“Best” is an apt word for THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES. The 1946 film won 7 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Fredric March), Best Director (William Wyler), and another for Hugo Friedhofer‘s classic score. The film tells the story of three soldiers (March, Dana Andrews, Harold Russell) returning to the homefront after World War II and their difficulties in assimilating back into civilian life.
Producer Sam Goldwyn set the wheels in motion after reading an article in Time magazine describing the reaction of a trainload of Marines home on furlough. He called in author MacKinlay Kantor and asked for a screen treatment of 50-60 pages of prose. Kantor turned in 434 pages of blank verse (later published under the title Glory For Me). Goldwyn then worked with director William Wyler and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert E. Sherwood to fashion a real screenplay out of Kantor’s overlong tome.
One of the biggest changes from Kantor’s original treatment was the part of Homer. Harold Russell was a real WWII double amputee veteran who had never acted in a film before, and Wyler had Sherwood change the character (a shell-shocked, suicidal spastic in Kantor’s version) to fit Russell’s disabilities. Russell’s portrayal was so inspiring that he won the Oscar for Supporting Actor as well as a Special Award for “for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans.”
Chief among the outstanding elements for film music fans is Friedhofer’s classic Americana score. Considered by many to be one of the finest film scores ever written, Friedhofer’s music is one of the few scores that has been dissected and discussed by musicologists, a right usually reserved only for classical composers.
On a recommendation from Alfred Newman, Friedhofer was hired after Aaron Copland turned down the project. Oddly enough, the score has often been compared to the works of Copland. Friedhofer responded, “Actually the [Copland] influence was largely in paring, in my weeding ou the run-of-the-mine Hollywood schmaltz, and trying to do a very simple, straightforward, almost folklike score. I don’t think I actually looked over Aaron’s shoulder, but there was a certain use, perhaps a certain harmonic similarity at times.
“At bottom it’s practically monothematic and repetitious as all get-out,” Friedhofer continued, “something one isn’t particularly aware of when listening to it in the film, since the silent stretches are spaced out so that the thematic repeitions and their variants take the curse off the monotheism–practically nothing but a bunch of triads with ‘wrong note’ bass lines.”
With three separate storylines overlapping, Friedhofer had to make them distinct and yet connected. He accomplished this by Friedhofer using the Wagnerian leitmotif approach yet going against the obvious choice and NOT giving separate themes to the three soldiers. Instead, the main title (also known as the “Best Year’s” theme) provides a C-major triad motif that Friedhofer was able to fragment and connect the three characters. Other themes were given to the hometown (“Boone City”); Homer’s girlfriend, Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell); a theme for Homer and Wilma’s families; the bluesy theme for the burgeoning, tentative relationship between Fred (Andrews) and Peggy (Teresa Wright); and one for Peggy herself.
My favorite cue happens early in the film as the soldiers return to their hometown. In this cue, Friedhofer condenses into six minutes feelings of joy, anticipation, and fear as the soldiers must face their families and loved ones after such a life-altering experience.
Even though Wyler encouraged Friedhofer to avoid the typical Hollywood sound and to write something “native and American,” the director later complained that the score should have sounded like Alfred Newman’s music to WUTHERING HEIGHTS (1939), which Wyler had also director. Goldwyn didn’t like it much either, though after Friedhofer won the Academy Award, Goldwyn’s attitude understandably improved.
The year was particularly strong for original scores and there’s not a dud in the nominated bunch. But even against such stiff competition as Bernard Herrmann’s ANNA AND THE KING OF SIAM, Franz Waxman’s brilliant classical music adaptations for HUMORESQUE, Miklos Rozsa’s film noir score for THE KILLERS, and William Walton’s masterpiece, HENRY V, Friedhofer’s nostalgic, yet unsentimental, score stands above the others by perfectly capturing the myriad of emotions in post-war America.