AOM Logo




Hugo is the silent conscience of the film composer. An affirmative nod from the man is worth more than all of the trinkets bestowed by the film industry. - Henry Mancini

DVD cover imageHugo Friedhofer may be a name unknown to all but the film music cognoscenti. His modesty, tending to self-deprecation, probably had a lot to do with that. He said of his own work, "When I walk into the studio I'm not an artist so much as a plumber." Critic Gene Lees, a longtime member of that elite group who have heard of Hugo, remembered the man's modesty in a Los Angeles Times article: "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."

Indeed Friedhofer, among the later generation of film composers who revered him, was almost as well known for his wit as for his musicianship. It was he who offered the advice to his composition class, "a proper score for The Hunchback of Notre Dame should be quasi-modal" -- an eternally relevant judgment on both the technique of film music and the level of musical sophistication of almost all film producers.

Nevertheless, Friedhofer lamented the lack of respect for film music, a situation that has only, sadly, started to change since the composer and his colleagues died off in the 70s and 80s. "A strange snobbery toward this business exists," he mused, "but it exists largely among composers who have not been asked to write music for films." Hugo noted, too, that no such snobbery existed in Europe, where the most famous composers of the 20th century felt no compunctions about lowering themselves to write for the movies. He might have mentioned as well that he was one of the few American natives to reach the higher echelon of Hollywood composers. Among that elite Friedhofer had particular regard for Erich Korngold, Max Steiner and Alfred Newman, whom he called "the film music triumverate". He also admired Franz Waxman, Alex North, Bernard Herrmann, Andre Previn, Bronislau Kaper and David Raksin.

Raksin was the last survivor of the golden age of film music till his death only this summer. (It is worth noting that his death got much less press than the deaths of his worthy descendants, Jerry Goldsmith and Elmer Bernstein, in a month which saw the demise of 3 of the greatest film composers of the last half century.) It was Raksin who said of Friedhofer, who left us not long after the appearance of the first recording of Best Years of Our Lives in 1979, "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."

But this is retrospect, only possible after Best Years set a new standard for both film and film music, and after Hugo Friedhofer's 30 years of recognition among the 'pygmies' and philistines of Hollywood. (Though during the 'swinging 60s', he, like Steiner, Waxman, Herrmann and other veterans, found scoring assignments few). How did a relative unknown (in 1946) get the plum job of composing for the most prestigious film of 1946?

When producer Sam Goldwyn and director William Wyler considered the music for their first post World War II project, The Best Years of Our Lives, Goldwyn's first instinct, as usual, was to consult Alfred Newman. Newman had been Goldwyn's music director from the beginning of the sound era till he became head of music at Fox in 1939. He had also written Goldwyn's favourite film score, Wuthering Heights. It also happened that Wyler had directed both that film and several others for Goldwyn, including Dodsworth and Dead End, which also had been scored by Newman. Friedhofer himself tells how he came to be involved with The Best Years of Our Lives: "I got the film because once again Sam Goldwyn called Al Newman and asked who should be the man for the job - I think Goldwyn still somehow thought Al was working for him. This was years after Al had been head of music at Fox. Anyway, Goldwyn took his advice without question and I got the job even though William Wyler and others didn't want me. Wyler was a very confused man about music - he was also hard of hearing [from a WW2 injury]. He had great trouble hearing the lower frequencies of music, and when he did hear them, he hated them. He obviously disliked my score very much, in fact, so did many people around the Goldwyn studio, and it wasn't until after I'd won an Oscar for it that they started talking to me again. It was a difficult score because of the three disparate story levels - disparate but connected, and I had to find a common denominator. Somehow I managed."

And with that modest self-assessment we are launched into a discussion of the work which first leaped the wall separating "serious music" from its poor cousin, the Hollywood film score. That wall, it is true, was already undermined with the arrival in California of Korngold, Copland and Rozsa. But these three, though working regularly in Hollywood, were after all esteemed in the concert world before establishing themselves as film composers. It was reserved for Hugo Friedhofer to convince the musical establishment that original film music, even the kind spawned by the Hollywood species of musician, should be taken seriously after all.

At the time it seemed like Hugo Friedhofer had appeared from nowhere. That was not true, though Best Years was the composer's first prestige assignment. In fact, Hugo's first score had been for an "A" film produced by Goldwyn in 1938, The Adventures of Marco Polo. His special niche in Hollywood, however, had been the fairly invisible job of orchestrating for the town's two most famous composers, Max Steiner and Erich Wolfgang Korngold. (The great conductor Jascha Horenstein commented that Hugo would have done a better job orchestrating the Schumann symphonies than the composer himself did.) [Mahler had a crack at them, and did no better! - Ed] This humble work kept Friedhofer pretty busy, if creatively unfulfilled. The remuneration was pretty good, however, and the depression was still on when Hugo discovered his daily bread at Warners. And since Max and Erich wanted no one else touching their scores, Friedhofer's ego was adequately stroked for a few years. In the meantime, what with creative input into dozens of films (mostly without credit) he kept his compositional craft in flower.

