If you’ve ever seen the excellent
1995 documentary The Celluloid Closet, which examines the coded history of
gay and lesbian characters in Hollywood movies, you’ll know that it
provides enough viewing suggestions to fill your Netflix queue into
next year. One movie it mentions (which I finally got hold of recently
on DVD) is Young Man With A Horn, made in 1950.
Since the price you pay with gay
characters in movies of that vintage is usually that you have to read
heavily between the lines — as well as watch the character come to
a sticky end — I had been in two minds about renting the movie. But
in fact, it turned out to provide an intriguing representation of a
fairly clear lesbian character, who — 11 years before The Children’s
Hour — not only doesn’t die in the end, but actually has an on-screen
female love interest with whom she probably goes off into the sunset.
In the film, Kirk Douglas
plays a talented trumpet player called Rick Martin; Doris Day
plays Jo Jordan, a wholesome singer who is devoted to him; and Lauren
Bacall plays Amy North, a prickly, wealthy, independent friend of
Jo’s who is training to be a psychiatrist.
When Rick meets Amy, he is quickly
attracted by her glamour and self-possession. Such is the chemistry
between Douglas and Bacall in the early scenes, in fact, that viewers
could be forgiven for not easily identifying her character as gay.
But there are also early, coded hints
that there is more to the character of Amy. As she watches Jo singing,
for example, she says, “It must be wonderful to wake up in the
morning and know just which door you’re going to walk through. She’s
so terribly normal.” Some of the ways in which the screenwriters hint
at Amy’s lesbianism are, in fact, very funny for those in the know
— such as when she first takes Rick to her apartment, and he is startled
by her pet bird:
Rick: Hey, who’s this?
Amy: Her name’s Louise.
She’s my best friend.
Rick: You ought to teach her
to cough or stomp her feet or something. Kind of takes you by surprise.
Amy: That’s why I love her.
(The look of uncertainty and unease
on Kirk Douglas’ face is the strongest indication that something
more than birds is being discussed here).
An even stronger hint comes when
Amy says, in reference to her piano, “I know how to play one piece.
Only one. A Chopin nocturne. I used to love it, so I hired a piano teacher
once just to teach it to me. I paid her double rates and kept her here
for three weeks. I learned it.”
Despite these hints, she and Rick
eventually marry — but her ambivalence towards him becomes more and
more of a problem. Insofar as the film has a villain, it is Amy: Her
instability, conflicting moods, and increasingly contemptuous, dismissive
attitude towards Rick drive him to drink and despair.
Finally, Amy tells Rick with complete
indifference to him that she is thinking of giving up psychiatry for
painting, and that “I met a girl the other day, an artist. Maybe we’ll
go to Paris together.” Rick holds off at first, but the sight of
the two women together the next day, combined with Amy’s deliberately
cruel remarks about the death of his mentor, spurs a huge argument between
them in which lesbian subtext nearly becomes text:
Rick: You’re so confused
yourself, you got me confused.
Amy: I’m not confused any
longer. I’m fed up with you. I’m sick of you trying to touch me.
She starts to break his precious
jazz records, at which point Rick seizes her and begins “You dirty …”
It doesn’t exactly feel like a huge stretch to guess that “dyke”
is going to be the next word (or would be, if we weren’t in a movie
from the 1950s) — since, although he has had ample reason to be annoyed
with her in the past, it is only now that he has met her girlfriend
and seen them interact that he begins using words like “confused”
and “sick,” finishing by telling her contemptuously, “You’re
like those carnival joints I used to work in. Big flash on the outside,
but on the inside nothing but filth.”
He walks out, and Amy is left, condemned,
in the wreckage. But since we see no more of her, there is no reason
to think that she doesn’t follow through with her plan of going to
Paris with her elegant friend Miss Carson (Katharine Kurasch,
who doesn’t seem to have appeared in any other films):
While mainstream movies both before
and afterward have a tendency to kill off ambiguously gay women,
from Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca (1940) through to Martha Dobie
in The Children’s Hour (1961) and Jill Banford in The Fox
(1967), Amy North is one of the ones who got away.