The Best Years of Our Lives

William Wyler and Dana Andrews on the set of The Best Years of Our Lives

Although all of the arts tend to prey on one another for inspiration, the cinema, and in particular Hollywood based cinema, has perhaps proven to be the least capable of spontaneous generation. For every film that has sprung from an original conception envisaged from the outset as a movie, there are at least several dozen that have been inspired from an outside source, most often a novel but sometimes a play. The BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES is one of the few films ever made to have grown out of an epic poem.

But that does not tell the whole story. As so often happens in the cinema (again, especially in Hollywood), the impetus for BEST YEARS came from a producer, Samuel Goldwyn. Goldwyn (originally Goldfisch) was one of the true Hollywood pioneers, having gotten his start in 1915 by producing, along with his brother-in-law Jesse Lasky, Cecil B. De Mille’s THE SQUAW MAN. By the end of the Second World War, Goldwyn had not only directly produced a number of important films, including the 1939 WUTHERING HEIGHTS, he had been the guiding force behind many others, including the initial Busby Berkeley musicals. Thus, although not a creative artist himself, Goldwyn had acquired both the prestige and the capital to bring together whatever artistic forces were needed to realize his visions.

What inspired Goldwyn to set the wheels in motion for BEST YEARS was an article in the 7 August, 1944, issue of Time magazine describing the reaction of the trainload of Marines home on furlough. Although no novel had been written on the subject, Goldwyn did not let that stand in his way. He simply called in author MacKinlay Kantor, whose greatest fame was to come in the 1950’s with his historical novel Andersonville, an often brutal depiction of life in the infamous Confederate prison during the Civil War. Although Kantor was asked only for a “screen treatment” – fifty or sixty pages of prose that could be turned into a film script – he ultimately handed in 434 typed pages of blank verse later published under the title GLORY FOR ME. Not exactly the sort of thing money-minded producers dream of. As Hugo Friedhofer, who wrote the Academy Award-winning score for BEST YEARS, put it, “I wasn’t present when they handed it to Goldwyn, but I can imagine his attitude. They must have had to take hours to scrape him off the ceiling.”

Yet, by working closely with director William Wyler and with scriptwriter Robert Sherwood, whom Friedhofer called Goldwyn’s “favorite trouble shooter and a hell of a good playwright,” Goldwyn was able to get a taut, beautifully constructed scenario that proved to be an ideal vehicle for the screen. Wyler, who had just returned home from the war as a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Army Air Force, had already collaborated with Goldwyn on DODSWORTH (1936), DEAD END (1937), WUTHERING HEIGHTS, and LITTLE FOXES (1941), also directing, in 1941, MRS. MINIVER, which won Oscars for Wyler (Best Director), Greer Garson (Best Actress), and Teresa Wright (Best Supporting Actress). Of the several projects Wyler had in the offing at the time, including a film on General Eisenhower, the director settled on BEST YEARS after having read the Kantor “treatment”. Following BEST YEARS, Wyler was to work in a number of different genres, also acting as producer for many of his own films. The most spectacular of his successes was, of course, the 1959 BEN-HUR; much more appealing, from an artistic point of view, however, are certain films such as the 1952 CARRIE (a sensitive adaptation of the Theodore Dreiser novel), THE CHILDREN’S HOUR (a 1965 remake of Wyler’s 1936 THESE THREE, based on the Lillian Hellman play), and especially THE COLLECTOR (1965), in which a certain irony and even bitterness characteristic of the director’s vision find their most effective expression.

Screenwriter Robert Sherwood also brought impressive credentials to BEST YEARS. A veteran of the First World War, Sherwood had, by 1940, already won three Pulitzer Prizes as a playwright (for Idiot’s Delight, Abe Lincoln of Illinois, and There Shall Be No Night) and had written what is perhaps his best known play, THE PETRIFIED FOREST (1935), which in 1936 was made into a film that became one of Humphrey Bogart’s first, major vehicles. Sherwood had also done a number of film scripts before the BEST YEARS project, including THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL (1935), ABE LINCOLN IN ILLINOIS (1940) from his own play, and Alfred Hitchcock’s REBECCA (1940).

Other major crew members included Irene Sharaff, who was brought in from Broadway as costume designer; George Jenkins (also from Broadway) and Perry Ferguson as art directors; and in particular Gregg Toland (who was to die two years later) as cinematographer. Having worked with many directors, including Wyler, prior to BEST YEARS, Toland had achieved his greatest fame as director of photography for the Orson Welles CITIZEN KANE (1941), not only one of the milestones of cinema history but also one of the most photographically innovative movies of all times. Daniel Mandell and Gordon Sawyer also joined the crew as editor and sound man, with most of the minor crew positions— key grip, prop man, mixer, et al.- being filled, at Wyler’s insistence, by World War II veterans.

A fairly equal mixture of film veterans, relative newcomers, and complete unknowns was put together for the major roles. The veterans were Fredric March (Al Stephenson) and Myrna Loy (Milly Stephenson). March’s film career had begun in 1920; in 1932, he had played the lead role (for which he won an Oscar) in the first (and unfortunately neglected) sound version of DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, directed by Rouben Mamoulian. Prior to BEST YEARS, March had also appeared in such films as ANTHONY ADVERSE and the original A STAR IS BORN (with Janet Gaynor), with DEATH OF A SALESMAN (1951) standing as one of his best known roles after BEST YEARS. Myrna Loy, who began in silent movies in 1923, had more than seventy-five film roles to her credit, including that of Nora Charles in five of the ‘Thin Man’ movies, by the time Goldwyn personally convinced her to play Fredric March’s wife in BEST YEARS. The exceptionally attractive and talented Teresa Wright (Peggy Stephenson, Al and Millie’s daughter) had done only a handful of films prior to BEST YEARS; but in at least two of them – MRS. MINIVER and especially Hitchcock’s SHADOW OF A DOUBT – she had performed very impressively in important roles. Dana Andrews, whose main roles in the movies started coming as of 1940, had nonetheless appeared in some twenty films, including Otto Preminger’s LAURA, before he was cast as Fred Derry in BEST YEARS. If the casting of Andrews as a wrong-side-of-the-tracks loser went somewhat against the grain of type-casting, the use of Virginia Mayo as Marie, his sluttish and common wife, bordered on the irreverent.