During the war Friedhofer started to get some scoring assignments at Fox. Newman gave him several "A" jobs, including The Lodger, a remake of the famous Hitchcock silent starring the formidable Laird Cregar. Perhaps not coincidentally, the same year he was also assigned Hitchcock's only film for Fox, Lifeboat.

In 1946 the composer had just earned his first Oscar nomination for Fritz Lang's The Woman in the Window, which attention no doubt helped him even be considered for Best Years. But Friedhofer's sensibility, more modernist than romantic, was not going to make him many fast friends in the Hollywood mainstream. Though the composer was born in San Francisco, his Germanic name and established style weighed against ready acceptance for a project so quintessentially Uncle Sam as Best Years.

Expectations were confounded, however. No Hollywood score to this day more readily conjures the spirit of that time and place, post-World War II America, than the score of Best Years of Our Lives. But it is not merely that Friedhofer captured the mood and milieu of an era. No film and no score, it could be argued, more evocatively limn the feelings of a people whose lives have been forever altered by war. The pain and the promise, the loss, the longing, memory and hope -- simply the honest sentiments of a handful of fairly ordinary people haunted each in his own way by separation and change. No movie, no score get it so right.

And yet with all its matchless capturing of the range and richness of human response, no film score seems more unified than Best Years. How did Friedhofer do it? As Canadian composer Louis Applebaum sees it, in his technical analysis of the score for the above-cited album, Friedhofer's success with Best Years derives from a combination of the traditional Hollywood leitmotif method with an ingenious use of the triad, the chord which forms the basis of several themes (there are, says Applebaum, 7 themes from which the bulk of the score is woven.) Because of their shared triadic structure, several of these themes are easily interconnected in the fabric of the score. Even an untrained ear can recognize the homogeneity thus created by Friedhofer. Too, the composer gets much mileage at the subconscious level by his use of tiny fragments of his themes, which at the film's climaxes combine and cooperate to suggest complexities not always made evident in the narrative and performances. Such, for example, is the case in many of the scenes involving Homer (Harold Russell), a rather stoic double amputee whose traumatic adjustment to 'normal' life gives such resonance to Best Years. Russell's Homer, capable and touching as is the performance, is yet the work of a non-professional actor. He had never performed in a fiction film before and would never have a major role after. Russell won 2 Oscars for Best Years and Friedhofer won one. They should have split the 3.

Mention of Homer perhaps illustrates, as all the technical talk of triads does NOT to anyone but the trained musician, the greatest strength of Friedhofer's score: this is essentially simple music. The composer manages to create the musical equivalent of Gregg Toland's much-praised cinematography (which also won the Oscar.) Toland's deep focus trademark, which he had practiced earlier on such masterworks as Wuthering Heights, The Little Foxes and Citizen Kane, is here used to integrate the elements of the frame, close up front to extreme rear, in a way seldom seen before or since in film. This allows Wyler to shoot long scenes with minimal editing. This is not showoff cinema. It is the absolute antithesis of today's hyperactive, ADD-generated style of filmmaking. The great French critic Andre Bazin wondered aloud that Wyler made this 172 minute film with only 200 shots, fewer than the average Hollywood film utilizes in a single hour!

This economy results in a deceptive simplicity of narrative. And that simplicity is reinforced by Hugo Friedhofer. Such simplicity of both scenario and score is deceptive because it cannot be accomplished, at least at this altitude of accomplishment, without incredible technical pains. Friedhofer, like Toland, is able to hold in focus several levels of depth at once, increasing exponentially our emotional response to several of the most wrenching and/or touching scenes ever to grace the screen.

The simplicity of approach has another concomitant benefit, besides unifying the score. When Friedhofer is called upon to try something virtuosic, it REALLY stands out. Such is the case with the great penultimate scene at the plane graveyard. A despairing Fred Derry walks among the fighters and bombers in which he has found the sole meaning of his life so far. The planes are disabled, their engines and propellers gone. They are now as useless as Fred feels. His friend Homer and the planes have lost their limbs. Fred, though, IS lost. The scene has no dialog, no real drama. Yet it is among the greatest scenes in film annals. Wyler's direction is staggering, Dana Andrews' silent performance gripping. But it is Hugo Friedhofer who makes the scene indelible. In fact there is no sound, save some almost inaudible rustlings, but Friedhofer's music. In the music, in the brass dirge, the relentless tread of the orchestra, we are made to feel even for these mute mechanical monstrosities. In the music, we hear Fred reliving the horrific scenes of war. In the music, as Fred contemplates life from which the glory has departed, we see the hope die in his eyes. And then catharsis: As Fred sits lost in memory in the cockpit of a bomber's corpse, suddenly the cacophony of war is pierced by a nearby voice. Friedhofer's music -- the musical rat-a-tat and engine roar have been for some seconds the only sound we hear -- suddenly breaks off. We are left with the high strings suspended, alone. Fred, whom we now see separated from reality through the clouded, scratched window of the cockpit, is back on the ground. His war is over. But after the war and the music fade away, to the nostalgic tribute of a distant muted trumpet, Fred finds his future. The planes which were once his life are to become prefab houses. He has a job. He has a hope. Sword has become ploughshare.

