In a film filled with scarcely a wrong move, The Best Years of Our Lives tells the story of three soldiers (Fredric 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 not only did he win the Oscar for Supporting Actor, but he also received a Special Award for “for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans.”
Another outstanding element is Hugo 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 it down. 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 should, 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 listenint to it in the film, since the silent strethes 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.”
As did many film composers before and after him, Friedhofer used the Wagnerian leitmotif approach. With three separate storylines overlapping, it was Friedhofer’s job to musically make them distinct and yet connected. He accomplished this by 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.
Outstanding musical cues abound in the film. One of the most poignant occurs when Homer tests Wilma’s love by demonstrating the many tasks needed for him to get ready for bed and how helpless he is after a certain point. The strings, without a trace of sentimentality, signal Wilma’s courage and acceptance of Homer’s disability. My favorite cue happens early in the film as the soldiers return to their hometown. In this cue, Friedhofer condenses into six minutes every joyous, yet anticipatory, feeling about homecoming.
One of the most famous cues, and the most dissonant, accompanies Fred’s visit to the bomber graveyard filled with planes waiting to be turned into scrap. As he hoists himself into the nose of the plane, the music turns more martial and discordant as he relives the horrors of the war. Friedhofer discusses the scene as
- pure musical sound with just the barest smidgen of actual physical motor noise. But the real wallop was in the sound of the orchestra itself. Strangely enough, it was a trick that I had done years before, not as elaborately as this, but a plane taking off, in which I fooled around with the simulation of motor noise. But at that time, nobody paid any attention to it, but here it was so dramatically valid that I think that, rather than anything else in the score, was responsible for the Oscar. Because this was something that the completely tone-deaf members of the Academy could grab onto. The subtleties were, I think, probably wasted on all except the music branch, but who cares? And that is why I’ve said on several occasion that I attach a great deal more importance to an Academy nomination than I do or did to the award itself, because this was something that was bestowed onyou by a jury of your peers.
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). 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 adaptations for Humoresque, Miklos Rozsa’s classic theme 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.