Interestingly, though, the first role to be given out, that of Homer Parrish, was handed to a nonprofessional, Harold Russell, an Army sergeant who had lost both hands during training because of a dynamite accident. Wyler, foreseeing the difficulties that could arise from the MacKinlay Kantor depiction of the Homer Parrish character as a shell-shocked, suicidal spastic, and convinced that no amount of acting could successfully communicate Homer’s anguish, decided on a documentary approach. Having seen Russell in an Army documentary short entitled THE DIARY OF A SERGEANT, Wyler and Goldwyn decided on Russell and had the characterization of Homer modified by Sherwood to fit the paraplegic’s own infirmity and his psychology (like Homer in the film, Russell’s greatest concern was that he be treated like a normal human being). BEST YEARS was the only Hollywood picture Russell appeared in until the 1980’s (e.g. INSIDE MOVES, and a guest role on the TRAPPER JOHN, M.D. TV-series); later on, he became, among other things, president of Torch Products, an industry devoted to the hiring of the handicapped, and the President’s Committee for the Employment of the Handicapped. Playing opposite Russell as Wilma Cameron, Homer’s lifetime sweetheart, was Cathy O’Donnell, a young actress appearing in her first film (her last role of any significance was as BEN-HUR’s sister in the Wyler film). Another brilliant, quasi-documentary stroke was the casting of song-writer Hoagy Carmichael as Butch Engel, Homer’s caustic and protective uncle, the owner of and pianist for a local beer pub. Others who acted in BEST YEARS include Gladys George and Roman Bohnen as Fred’s parents, Ray Collins (perhaps best known as Lieutenant Tragg in the PERRY MASON T.V. series) as Mr. Milton, Al’s bank-president boss, Steve Cochran as Marie’s lover, and Michael Hall as Al’s son.

The-Best-Years-of-Our-Lives-2The documentary approach, apparent in some of the casting, carried over in many ways into the filming of BEST YEARS. Although sets were constructed for the interiors and exteriors in Boone City, the fictional locale of the story, they were carefully patterned after middle-America models a la Cincinnati, Ohio, where a certain amount of location photography was done. The climactic scene where Fred Derry wanders in the eerie setting of symmetrically arranged airplane corpses was shot on location at an Army scrap heap in Ontario, California. None of the actors wore makeup, and the actresses wore only what makeup they would normally have put on in everyday life. Toland, already renowned for the depth of field (or “deep focus”) of his Citizen Kane cinematography, went to even further extremes to avoid any softening of the black-and-white photography for BEST YEARS. Wyler, furthermore, made every attempt not to impose the director’s point-of-view on the audience, using unusually long shots on many occasions to avoid the perspectives often thrust upon audiences by ordinary editing. The end result, as noted by French cinema theoretician André Bazin, who greatly admired Wyler’s style, was that BEST YEARS, which lasts some two-and-one-half hours, was composed of fewer than 200 shots, whereas the ordinary film has several hundred per hour.

In addition to all the preparations, the shooting alone, done between April 15 and August 9,1946, took over three months and produced some 400,000 feet of film, which had to be edited down to 16,000 feet. Goldwyn’s investment, furthermore, amounted to over two million dollars. A large effort was made to get the film out in time to quality for the Academy Awards. The effort paid off. BEST YEARS, which had its premiere on November 22 in New York, carne as an instantaneous success with both critics and the public, and when Oscars were presented the following March, BEST YEARS received ten, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (March), Best Supporting Actor (Russell), Best Screenplay, Best Editing, and Best Original Score. The latter, of course, was composed by Hugo Friedhofer, who was facing some of the stiffest Oscar competition in some years. Not only was 1946 a year that also saw the nomination of Bernard Herrmann’s ANNA AND THE KING OF SIAM, William Walton’s HENRY V, Franz Waxman’s HUMORESQUE, and Miklos Rozsa’s THE KILLERS for the best musical score, it was a year that also produced such music as Prokofiev’s IVAN THE TERRIBLE, Part II, and Auric’s BEAUTY AND BEAST.

As was usual at the time, Friedhofer was brought into BEST YEARS after the shooting was completed. In keeping with the picture’s basic tone and orientation, both producer and director had decided that the music would have to have a strong Americana flavor to it, and American composers such as Gail Kubik and Aaron Copland were among those considered. (One of the big paradoxes of the time was that Hollywood-produced music tended to have a very Middle-European style to it.) In conferences held with director Wyler, the composer was informed that he was not to write a “typical Hollywood score” but rather something that sounded “native and American.” The composer himself, though, played a major role in deciding where music was to be used in the picture. For inspiration, Friedhofer had the final cut of the film to work from. The final cut, according to the composer, is an extremely important tool in the scoring; for not only do the visuals help shape the music, even the pace of dialogue passages that need to be understood is a great factor in determining what type of music will be written. What most affected Friedhofer in finding a style for BEST YEARS, however, was the general feeling of post-war, we’ve-whipped-the-bad-guys optimism ultimately communicated by the film, in spite of the bitterness of many of its separate incidents. This optimism, which, as Friedhofer has caustically pointed out, has certainly proven to be ill founded, obviously struck a sympathetic nerve in the millions of viewers who saw the film, and it is easy to see how Friedhofer’s warm, nostalgic musical score played a vital role in audiences’ reactions.

