By 1950, Jack Warner was no longer the undisputed king of the Warner Brother’s lot. In the 1930’s and early 40’s, actors and actresses did as they were told. Jack discovered them, signed them to long term contracts, and made them stars.
And how did they repay his generosity?
By fighting him every step of the way.
James Cagney fought for more money and shorter contracts in the 1930s. Bette Davis raged at Jack and took him to court in the mid-1930s for allegedly damaging her career with subpar roles (she lost). Barbara Stanwyck refused to sign long term contracts to retain her ability to negotiate salary and choose her own roles. Olivia de Havilland cut his knees out from under him when her 1944 court case against Warner’s resulted in the De Havilland Decision, which invalidated the studio practice of tacking suspensions onto the end of an actor’s contract.
Jack Warner had taken and thrown his fair share of punches in the name of business.
But Lauren Bacall proved a particularly thorny problem.
She refused to play parts that she felt weren’t any good and would damage her career.
After their initial six years, Olivia de Havilland had made 23 films, Cagney 26, and Bette Davis a staggering 35, many of them bad roles Warner forced them to play.
In the same time period, Bacall had made only eight films.
Buying her contract from Howard Hawks had been expensive, and Jack wasn’t getting his money’s worth. Warner thought Bacall was an ingrate, unwilling to pay her dues as her predecessors had done.
She wasn’t an ingrate—the studio system was crumbling, and Bacall took advantage of the walls her predecessors had knocked down. She wouldn’t take bad roles—she’d wait out Jack Warner if she had to.
Jack had to proceed with caution, for Warner Brothers needed its top star Humphrey Bogart more than he needed them. Bogart had not forgotten all the years Jack had strong-armed him into roles he didn’t want, played hardball over money, or generally disrespected Bogart (as he did all his actors.)
“Thank god I had Bogie,” Bacall wrote in her autobiography of the husband who had her back every step of the way.
She hadn’t made a hit movie without Bogart by her side onscreen. No one was sure she could.
Young Man with a Horn does nothing to answer the question.
Though Bacall got second billing, the film belongs to Kirk Douglas and Doris Day. Douglas plays Rick Martin, an orphaned boy who finds salvation playing the trumpet. Rick has trouble keeping friends, and often gets fired from his jobs for playing jazz instead of sticking to the big band script.
Playing jazz is the single animating force of his life. Doris Day plays Jo Jordan, a singer who meets and cares for Rick. Though there’s no doubt she loves him, Jo knows that Rick is married to no one but his trumpet. The film utilizes Day’s talent and allows her to showcase her voice on several extended numbers.
We’re well into the film before Bacall’s character Amy arrives on the scene, an eccentric woman whose beauty and direct manner captivate Rick. Amy is a compulsive dilettante, constantly looking for something that can capture her attention for more than a few months.
They quickly realize their impulsive marriage was a mistake. Her fascination for his love of the trumpet sours to jealousy when she cannot find her own creative outlet. Rick neglects his friends and jazz playing for Amy and eventually resents her for it.
Rick has to hit rock bottom as a person before he finds his way to the top as a famous jazz musician.
Today, the film is probably of most interest to Douglas or jazz aficionados. Bacall is serviceable in the role but quite frankly, not given enough to do.
Not long after, Bogie and Bacall decided that, come hell or high water, she’d get out from under Jack Warner’s thumb.
- Sperber, A.M. and Eric Lax. Bogart. 1997.
- Bacall, Lauren. By Myself. 1978.
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