Home > Reviews > THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES – Hugo Friedhofer


bestyearsofourlivesMOVIE MUSIC UK CLASSICS

Original Review by Craig Lysy

In making The Best Years of Our Lives, Famous producer Samuel Goldwyn became inspired to make a film that spoke to challenges facing our returning servicemen after reading an article in Time magazine, which described the difficulty experienced by Marines returning to civilian life. He hired war correspondent MacKinlay Kanto to write the story; a novella titled “Glory for Me”, and then brought in director William Wyler and Robert Sherwood, his go to playwright, to adapt it for the big screen. They assembled a first class ensemble of actors, which included Fredric March (Al Stephenson), Myrna Loy (Milly Stephenson), Dana Andrews (Fred Derry), Virginia Mayo (Marie Derry), Cathy O’Donnell (Wilma Cameron), and for authenticity, newcomer Harold Russell (Homer Parrish), a real life serviceman who had lost both his hands in the war. The story follows the reintegration struggles of three soldiers into civilian life.

Each of them comes from a different walk of life and each has a different family situation: Al, a Sergeant in the Infantry, is a middle-aged banker with a secure job, a luxury apartment, a loving wife, and two nearly adult children waiting for him. He works as a bank loan officer, and is conflicted between his loyalty to fellow veterans and his desire to advance. He believes bank policies requiring collateral are onerous and not supportive of soldiers trying to restart their life. In contrast, Fred, a Captain in the Air Corps, grew up on the wrong side of the tracks. He lacks marketable skills and so returns to his pre-war job as a soda jerk. Marie, his wife who he left with deployment only twenty days after their marriage makes it very clear that she wants more from life and she does not enjoy being married to a lowly soda jerk in a dead-end job. She eventually gives up on him, cheats with another veteran and they divorce. Lastly we have Homer, a seaman from the Navy. He is a product of the middle class who rose to become the town’s heroic football quarterback. He returns to an uncertain future having lost both his hands in a war accident. He struggles with his handicap, his self-esteem and worthiness of his fiancée Marie affections, who he tries to push away. How she stands by him, and convinces him of her love was poignant and one of film history’s greatest moments.

The film proved to be a huge commercial and critical success, earning eight Academy Award nominations and winning seven among them: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor and Best Score, for composer Hugo Friedhofer. Two additional Oscars were awarded by the Academy; an honorary Oscar to serviceman Harold Russell for “bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans through his appearance”, and the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award to director William Wyler, whose body of work reflected a consistently high quality of motion picture production.

Goldwyn and Wyler made it very clear to Friedhofer that they did not want the classic melodrama of the European Hollywood sound, instead preferring traditional ‘native’ Americana. As such he provided a warm and nostalgic score, under whose idealized veneer ran undercurrents of anxiety born from the struggles of her returning veterans. While he followed his instructions to not employ the traditional European Hollywood sound, he never the less utilized the traditional Hollywood leitmotif method to express his music. Note worthy is his splendid use of the triad, the chord which forms the foundation of several of his themes. Because of their shared triadic structure, these themes are kindred in construct and so interplay well within the fabric of the score. For the film, Friedhofer provided a multiplicity of themes including; the multi-phasic Main Theme, whose A Phrase horn fare informs us of the finest of America’s military tradition, while the B Phrase ostinato mysterioso figure suggest the uncertainty in which the returning servicemen find themselves. Next we have the spirited Copland-esque Boone City Theme, which abounds with a wondrous joie de vivre. We have the woodwind rich Neighbors Theme is filled with the optimism sought by the men’s return home. Wilma’s Theme serves as the score’s primary Love Theme. It offers a soft, tender and lyrical flowing statement carried by gentile woodwinds or strings, which perfectly captures her inner beauty. The tender and romantic Peggy’s Theme speaks to Fred and Peggy’s romance and offers the score’s second love theme. Then there is the Jazz Theme, a bluesy-jazz construct carried by alto saxophone, which reminds us of Gershwin. Lastly, we have Louella’s Theme, which emotes with a wondrous child like innocence, and the Chorale Theme, a majestic military statement carried by French horns nobile. Two final points, Wyler never warmed to Friedhofer’s score and was alleged to have despised it. Also, this was the first film to be produced using the new stereophonic Westrex Recording system, a milestone in the history of film score art.

“Main Title”, is a wondrous score highlight where Friedhofer showcases his timeless Main Theme, which unfolds over the opening credits. He immediately establishes feelings of optimism and nostalgia from which our story unfolds. The theme is carried by warm French horns and supportive strings, concluding with distant trumpets calls, an allusion to our men’s return from war. Bravo! “Homecoming” offers splendid writing and another score highlight for this complex multi-scenic cue. We open at an airport where we see the three men, who are both happy and yet anxious, meeting at the Air Transport plane that will be taking them home to Boone City. The Main Theme alludes to this anxiety and is emoted with trepidation as they board the plane, yet it warms amidst the beautiful cloudscapes as the plane soars home. The music, with its horn statements and ostinato mysterioso figure derive from the Main Theme’s B Phrase and suggest the uncertainty in which the returning servicemen find themselves. At 1:05 as the plane descends Friedhofer provides us with a glorious extended rendering of his spirited Boone City Theme, which opens on solo trumpet to herald our men’s return home. This highly syncopated figure, which abounds with classic Americana superbly, carries the scene.