It should be noted that Friedhofer gave his orchestrators – Jerome Moross, Edward B. Powell, Leo Shuken, and Sidney Cutner – a fully annotated score to work from (“My sketches are complete right down to the last pizzicato,” says Friedhofer), so that theirs was basically a job of transforming the sketches into an orchestral score, while the instrumental sound itself is definitely Friedhofer’s. As has so often happened, all the original materials were lost (or destroyed), so that the music had to be reconstructed (by Tony Bremner) for this recording from what Friedhofer refers to as a “very bad piano-conductor score.”

Track 1: Main Title. This represents the composer’s chance to make an important, quasi-overture musical statement. It is worth nothing, however, that while opera composers rarely take under five minutes with their overtures, composers of Hollywood’s first two or three decades of sound films rarely had much over a minute to work with. Unlike today, when elaborate title and end-title sequences often lasting several minutes are integrated into the aesthetic content of the film, the main titles of pictures such as BEST YEARS were something to be gotten out of the way as quickly as possible. (Today, furthermore, film composers are given a frame all to themselves in the titles, while Friedhofer’s name appears in very small print along with a number of other crew members in the BEST YEARS titles, as was the usual practice at that time). It is to Friedhofer’s credit, then, that he was able to shape a strong, well-developed lead-in lasting barely over a minute. The title music immediately establishes the tone of optimism and nostalgia essential to the extreme instrumental ranges. Instead, a warm combination of strings and French horn present a simple, straightforward theme, with background trumpets occasionally suggesting the film’s military point of departure. Particularly characteristic of Friedhofer’s economy of expression is the manner in which a noticeable motive from the opening theme metamorphoses into the principal figure (the “Octave Theme”) of the melody’s second period.

Track 2: Homecoming. The title music overlaps for a few seconds with the opening action, which takes place in a commercial airport. (The old Lockheed building at Hollywood-Burbank Airport). There then follows a fairly standard practice when an expository opening is involved. It does not take long for the film to bring together its three principal characters, cleverly contrasted on many different levels. There are three returning servicemen of three different ranks from three different services: a Captain in the Air Corps (Fred), a Sergeant in the Infantry (Al), and a Seaman from the Navy (Homer). Each is from a different walk of life and has a different family situation: Al is a late-middle-aged banker with a job, a luxury apartment, a wife, and two nearly adult children waiting for him; Fred is a former soda jerk from a wrong-side-of-the-tracks-shack, returning to an uncertain future and a wife he had to leave twenty days after he married her; Homer, the youngest of the three, comes from a typically middle-American, Main Street environment; but he must face the inevitable reactions of his loved ones, including Wilma, his next-door neighbor sweetheart, to the hooks that have replaced his blown-off hands.

All three meet in an Air Transport Command plane taking them to Boone City (one of the film’s early ironies is that Fred, the returning, decorated veteran, cannot get a seat on a commercial airline, while the businessman who follows him in line has no trouble whatsoever). In spite of their different situations, the three men share a common trepidation, that of returning to a milieu that is now more foreign to them than their various battlegrounds;

Fred: Hey Al, Remember what it felt like when you went overseas?
Al: As well as I remember my own name.
Fred: I feel the same way now, only more so.

The entire sequence in the plane already reveals Wyler’s style for BEST YEARS. In the initial conversation between Homer, Fred, and Al, for instance the frame is filled with the three characters in a medium shot as they talk, and the shot is held for what seems like several minutes. The music begins about halfway through the sequence, as Al and Fred converse while Homer sleeps. The music, with its pedal points, its mysterious ostinato figure taken from the main theme’s second period, suggests the limbo in which the returning servicemen find themselves. Homer, who has never been in a plane before, wakes up and is dazzled by the sky and clouds outside, at which point a chorale motive, initially used to separate the main theme’s two periods, reinforces the visual majesty of the expanses shown outside the plane.

The trio then gathers in the nose of the military plane, from where they excitedly see all their old haunts and stomping grounds, plus the airplane graveyard that will become the setting for the film’s climactic scene towards the end. A very American sounding series of parallel chords in the strings introduces the suddenly jaunty “Boone City” theme (first heard in the solo trumpet), which completely changes the atmosphere of the drama. A highly syncopated figure in the viola adds to the Americanness of the overall feeling. A somewhat mellower version of the “Boone City” theme, played in mid-range by the violins, comes on the soundtrack as the trio enters a taxi and then watches the city go by the window (this time from ground level!), accompanied by an extensive elaboration of the various musical ideas.

A change in mood signals Homer’s arrival at home (“This is my Street”), while, in an interesting reverse angle shot, the film shows the trio together, first in the back seat, then through the taxi’s rear-view mirror. As we hear the warmly chordal “Neighbors” theme, Homer starts to chicken out, only to be encouraged onward by his two companions (“You’re home now, kid”). A horn call followed by rapid flute and piccolo banter foreshadows the excitement of the reunion as Homer, shown through the screen door from within his house, walks up the sidewalk. The “Octave” and “Neighbors” themes mix as Homer is united with his family. Then, in a classically Hollywood bit of musical emotion pulling, a high violin solo playing over tremolo chords in the strings, flute, and vibraphone announces the presence of Wilma, Homer’s sweetheart, whom he embraces uncomfortably. A particularly ingenious tying in of the music with the story can be noted in the subtle structural relationship that exists between Wilma’s theme and the “Neighbors” theme. The music then switches to a minor key fragment of the main theme as Homer’s family notices his hooks for the first time. The sequence closes with a very distant, muted trumpet hinting at the “Neighbors” theme as the taxi with Fred and Al, who have witnessed the entire scene, pulls away.

