with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth and talk of the fates being against him.

[3] How opposites attract is part of the ploy for touching the quick of the viewer’s imagination. Ann is the eternal optimist, even when she and Mickey are down and out. She always looks on the bright side and like so many caught in the pliers of the Great Depression in those days, she saw prosperity just around the corner. Mickey recites an entire list of bad things that have happened to him seeking company in his misery from Ann, which Ann refuses to do. Mickey expects to go out with a bolt of lightning striking him dead as he rounds the corner of life. Mickey has meager talent as a composer; Ann has talent to spare as a singer and musician. Ann is big on beauty; Mickey is big on personality in a warped sense of a way.

-Excerpts from IMDb reviews

Spoiler-Free Review: “West Side Story” (2021) starring Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, & Rita Moreno

I’m sure almost ALL of you know the plot, as West Side Story is a re-imagining of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy (Romeo & Juliet) set among gangs on the West Side of Manhattan in the late 1950s. The 2 gangs are the Jets (white ethnics/NYC-born) and the Sharks (Puerto Rican). The 2 teen “star-crossed lovers”- Tony (former leader of the Jets) and Maria (newly arrived to NYC)- meet at a HS dance and fall in love at first sight. Of course, their relationship will have (deadly) consequences!

There are MANY problematic elements in the 1961 movie, though it is also much-loved by audiences of ALL ages all over the world. First of all, Natalie Wood was NOT a Latina or of Puerto Rican heritage. The Sharks were made-up w/ dark foundation, though people from PR have a wide variety of skin tones. This movie was released after lyricist Stephen Sondheim died on November 26, 2021. He did see the final cut of the film and prefers this version to the original 1961 film (as he said on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert).

I have been challenged by what would be the right musical to take on. And I could never forget my childhood. I was 10 years old when I first listened to the West Side Story album, and it never went away. I’ve been able to fulfill that dream and keep that promise that I made to myself: You must make West Side Story. -Steven Spielberg

The screenwriter is Tony Kushner; I think he did a fine job (aside from a couple of lines which came off as a BIT modern). The choreography (originally by Jerome Robbins) was updated by Justin Peck from the New York City Ballet. Director of Photography, Janusz Kaminski (who often collabs w/ Spielberg), went to great lengths to replicate (as much as possible) the lighting/visual style of the1961 film. Look at the way that the camera is swinging around, even from the opening number from the Jets- wow! I liked the (more realistic) sets and (colorful) costumes here. John Williams was brought in as music consultant; he was piano soloist for the 1961 movie. As many critics/viewers have noted, West Side Story has some of the best (and well-known) songs of ALL time! I’m sure a LOT of you were tapping your feet and/or singing along. This film follows the original song order of the stage musical w/ 2 exceptions: “Gee, Officer Krupke” (really liked the choreography) is moved to earlier (as the 1961 movie also did) and “Cool” (NOT impressed by new version) is sung by Tony to Riff (not sung by Riff to the Jets).

Divisions between un-likeminded people is as old as time itself. And the divisions between the Sharks and the Jets in 1957, which inspired the musical, were profound. But not as divided as we find ourselves today. It turned out in the middle of the development of the script, things widened, which I think in a sense, sadly, made the story of those racial divides- not just territorial divides- more relevant to today’s audience than perhaps it even was in 1957. -Spielberg on movie’s relevance today

When casting this version, Spielberg insisted that all Latino characters be portrayed by real Latino actors. Out of the 33 Latino characters onscreen, 20 are of Puerto Rican heritage. There is a good amount of Spanish used in this film; I was glad that I knew the language (though NOT fluent). You don’t need to know Spanish to get what’s up. Almost the entire cast is made up of musical theatre performers; veteran actress Rita Moreno (an EGOT winner; Maria in the 1961 movie) is the most famous. Except for Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler (cast straight out of HS), and Corey Stoll, ALL of the principals are Broadway alums.

Zegler has a V pure/powerful voice; she has received MANY rave reviews for her singing! Elgort (who shot this movie before revelation of SA allegations) is V tall, handsome (in a bland way), and moves gracefully (he studied ballet some). His voice is NOT remarkable in any way and holds little power; this makes “Tonight” NOT as impressive; it also puts a damper on “Maria.” Anita (Ariana DeBose), has the most interesting role; the actress has received a LOT of award season buzz! DeBose is Afro-Latina and worried that she had the “wrong look” for this role; Spielberg told her that she was “perfect.” DeBose and David Alvarez (Bernardo- older bro to Maria) also have good romantic chemistry. Of course, it’s tough to beat the (fiery) chemistry between Moreno and her Bernardo (George Chakiris- who was of Greek heritage). I was V impressed by Riff (Mike Faist); he commands the screen w/ his (amazing) dancing, but it also a fine actor. This Riff is hard-edged/volatile; this is a far cry from the (teddy bear-like) characterization from Russ Tamblyn (1961). You can now watch this movie on HBOMax!