This climactic scene becomes even more electrifying by contrast with the established ethos, the homogeneity of the moods Wyler and Friedhofer have created over the previous 2 ½ hours. Their self-effacement in earlier scenes pays off doubly in the virtuosity of the graveyard scene. That self-effacement, in fact, has been virtually total for most of the second half of the film. There is one stretch where there is no background score for over 30 minutes. Fred Derry hears no music when he is not above the clouds. Hugo Friedhofer, it seems, hears no music when his characters are enveloped by mundane, everyday existence. Al settled in his comfy bank job, Fred safe at his soda fountain, even Fred and Peggy's first (illicit) kiss fail to inspire a musical response. Fred's wife Marie's theme, a superficial saxophone ditty, is the only music we hear. And it's source music, or sounds like it, having none of the radiance which illumines most of the score. The composer seems to be saying these people are really only alive when their life is transition, even in turmoil. Ordinary, REAL life is the enemy of ecstasy.

This 30+ minute sequence is an extreme example of Friedhofer's economy. Yet there is, unusually for that time in Hollywood, slightly less than an hour of original music in this almost 3 hour picture. On which subject, Gene Lees again: "There is reticence in Hugo that would never permit of overstatement. And so he has given us countless scores that penetrate only the more deeply into us because they never embarrass us with the overt and obvious emotions. Hugo's music finds the secret places of our feelings, and we feel warmed to learn that others feel joys and subtle shades of sorrow we suspected that no one else had ever felt. And that makes us feel less alone."

Such reticence, we are not surprised, is amused and perhaps made uncomfortable by praise of a certain type. The musical establishment did, however, go on. And on. Dartmouth prof Frederick Sternfield, writing in the eminent Musical Quarterly, compared Friedhofer's method with Hindemith, reveling in their "contemporary and anfractuous idealisms of the sovereign". We are not surprised that Hugo found the company of the unpretentious "pygmies" of Hollywood more to his taste. But happily Lan Adomian nailed the essence of Best Years 'score: "the warmth and poignancy of folk music and the dignity of a hymn." And he added, "It is one of the few film scores that would stand up in the best symphonic company."

What exactly makes Best Years stand up after 58 years? Surely its technical mastery. The performances, uniformly fine. The Robert Sherwood script has nothing superfluous and few literary flourishes. More to the point, from the standpoint of 2004, both script and film have a maturity made of equal parts romanticism and realism. Best Years is idealistic but not over-the-top in the way many similarly successful films of that era are today. There's even an occasional dash of cyanide, as in the most cynical comment the Sherwood script drops. Homer's uncle Butch the publican, all the while accompanying himself on the piano to the tune Lazy River, in an effort to encourage his armless nephew, hits Homer with the thought, "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?" When we stop to consider that cynical but caring Butch is played by Hoagy Carmichael, no slouch himself at composing, not only of Lazy River, but of that least earthbound of melodies, the immortal Stardust, we marvel once more at the audaciousness of American art in another era.

Well that era is long over. We have George Bush, not Franklin Roosevelt, not even Harry Truman. And we have James Horner, not Hugo Friedhofer. We have lamented more than once on these pages the substitution of synthetic 'feeling', in the modern Hollywood score, for sincerity and emotional honesty. Saccharine for sucrose, some might say. But why is there so little love in music today? Hugo Friedhofer was no romantic fool. David Raksin wonders how Hugo "managed to sustain a dark view of nearly everything despite personal successes that might have tempted lesser men toward optimism." How could a man whose prime coincided with the great depression, World War 2 and the McCarthy years compose music of such poignancy and pathos, nobility and humanity? I don't think our descendants (should there be any) are likely to use such nouns to characterize this generation's culture (assuming our putative descendants have any verbal skills at all).

Louis Applebaum said of Hugo Friedhofer's music for The Best Years of Our Lives, "It is a piece of Americana that will grow in stature with the culture." He didn't know what we know about where that culture would be after a few more decades. But as we get further away from the mountains we see how majestic they really are. And everything closer seems small indeed.

* A grateful acknowledgment is due to the original LP notes from the Entr'Acte album, produced by John Steven Lasher, which supplied much of the background material for this review.

Copyright © 2004 Audiophilia Home