Track 3: The Elevator; Boone City; Peggy. The next musical sequence is devoted to Al’s homecoming. As he arrives at the posh, center-city apartment building where he lives, Al, too, starts to chicken out (“I feel as if I were going in to hit a beach”). The music begins, with slowly rising tremolo figures, as Al gets in the elevator. A solo cello appropriately alludes to the popular tune. “Among My Souvenirs”. As in the preceding sequence, the music becomes more agitated as Al is reunited with his loved ones, first his son, Rob, and then his daughter, Peggy, both of whom he exhorts to be silent so that he can surprise his wife Milly. A fragment from the “Boone City” theme remains in suspense as Milly calls out to see who is at the door and then realizes it is Al. Both the “Octave Theme” and “Among My Souvenirs” accompany the reuniting of husband and wife, who are shown at the end of a hallway with Peggy and Rob at first standing at opposite ends of the screen, then moving out of frame, and finally returning to surround their embracing parents. This sequence ends somewhat later with a dissolve to Fred arriving at his shanty-like home near the railroad tracks. Some additional music heard at the end of this band marks the return to Al’s apartment, where the former infantry sergeant, obviously ill at ease and already under the influence of several drinks, suddenly suggests that he, Milly, and Peggy go out on the town, a suggestion which, naturally enough, is accompanied by bits of the “Boone City” theme.


There follows a montage sequence showing Al and his family hitting one nightspot after the other, accompanied by various snatches of popular music. They end up at “Butch’s Place,” where they find Homer, who can’t stand the impression that everybody at home is feeling sorry for him, and Fred, who had expected to find his wife still living with his parents, has discovered she is living in her own apartment, but is unable to locate her, as she is working nights. It is here that we meet Butch (Hoagy Carmichael), first seen playing “Toot Toot Tootsie” on the piano; Butch remains a dispassionate and rather cynical observer throughout the rest of the film. In a scene that nicely sums up the ironic ambiguities already accumulating in the film, Butch, trying to cheer up his nephew, Homer, expounds the following philosophy in a slow drawl as he accompanies himself with jazzy snippets on the piano: “You know, your folks will get used to you, and you’ll get used to them. And everything will settle down nicely. Unless we have another war. Then none of us will have to worry, because we’ll all be blown to bits the first day. So cheer up, huh?”

Track 4: Fred & Peggy. After the spree, Fred, still unable to locate his wife and at this point too drunk to do much about it, is invited to sleep over with Al and his family. It is already apparent that Fred and Al’s daughter, Peggy, are romantically attracted to each other, and the music, after a brief reminiscence of the “Boone City” theme, introduces a new, rather Gershwinesque episode to indicate this new turn in the story line. The episode’s first motive, initially played by the alto flute, is a slow, zigzag, walking blues figure perhaps suggestive of Fred’s drunkenness as he gets out of the car at the Grandview Arms Hotel, where his wife now lives. As he gets back into the car, though, a second, warmer blues theme is introduced by the alto saxophone over atmospheric chords formed from open fifths and fourths. It is quite indicative of Friedhofer’s attitudes towards the relationship of film music to the characters and situations that, while an elaborate musical development underscores the budding Fred-Peggy relationship, almost nothing other than source music is ever heard during the scenes between Fred and his vulgar, two-timing wife. The only exception to this is a brief, jazzy snippet that can be called “Marie’s Theme” and that is heard the last time Fred sees his wife.

Track 5: The Nightmare. The opening of this sequence brings the first part of the film to a dose almost entirely in visual and musical terms. A very tranquil musical episode, occasionally bringing back “Among My Souvenirs,” accompanies a scene showing Milly putting a dead-drunk Al to bed. As a solo horn and then a muted trumpet play the main theme, we see first Homer’s room and then Homer lying in bed. During a short, two-bar episode with a descending thematic figure, the camera shows Peggy asleep on the couchbed. The music then shifts to mysterioso as we see, in a beautifully photographed shot in which only bits of the bedspread and other objects appear in the darkness, Fred asleep in Peggy’s four-poster. The “Nightmare” music begins with a vague allusion to the first part of Fred and Peggy’s theme. Fred begins to murmur – it is obvious that he is dreaming of a war incident in which his plane was on fire – and the music grows in intensity with ostinatos, widely spaced contrary motion, and low pedal-points all contributing to the unresolved tension. It is a sequence perfectly in keeping with the documentary tone of the film – there are no flashbacks or double exposures. Instead, the nightmare is created almost entirely out of the music and Toland’s chiaroscuro photography. It is Peggy who is finally aroused from sleep by Fred’s outcries, and she goes into the room to cairn him down. As Fred comes back to reality, the music begins to resolve, ultimately leading into a molto tranquilo version of the “Boone City” theme on the solo Flute over series of rising chords in the strings as Peggy wipes Fred’s sweat-covered face.


Track 6: Fred Asleep. In this sequence, Fred is shown asleep in broad daylight, which forms a nice contrast with the preceding nightmare photography. Peggy tries to creep into the room to get her things, but she wakens Fred, who apologizes for disturbing her the night before. The music opens with the walking-blues theme, and then, as Peggy leaves again, moves to a motive (on the solo clarinet) from the second part of the “Fred and Peggy” theme. Tremolo strings and a certain amount of dissonance, plus a return to the walking-blues theme, create an ambience suitable for Fred along with his hangover. The end of the sequence finds Fred in Peggy’s almost unbelievably sumptuous bathroom, an opulence he has probably never seen before.