“America” from “West Side Story” (2021) featuring Ariana DeBose and David Alvarez

“Inside Llewyn Davis” (2013) starring Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, & Justin Timberlake

Follow a week in the life of a young folk singer as he navigates the Greenwich Village folk scene of 1961. Guitar in tow, huddled against the unforgiving NYC winter, he is struggling to make it as a musician against seemingly insurmountable obstacles — some of them of his own making. -Synopsis

The cat was a nightmare. The trainer warned us and she was right. She said, uh, “Dogs like to please you. The cat only likes to please itself.” A cat basically is impossible to train. We have a lot of footage of cats doing things we don’t want them to do, if anyone’s interested; I don’t know if there’s a market for that. -Ethan Coen

This Coen brothers movie (streaming free on Amazon) is a vehicle for Oscar Isaac, who acts (and sings) in the title role. I saw it for the 1st time last week and liked it a LOT! The Coens are experts at casting, creating different worlds, and setting mood/tone in their movies. Llewyn (handsome/talented) is NOT a V likeable character, which could be hurting his music career and his friendships. He can’t even afford a Winter coat- awww. Recently, he has been sleeping on friends’ couches or in his sister’s humble home. Mitch (Ethan Phillips) and Lillian (Robin Bartlett) Gorfein are an older/academic couple who work at Columbia; their cat follows Llewyn out of their spacious UWS apt. Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan w/ long dark hair) are a married couple/musical duo. A promising young singer in the Army, Troy Nelson (Stark Sands), has taken their couch. Also, Jean is V angry/hostile (she has a reason to be so).

Llewyn Davis: If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.

Joel and Ethan Coen named a character Al Cody (AKA Arthur Milgrom) as an homage to a veteran Minnesota documentary filmmaker- Al Milgrom. The Coens are from the Twin Cities area and looked up to Milgrom, who also founded a film fest. Llewyn (desperate for a break/money) gets a chance to record a song (Please Mr. Kennedy) w/ Jim and Al Cody (Adam Driver in a cowboy hat w/ short hair). Driver’s role is small, BUT it’s memorable. He sings (the funny parts of the song), says “meow” (just like a cat), and gives Llewyn his couch for the night. At an interview for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Isaac said that he watched tapes of actors (when the Coens asked his advice) and liked Driver’s audition. “He owes me his career,” Isaac joked; Driver laughed and replied w/ “thanks.” The actors are friends and attended Julliard, though Isaac graduated before Driver.

Jean: Everything you touch turns to shit, you’re like King Midas’ idiot brother.

Through Al’s friend, Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund- w/ James Dean vibes), Llewyn gets a ride to Chicago. In the backseat is an older jazz musician, Roland Turner (John Goodman), who is annoyingly chatty, offensive, yet also funny. Goodman is the type of character actor who always adds to whatever movie he does. Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) is based on Albert Grossman, who ran the Gate of Horn club in Chicago; he also managed Bob Dylan, Peter Paul & Mary, and Janis Joplin). Llewyn sings for Grossman (re: Henry VIII and Jane Seymour); it’s a mournful song. The singing voice of Mike (Llewyn’s former music partner) is Marcus Mumford of the band Mumford & Sons. He’s now married to Mulligan; I wonder IF they met while working on this movie. Mulligan and Hedlund co-starred in Mudbound (2017) where they BOTH do a great job; check that out soon.

I think they have a common theme, even though they work in completely different ways. Specificity of story – so clear with what it is they’re after – and different opinions about how to get there. They’re kind of unanimous in that way. Just to see the Coens at the state they are in with their careers, and how they still have this relentless pursuit to to tell the best version possible, and do all their homework – it’s incredible to have been able to witness. -Driver, on working w/ the Coens

[1] The performances are certainly a major plus with Isaac doing a marvelous job in the lead role. I really loved the way he brought this character to life and especially the various moods that he goes through. This includes some very dark moments in the film but also some pretty funny ones where his mouth gets him into trouble.

[2] The ten or so minutes in that car are some of the very best. Goodman taunts and pokes (literally, using a cane) Llewyn, calling him Elwyn. He is absolutely brutal and yet hilarious. 

[3] For lead actor Oscar Isaac, this movie should be a deal-breaker in landing crucial parts in films for many years to come. Of course, he owes so much here not only to his talent, but also to his writer-director duo. The Coens are the absolute masters right now in character creation (and casting the perfect people for those characters)…

-Excerpts from IMDb reviews