At 3:12 the theme slows and transitions atop xylophone to warm strings as the trio enters a taxi that drives them through the town. Mellow statements of the Main Theme support the journey until Homer’s arrival at home is warmly announced atop the Neighbors Theme, which just bubbles with life in a spirited interplay of flute, piccolo and violins brilliante. At 4:36 the Main and Neighbors Themes join as Homer is at last reunited with his family. A harp glissando ushers in Wilma’s Theme, a classic unabashed romantic moment carried by solo violin, kindred strings, flute, and vibraphone, which informs us of Wilma, Homer’s sweetheart. We see tension and unease in their embrace, alerting us that all is not well with Homer. We close this cue with the Main Theme now rendered in a minor key, as Homer’s family notices his hooks for the first time. This was well conceived! A distant, muted trumpet, which alludes to the Neighbors Theme plays as the taxi with Fred and Al pulls away. This offers just exceptional writing!

“The Elevator/Boone City/Peggy” is a ternary cue, which features Al’s reunion with his wife Milly and his family at his upscale center-city apartment. Friedhofer offers sterling writing for solo violin with flute adornment that is just wonderful. The music begins tremulously atop slowly rising figures, as Al gets in the elevator. He is anxious and Friedhofer uses a solo cello, which alludes to the source song “Among My Souvenirs” to inform us of his unsettled state. Slowly the music begins an impassioned ascent and we experience joy as Al is at last reunited with his loved ones, first his son, Rob, and then his daughter, Peggy. His wife Milly is yet unaware that he has returned, and Friedhofer highlights the moment with a fragment from the Boone City Theme. When Milly at last enters to see who was at the door we are treated to beautiful interplay of the Main Theme and “Among My Souvenirs”, whose joining achieves a refulgent climax, informing us of the loving reunion of husband and wife. At 3:25 an interlude of flute delarosa supports a scene change to Fred arriving at his dilapidated home near the railroad tracks. A final scene segue at 3:46 reveals a festive Al exhorting his family to go out and celebrate. Friedhofer supports the moment with his spirited Boone City Theme. “Fred & Peggy” is a splendid cue where Friedhofer channels Gershwin and creates a splendid ambiance that is perfectly attenuated to the scene’s emotional narrative. Fred, who is unable to locate Marie, joins Al and his family’s celebration at the bar. It becomes readily apparent that Fred is attracted to Al’s daughter Peggy. We open atop the Boone City Theme, from which arises the Jazz Theme, a bluesy jazz line carried superbly by alto saxophone, which speaks to us of Fred and Peggy’s romantic attraction. This cue really offers fine writing and creates the perfect ambiance.

“The Nightmare” is an exceptional cue and a score highlight. Al takes a drunk Fred to his home and he beds in Peggy’s room as she sleeps in the living room sofa bed. His moans from flash back nightmares wake Peggy who comes and comforts him. We open atop flute tranquillo and allusions to “Among My Souvenirs.” As a solo muted trumpet sounds the Main Theme, which ushers in the flash back as we see Homer lying in bed. A dark crescendo orribile commences atop strings as the nightmare unfolds. After an interlude, dissonant swirling strings resume the horror, yet the storm dissipates at 3:21 when Peggy comes to Fred and comforts him. Tender strings calm us, soothe us, and usher in an exquisitely tender variant of the Boone City Theme on solo flute. This passage offers writing of the highest order. “Fred Asleep” features some nice interplay of the Jazz Theme and Peggy’s Theme. We see Fred asleep as Peggy tries to creep into the room in the morning to get her things. She awakens him and Fred apologizes for disturbing her. We open with a tender rendering of the Jazz Theme, which speaks of their growing attraction. Yet at 1:08 tremolo strings and dissonance remind us with the Peggy’s Theme that Fred is married. Yet its expression is short-lived as we return to conclude with the Jazz Theme.