Track 7: Neighbors Wilma; Homer’s Anger. The high of the homecoming has been deflated, and Al, Fred, and Homer begin to settle down into “real” life. All three quickly discover a new kind of battlefield. Although Al is accepted back at the bank in a position even higher than the one he left, he finds himself caught between human compassion and bank ethics. As he says, “Last year it was kill Japs, this year it’s make money.” Fred although able to live high-off-the-hog on his G.I. check for a while, soon finds himself forced to take a job working at his old drugstore as a flunky for an obnoxious character who had been his subordinate before he left for the war. Homer, meanwhile, cannot convince himself that he is not the object of pity or scorn. The opening music on this band is the “Neighbors” theme, heard as the film shows typical scenes on Homer’s Street, such as Mr. Parrish mowing the lawn. Wilma’s theme is heard in the high winds as she appears. Homer is practicing shooting in the garage. A well known children’s song (referred to as “Louella’s Theme”, for Homer’s younger sister) is integrated into the music as the camera shows children playing outside. Wilma’s theme returns as she enters the garage to talk with Homer. As she talks of marriage, Homer, cleaning his gun, resists any attempts by her to enter into his life. The scene in underscored by soft statements of Wilma’s theme and the “Octave” theme. Louella’s theme suddenly intrudes as the children peer through the garage window at Homer and Wilma. In a burst of anger, Homer shoves his hooks through the window, frightening the children. A sustained chord in the strings plays over a halting statement of Louella’s theme as Homer’s little sister stands crying. The “Neighbors” theme, the main theme (in a minor key), and Wilma’s theme all return, with Wilma finally – and sadly – leaving Homer to his own devices.

There is a transition to nighttime, and Homer is seen going into his sister’s room as she sleeps. Her theme returns once more, in a softly rocking, lullaby configuration. Homer shuts himself in his room. As the music modulates to a mid-range, minor-key suggestion of the “Neighbors” theme in the strings over a low B pedal point, the camera shows Homer’s father coming up the stairs. We now see, as Mr. Parrish prepares his son for bed by unstrapping his hooks, how helpless Homer is without his artificial hands. The main theme sounds as Mr. Parrish lays the hooks aside. The sequence comes to an end as Homer lies in bed, while Louella’s theme in violin harmonics, bells, and celesta, is played contrapuntally over the “Neighbors” motive.

Following this episode, in which Homer seems at least on the path towards accepting help from others when he needs it, the story centers more closely on the relationship between Fred and Peggy. Having double-dated with Fred and his wife and seen what an ill match couple they form, Peggy is determined to break up the marriage, and says as much to her parents. Following the inevitable argument between Peggy and Al, a particularly expressive shot shows the latter at the end of a dark hallway, smoking a cigarette. The back lighting here helps create a very turbulent image of Al surrounded in the darkness by swirling smoke. Al later meets with Fred at Butch’s place to dissuade Fred from ever seeing Peggy again. In an ironically contrasting counter-episode, Homer enters the pub and performs a brilliant duet of “Chopsticks” with his Uncle Butch, As Al stands uncomfortably at the piano and listens, the shot also reveals Fred in a phone booth in the background. He is obviously calling Peggy; but again, the audience is allowed to draw its own conclusions.

Track 8: Homer Goes Upstairs. Although he has lost his job following a brawl with a right-wing customer at the drugstore, Fred, while not being able to straighten out his own life, has told Homer that he should marry Wilma. Wilma, on the other hand, is on the point of going away to avoid being further hurt by Homer. Following a conversation with Wilma in the Parrish kitchen, Homer takes Wilma upstairs to his room to show her how she would have to take care of him. The “Octave” theme plays in non-resolving repetitions, very much recalling the opening of the “Homecoming” sequence. In the room, as Homer takes off his hooks, the music moves to a rather morose, D minor version of the “Neighbors” theme over a descending pedal-point that ends up on B-flat; but, suddenly, in one of the most moving combinations of sight and sound in the film, the music modulates to a surprising D-major statement of Wilma’s theme in the violins as Homer’s sweetheart says “I’ll do that, Homer,” and buttons his pajamas for him. As Wilma kisses Homer, the music swells in a rare tutti. The sequence closes as Homer lies in the dark, tears welling up in his eyes.

Track 9: The Citation; Graveyard & Bombers. Jobless and completely down on his luck (he has left Marie the money to get a divorce), Fred decides to pack his bags and try his chances elsewhere. He makes one final stop at home, and then sets off to the airport. The camera lingers briefly, however, with Mr. and Mrs. Derry. Fred’s father comes across a citation his son has left behind. As Mr. Derry reads the citation aloud, accompanied on the soundtrack by a complete musical statement of the main theme, we learn not only of an act of bravery but of the reason for Fred’s nightmare. A majestic statement of the chorale theme leads to a lap dissolve revealing Fred at the airplane graveyard, while a low drone and march-like, open-interval figures suggest the former uses these discarded carcasses have been put to. Out of the rows and rows of symmetrically arranged, stripped down fusilages, Fred picks out the one named “Round Trip”? and enters it. The music dies down and returns to a quiet statement of the main theme on the English horn and clarinet.

