In a recent university lecture, I was told of Germaine Greer’s declaration on humanity; ‘the mask of art more faithfully portraying the soul beneath.’ The cinema is full of films that depict art and performance as the outlet for the human soul.
Young Man With A Horn (Michael Curtiz, 1950) does this most memorably. The trumpet, for Rick (Kirk Douglas), the voice for Jo (Doris Day), and piano – maybe? – for Amy (Lauren Bacall) all allow the characters to feel something when they are deprived of emotion, or when they are otherwise unable to satiate their feelings. As a young boy, Rick has nothing to do but to wander the streets- it is wandering, often cinematically (and in real life) an activity that leads to love, helps people fall in love. It is on his wanderings that Rick finds his trumpet. Playing was his ‘way of talking’- he knew no expression for himself other than through his music.
During the first scene where Rick is rehearsing with his new band, the camera continually cuts between he and his trumpet, and Doris Day – women and music both as his outlets for love. But he chooses one over the other. After he leaves Jo – their romance never consummated but always hinted at – Rick and his piano-playing buddy Smoke (Hoagy Carmichael) sing jollily along in a car together- a comical image of two men in love with their music, instead of in love with a woman and in a car with her (but that didn’t go so well in, say, Two For The Road).
‘It isn’t there any more – that expression on your face. When you were playing that trumpet you were exalted…Now you’ve undergone a rather startling transformation, Richard.’
So says Amy to Rick, the woman who becomes his wife, damages his ability to love through his performance by her/his/society’s false idea of love. As (my lecturer) Mark Nicholls writes, ‘passion comes from poetry and performance’, but the stark emotionlessness of her apartment drains his ability to perform. When he goes for a note in the studio that he cannot reach, it is Jo, her face lit so beautifully, framed to perfection to suggest that she truly understands the feeling within music, she tells him that there is no such thing as what he wanted. His perfect note is not reachable.
What does this mean? Rick then walks the streets a fallen man, drunken, brawling – without hope, but more importantly, without his trumpet. He has lost his love and, continuing his melancholia, he buys another trumpet- that does not work, will always remind him of his failures. That he can no longer release his feelings through his art.