“Neighbors/Wilma/Homer’s Anger” is a wonderful score highlight with superb thematic interplay and exquisite writing for woodwinds and strings. This multi-scenic and ternary cue opens with various shots of Homer’s street. Friedhofer uses an idealized rendering of the Neighbors Theme to set the ambiance and then begins interplay with Wilma’s Theme in the high woodwinds as she appears. At 1:06 the tender child-like Louella’s Theme joins as we see children playing outside. As Wilma enters the garage, Wilma’s Theme and Louella’s Theme join to mark one of the score’s finest moments. As Homer continues to rebuff Wilma with his internalized private pity party, the Neighbors Theme, the now minor modal Main Theme and

Wilma’s Theme all return and join in interplay until a saddened Wilma finally leaves Homer to dwell in his private and unshared torment. At 5:24 we shift to nighttime with a minor modal rendering of the Neighbors Theme in the strings with woodwind counters. We see Homer’s father help his son prepare for bed by taking off his hooks. One feels Homer’s helplessness and Friedhofer speaks to this with interplay of a trio of his themes; the Main Theme, Louella’s Theme expressed beautifully as violin harmonics, bells, and celesta, and lastly the Neighbors Theme. This cue is exceptional and offers testimony to Friedhofer’s mastery of his craft. “Homer Goes Upstairs” offers the film’s supreme moment for Homer’s storyline. Following Fred’s advice, Homer resolves to open himself up to Wilma. He takes her up to his room to reveal the reality of his disability and how she would have to take care of him. We open atop recurrent unresolved statements of the Main Theme. As Homer takes off his hooks, we sense his vulnerability. A minor modal rendering of the Neighbors Theme by woodwinds carries the scene and brings us to the film’s supreme moment. Friedhofer uses refulgent violins to express an impassioned Wilma’s Theme as she says, “I’ll do that, Homer,” and proceeds to button his pajamas for him. Homer, who is now fully exposed emotionally, lowers his guard and at last allows himself to feel. As Wilma kisses him, the music swells, replete with distant statements of the Main Theme on horns, to conclude this magnificent and sterling romantic moment. Bravo!

“The Citation/Graveyard & Bombers” offers the film’s supreme moment for Fred’s storyline. Fred has lost his job, has given Marie most of his money to pay for their divorce, and is completely down on his luck. He decides to leave Boone City and start a new life elsewhere. As he prepares to leave home his father stops him, and proceeds to read aloud a citation from the Air Force that attests to his valor and bravery. This causes Fred to relive the source of his nightmare as the scene shifts to a graveyard of planes, including his own, “Round Trip”, which he enters. We open on horns offering a majestic statement of the Chorale Theme that is just stirring. The music builds and we anticipate a grand and glorious climax, yet at 1:21 the melodic line is severed as we transition darkly to Fred’s nightmare that is set in a graveyard of bombers. Music from the nightmare cue returns with all its horror and dread, building to a terrible intensity, yet again it dissipates as we return to a reserved Main Theme, now emoted by English horn and clarinet. At 2:57 we again descend darkly into the nightmare music with all its horror. The Main Theme struggles to assert itself on trumpet yet fails to overcome the cacophony. The scene concludes as Fred experiences an epiphany – just as these fuselages will find new life as components of pre-fabricated homes, so too he can find new life. Distant trumpets emoting the Main Theme, which fade to nothingness ends this extraordinary scene. Bravo!

“End Title & End Cast” reveals Al, Fred, and Homer reunited one last time for Homer and Wilma’s marriage. Peggy and Fred prepare to start their lives together and the film concludes with her kissing him. We close our story with a magnificent refulgent rendering of the Chorale Theme, which builds to a majestic climax and ends with a flourish! We segue immediately into the End Cast music, which features interplay of Wilma’s Theme and the Main Theme. “Epilogue” was composed by Friedhofer to function as exit music for the film. It features Peggy’s Theme, thus providing a fitting closure of the film’s second storyline.

Please allow me to thank John Stewart Lasher and Label X for this restoration of Hugo Friedhofer’s Academy Award winning score. The restoration is excellent and the inclusion of the Exit music cue, a wonderful gift. This heartfelt and evocative score secured Friedhofer his place in the pantheon of film score gods. He created a multiplicity of themes, which often join in beautiful interplay. The film tells the story of three men returning from war and struggling to rejoin life. Friedhofer was tasked with speaking to each of these narratives and succeeded brilliantly! This score stands as Friedhofer’s finest achievement and takes its place in the hallowed halls as one of the finest of the Golden Age. I highly recommend this score as an essential member of your collection.

Buy the Best Years of Our Lives soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (1:26)
  • Homecoming (6:17)
  • The Elevator/Boone City/Peggy (4:12)
  • Fred and Peggy (2:22)
  • The Nightmare (6:12)
  • Fred Asleep (2:19)
  • Neighbours/Wilma/Homer’s Anger (7:31)
  • Homer Goes Upstairs (5:49)
  • The Citation/Graveyard and Bombers (4:21)
  • End Title and End Cast [Wilma] (1:58)
  • Exit Music (1:54)

Running Time: 46 minutes 09 seconds

Label X LXCD-14 (1946/2000)

Music composed by Hugo Friedhofer. Conducted by Franco Collura. Performed by The London Philharmonic Orchestra. Orchestrations by Jerome Moross, Edward Powell, Leo Shuken and Sid Cutner. Score produced by Hugo Friedhofer. Album produced by John Lasher.

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  1. November 28, 2016 at 9:46 pm

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