The camera then moves outside the plane and pans to each propeller-less nacelle, as if the motors were starting up in succession. On the soundtrack, dissonant chords build up and accelerate over a low unison as the camera tracks towards and under the plane, giving the impression of a take off. Back inside the plane, we see a medium close-up of Fred at the nose bubble, then a reverse-angle shot in which Fred is silhouetted in the backlighted coming through the bubble. Music from the “Nightmare” sequence returns, along with rapidly played cluster chords suggesting machine-gun fire. Once again, Fred is reliving the dramatic but tragic battle for which he was ultimately awarded the citation. As in the “Nightmare” sequence, music and camerawork create an entire fantasy without the intervention of any special effects or dream-music clichés. As Friedhofer relates it, Wyler realized that the dramatic impact of the scene was pretty much the responsibility of the composer. “This is your baby from here in,” Wyler told Friedhofer. “You’ve got to try and express the inner feelings of Fred.” And the composer saw the sequence as “a sort of catharsis. Fred gets rid of all his feelings about the war and his disappointment at home.”

Suddenly, the music reduces to high, sustained strings, followed by a statement of the main theme on a muted trumpet. The foreman of the wrecking crew (a former member of the tank corps, appropriately enough) appears, framed in one of the bomber’s small, triangular windows. Once again, Fred is brought back “down to Earth.” After a bit of banter with Fred over the relative merits of driving a tank versus flying, the foreman offers Fred a job. The planes, as it turns out, are going to be used as raw material for prefabricated houses. Here is one of the film’s nicest pieces of symbolism: the former instruments of war and destruction will be transformed into materials of construction. Coincidentally, Fred will now begin to rebuild his own Life.

Track 10: End Title & End Cast (Wilma). The movie’s final sequence is the marriage of Homer and Wilma at the Parrish home. Al, Fred, and Homer are united one last time, with the camera bringing them back equally into frame, as they stand on the porch, for the first time since the early moments of the story. With Fred serving as best man, the wedding vows are exchanged, accompanied by a swell in the music. As everybody moves up to congratulate the couple, however, Peggy, made all the more conspicuous by a wide-brimmed hat she is wearing, remains in the background. Fred joins her, and as the music fades down slightly, he makes a backwards proposal: “You know what it will be – don’t you, Peggy? It may take us years to get anywhere. We’ll have no money, no decent place to live – well have to work, get kicked around…” In the original script, these lines are followed by Peggy saying “We’ll be together”; in the film, fortunately, she simply kisses Fred, bringing BEST YEARS to a dose on a tutti statement of the chorale theme. There is an immediate segue to the End Cast music, built principally around Wilma’s theme and the “Octave” theme, the latter by this time pretty much belonging to Homer.

Track 11: Exit Music. To keep the audience in the mood as it left the theater, Friedhofer composed some exit music that was recorded on the soundtrack of a pictureless film. This little postlude, however, was scrapped after a few showings of BEST YEARS in Hollywood. But the “Exit Music” very much belongs with the picture. Not only was Friedhofer able to develop the music somewhat more freely than in other parts of the film, he also built this final segment around the “Fred and Peggy” motives, thus providing a musical balance to the Homer-Wilma emphasis of the End Title and End Cast sequence. This recording marks the first time the Exit Music will have been heard in some thirty-two years.

Royal S. Brown © 1978/1988 Fifth Continent Music Classics

A Note from the Producer

This album is the end result of a saga which began some ten years ago in Denver, Colorado. In late 1968 I asked Hugo Friedhofer if he would be interested in reworking his Best Years score into a suite for symphony orchestra. Despite his willingness, several factors, including the unavailability of orchestral parts or full scores at Goldwyn Pictures (Hugo remarked, “finding anything in their music department – even in the good ole’ days – older than six months was like searching for the Holy Grail.”), prevented the completion of this commission. A terrible disappointment for me as well as those conductors (among them, Maurice Abravanel and the late Thor Johnson) who wanted to premiere the work.

When Entr’acte commenced production in 1974 I decided that we would record Hugo’s chef d’oeuvre in time for his 75th birthday in May, 1977. Unfortunately, other projects already committed to release once again delayed our plans. Last year I vowed that nothing would prevent our recording Best Years in time for Hugo’s 50th Anniversary in Hollywood this coming April.

Best Years is, I admit without hesitation, my favourite film score. It would be easy for me to pen long sentences as to this wherefore and whyfore were it not for all the loving tributes already bestowed upon this monumental work – and its brilliant composer – by those professionals involved in the scoring of motion pictures. These men say it so much better, in so many different ways.

In closing, I should like to share with you this note I received from the composer after he first heard our recording in October, 1978: “I can’t begin to express my thanks to you for your faith, as well as your persistence in seeing to it that Best Years has at long last been enshrined in imperishable vinyl.

The performance by the London Philharmonic is simply brilliant. Everything jells; so much so that it doesn’t even sound like movie music, and that, after a time-lapse of thirty-two years surprises me not a little.”

John Steven Lasher © 1978/1988 Fifth Continent Music Classics

Hugo Friedhofer

Hugo-Friedhofer-2Of the small number of composers who helped create The Golden Age of Film Music, the names of Alfred Newman, Bernard Herrmann, Miklos Rozsa, Franz Waxman, Max Steiner and Erich Wolfgang Korngold come to mind. And, of course, Hugo Friedhofer. With characteristic bluntness Friedhofer says of his film scores: “I write them as I hear them. When I walk into the studio I’m not an artist so much as a plumber.” However, few such composers have been so lavishly gifted as the urbanely witty Friedhofer, or so widely lauded both by his peers and critics. In a splendid examination of Friedhofer’s persona Gene Lees wrote in the March 30, 1975 Los Angeles Times “Friedhofer particularly dislikes the casual application of the word ‘genius’ and once, when someone called him a giant of the Industry, said, ‘Yes, I’m a fake giant among real pygmies.’ But he is indeed one of the giants whether he is comfortable with that fact or not. Secretly an extremely sensitive and rather romantic man, he has all his life doubted himself and his work: his humor is the shell in which he hides from an abrasive and often disappointing world – and from praise.”

Friedhofer has garnered nothing but praise from the start: Donald Bishop Jr. wrote in 1948: “Friedhofer’s classicism is one of the finest aesthetic achievements in contemporary modern music, in an out of films. I do not mean to suggest that his music sounds anything like the music of the classic maestros. It is classical in the sense that it is disciplined in both the range and the quality of its exquisite expressiveness, and keenly sensitive to the requirements of musical design. One could count on less than two hands the names of the inspired film composers, and it is no surprise to anyone that Hugo Friedhofer would be among the first mentioned, the very first.”

Lawrence Morton wrote; “From the point of musical craft, the most satisfying quality of Friedhofer’s music is the integrity of its line. There is never an error of calculation in the movement of the bass: amateur composers (even those in the ranks of the professionals) are apt to let their basses move from one chord-root to another, but Friedhofer’s always emphasize motion, direction and a basic tonality. His inner voices, too, always speak in sentences complete in shape and content. The music always ‘plays’ and the instruments are never frustrated by an absence of meaningful phrases. Friedhofer is, in short, a master craftsman in his field.” Composer David Raksin has said: “I think Friedhofer has a better understanding of film music than any composer I know. He is the most learned of us all, the best schooled, and often the most subtle.”

Hugo Wilhelm Friedhofer was born in San Francisco on May 3, 1902, the son of a Dresden-trained cellist. He left school at sixteen (he had been an art major) and gained a job as an office boy, studying painting at night at the Mark Hopkins Institute. He had a voracious appetite for reading, which along with his feeling for art, enabled him to assimilate the finer points of artistic consequence. His father had started him on the cello when he was thirteen but it was another five years before his interest in music predominated over his interest in painting. He studied seriously and within a year was able to earn his living as a musician (two years with The People’s Symphony Orchestra, the rivals of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra; and then in 1925 a berth with the orchestra of The Granada Theatre). Concurrently with his various jobs as a cellist he studied harmony, counterpoint and composition with the famous Italian teacher-composer, Domenico Brescia (a fellow pupil of Respighi).

Friedhofer’s interest in orchestration led to work as an arranger for stage bands intermittently, and when sound came to motion pictures a violinist friend, George Lipschultz, who had become music director at The Fox Studios, offered Friedhofer a job there as an arranger. Friedhofer wrote: “At age 25 I was an out-of-work pit musician and arranger; the advent of the sound-film was, at that time, an economic catastrophe for me. I had not only myself to support, but a wife and a four-year old daughter as well. That was ‘27. For the next two years I eked out a hand-to-mouth existence, playing potted palm music in a hotel trio and scratching about for whatever casual playing gigs were available. In my spare time I carried on (despairingly!) with my composing studies and my ‘cello lessons. Believe me when I say that la vie de Bohème ain’t what it is cracked up to be. Finally, in ‘29, came to offer to move to Hollywood – a move which scared me out of my wits.”

Friedhofer arrived in Hollywood in April 1929, the first film on which he worked being the musical SUNNY SIDE UP. He stayed with Fox for five years until it merged with 20th Century Films and then free-lanced until he was hired as an orchestrator by Leo Forbstein at Warner Bros. Pictures. There he orchestrated more than fifty Max Steiner scores and was the only orchestrator Erich Wolfgang Korngold trusted to touch his music (Friedhofer orchestrated all but three of Korngold’s eighteen film works). Friedhofer’s talents as an orchestrator reached the ears of people like the great conductor Jascha Horenstein, who once remarked that Friedhofer would have made a much better job of orchestrating the Schumann symphonies than Schumann himself did.

However, Friedhofer longed to compose his own scores and through Alfred Newman was assigned, at the Goldwyn Studio, to write the music for THE ADVENTURES OF MARCO POLO in 1937. Forbstein was interested in Friedhofer only as an orchestrator and despite the excellence and originality of the latter’s first major original score did not allow him to compose any original works during his entire eleven year tenure at Warners, except for the minor VALLEY OF THE GIANTS, a collaboration with Adolph Deutsch in 1938.

In working with Steiner and Korngold Friedhofer learned much. “Real film music began with Max.” Friedhofer warmly recalls, “Many of the techniques were invented by him. His is true mood music, unobtrusive background that is also connective tissue, subtle and sensitive.” Of Korngold he feels: “His contribution was enormous and he influenced everyone working at that time. Some critics thought he had lowered himself by writing film scores, but he didn’t think so. He was excited by the medium.”

Through the strong recommendation of Alfred Newman Friedhofer secured the coveted assignment to score the Samuel Goldwyn classic THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES. Director William Wyler was steadfastly against Friedhofer scoring the film and continued to press Goldwyn for Newman until after several recording sessions convinced the master director he’d found the right composer. Friedhofer’s score for THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES won him an Academy Award. This remains perhaps one of the few film scores to have been seriously analyzed and widely discussed by the more ‘important’ music critics at the time (1946).

Lan Adoman wrote of THE BEST YEARS’ score: “Friedhofer’s score abundantly demonstrates that his talents and richly varied skills were equal to the responsibilities imposed by this honest film. Like the film itself, the score is rich in melodic and harmonic invention and has the warmth and poignancy of folk music and the dignity of a hymn. It is one of the few film scores that would stand up in the best symphonic company.” Composer-critic Louis Applebaum wrote “This is a remarkable achievement Friedhofer’s clear orchestral thinking, his appreciation and understanding of the orchestra’s resources, his sensitive feeling for tone and color, and his good taste, form the basis of this inspired film music creation. It is a piece of Americana that will grow in stature with the culture.” Even music critics who overtly sneered at film music took note, e.g. Hale Godfrey, after a lengthy disquisition as to the merits of the medium itself, cited THE BEST YEARS’ score as “the perfect film score.” Friedhofer became the only film composer discussed in the pages of America’s then-foremost musicological journal, ‘Musical Quarterly’, meriting a lengthy critique, with musical examples, of his score for THE BEST YEARS by Dartmouth professor, Frederick Sternfield. Sternfield later wrote other articles about Friedhofer’s music, analyzing his style as one resembling Hindemith’s welter of “contemporary and anfractuous idealisms of the sovereign.” This last amused Friedhofer.

Hugo Friedhofer - The Best Years of Our LivesFriedhofer believes there are no real rules for film music but he does say that a good score should be governed entirely by the visuals, and that each film is an entity unto itself. “One might say that it is not in the nature of a film score to be wholly autonomous. In this respect it differs from music written for concert hall presentation in much the same way that a design for a stage setting differs from an easel painting. For example, a film score conceived with a much detail, or as richly textured as the Fourth Symphony of Brahms (we should live so long) would not be a good film score, regardless of its supreme merits as music. Being inherently self-sufficient, it would be constantly drawing attention to itself at the expense of the drama it was intended to enhance I do not mean to imply that music for a film should be as consistently bland and unobtrusive as the so-called “mood music” which accompanies the buzz of small talk in a dimly-lit restaurant. To the contrary, it is my belief that the ideal film score is one which, while at all time maintaining its own integrity of line, manages at the same tune to coalesce with all the other filmic elements involved; sometimes as a frame, at other times as a sort of connective tissue, and in still another (though naturally rarer) instance, as the chief actor in the drama. I feel that the composer should regard the visual element as a ‘cantus firmus’ accompanied by two counterpoints, i.e. dialogue and sound effects. It is his problem to invent a third counterpoint which will complement the texture already in existence. Other than this it would be foolhardy to make any sort of sweeping statement as to what film music should or should not be. The problems confronting the film composer are never twice the same and require in every instance another solution. It is absurd to assume, however, that music must always be in the background, for there are times when music can step out and should be dominant. Much of the time it can’t and would defeat its own purpose if it did.” Friedhofer thinks it unwise to make the mistake of overestimating a film audience’s taste but that one should never under-estimate its intelligence.

Friedhofer has no regrets about being a film composer: “A strange snobbery toward this business exists, but is exists largely among composers who have not been asked to write music for films. This is a condition which, strangely enough, exists only in this country. Things are different elsewhere. In England and the European continent the composer of so-called ‘serious music’ suffers no loss of stature by his ventures into the realm of film. Walton, Britten, Honegger, Prokofiev, Shostakovich (to name a few) have never become objects of critical scorn as a result of their having written for the movies. I believe that the reason lies in the fact that the best of the foreign composers have, at the onset, made their mark in the field of concert music before succumbing to the lure of the cinematic siren. On our side of the pond, it’s another ball-game. The American composer, be he a graduate of Julliard, Curtis, Princeton, U.S.C. seems to prefer living off grants, fellowships, commissions, etc. or else he becomes a teacher with nothing but scorn for the Hollywood medium which, for the most part, remains the province of the poorly trained and (musically) semi-literate hacks who make themselves a bundle but have little, if any, standing in the musical community.”

Regarding the challenge of film music composition Friedhofer adds: “The time element is excellent discipline and forces a composer to say what he has to say trenchantly.”

Among his own scores he values ACE IN THE HOLE, THE LODGER, THE BANDIT OF SHERWOOD FOREST, THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, THREE CAME HOME, THE BISHOP’S WIFE, THE RAINS OF RANCHIPUR, THE SUN ALSO RISES (which he feels was his most difficult score technically), THE YOUNG LIONS and ONE EYED JACKS. He greatly admires the work of Korngold, Steiner and Newman, whom he calls “the film music triumvirate”, Franz Waxman and David Raksin, all of whom he has known personally. He also speaks highly of Bernard Herrmann, Alex North, Andre Previn and Bronislau Kaper. Many of the more current film composers, citing Lalo Schifrin. Henry Mancini, Johnny Mandel and Richard Rodney Bennett, he feels, have prevented him from being “victimized by my own clichés.”

Friedhofer is the absolute film composer, a composer for all seasons. He helped refine the film music vocabulary with such facility it has become the ‘lingua franca’ of the medium. For if this much-maligned art form has a common vocabulary at all it has been enriched by the tradition of modal folk Americana, found nowhere as tellingly as in Friedhofer’s film roots.

Page Cook © 1978/1988 Fifth Continent Music Classics
Text reproduced by kind permission of producer John Steven Lasher

6 thoughts on “The Best Years of Our Lives

  1. The sequence at the airplane graveyard is a masterpiece. The greatest non- action action scenes ever. All music and camerawork. I watch it over and over.

  2. I had never heard of Friedhofer, now I cannot imagine this great film without his score – his music binds it, elevates it and brings this epic story of veterans and their loved ones and families to life. The talent across the board in this film is remarkable. I was fortunate enough to see it at an early age intact in a theatre, I watch it again on television whenever it airs. I cry every time, never at the same scene twice. But the great story telling and wonderful score ensure viewing is joyful and rich. Not sad or depressing, as it so easily could have been given the subject matter. As Fred warns Peggy about their future together, and Peggy’s face glows at the prospect of their being together, so Friedhofer’s score expresses the highs and lows throughout the movie, from opening title to club hopping to airplane graveyard. Wondrous.

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