September 2000 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster Len Mullenger

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EDITOR’s CHOICE September 2000


The Best Years of Our Lives  
  Franco Collura conducting the London Symphony Orchestra with Bob Burns (alto sax).
This recording was first released as an analogue LP in 1978, reissued on CD by Preamble in 1988 and now reissued in a new digital remix by -
  LABEL X LXCD 14   [46:13]
Amazon UK  

The Editor's comment:-

Since I am reviewing this release for Soundtrack Magazine, I feel I must leave the detailed comments to my colleague Film Music on the Web reviewers. I will say, though, that this score is one of my all time favourites. I saw the film The Best Years of Our Lives with my parents when I was about eleven. I remember we queued for hours -- the film was immensely popular. It touched upon a universal and highly topical theme for 1946, the predicament of the returning ex-serviceman who found readjusting to life "in civies" just as difficult and hazardous, in its own way, as four-to-six years of global war.

Hugo Friedhofer, too often remembered as just an orchestrator for better-known Hollywood greats, such as Korngold and Steiner, was clearly deeply moved by the screenplay to write his finest work. This is a deeply affecting score with beautiful, noble melodies that cling in the memory and feel absolutely right. They are in their way a sort of thanksgiving hymn. And Friedhofer's 'Nightmare' and 'Bomber Graveyard' music for Fred (Dana Andrews) is a tour de force for music as actor.

If you have never heard this music then I urge you to do so now. Unhesitatingly top marks.

Ian Lace


Original LP cover design

John Huether adds:-

Hugo Friedhofer wrote a uniquely American score for this, a uniquely American story. I describe The Best Year of Our Lives that way despite Royal S. Brown's contention, offered in his liner notes to this excellent Label X remastering, that the film contains a "we-whipped-the-bad-guys optimism" from which the composer drew his inspiration.

I beg to differ. Certainly, the satisfaction of victory was felt by citizens of all allied nations, but I think there was a somewhat different feeling in this country. Without wishing to sound like a jingoistic Yank, I would suggest that Americans saw their role in World War II more as a duty to help than as self-defense. Yes, the attack at Pearl Harbor brought the war home to us in a shocking, savage manner. But those bombs came no nearer our mainland than the bombs and rockets that struck London in the blitz. Americans went to war not out of sense that their families and homeland were directly threatened by Hitler, but out of a sense of duty to help others who were so threatened or, worse, already enslaved. Put simply, it was a job that needed to be done. And when the job was over, they returned -- businessmen, laborers, farmers -- proud of having done their duty but now simply hoping to resume their lives. Part of the realism that director William Wyler and screenwriter Robert Sherwood achieved in "The Best Years" lies in the film's very lack of chest-thumping, tough-guy swaggering.

For his part, Friedhofer begins his score with a broad, gently uplifting main theme that speaks, in a subtly ennobling way, of the great American heartland to which the story's three main characters are returning. The theme for Boone City -- located somewhere near the intersection of Gershwin and Copland -- emphasizes their optimism. But the happy promise of peacetime soon gives way to doubts as the difficulty of adjustment becomes clear. Notice how Friedhofer utilizes his main theme several times in connection with the hooks that have replaced one of the character's hands. The point is clear: The country our soldiers came home to is the same, but their lives have been forever changed. (Wyler himself was personally aware of this: Accompanying B-17 bombing runs over occupied Europe to make his classic war documentaries, he suffered permanent ear damage that, for a time, sent him into a deep despair.)

Without question, this is Friedhofer's most melodic score, with themes for at least three maim characters (Homer, Peggy and Wilma) as well as themes denoting feelings ('Neighbors') and place (the aforementioned 'Boone City.') Part of the score's success stems from its delicate intermingling of these various themes throughout various scenes as characters interact, emotions shift, and the drama unfolds. Through his music, Friedhofer helps join the many disparate characters in their common experience.

No review of this score is complete without reference to the starkly impressionistic music Friedhofer wrote for the Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) character, an Army Air Force officer who relives a harrowing bombing mission while perched in the nose of a surplused bomber. A first viewing of the film readily suggests special sound effects, but none was used. It's all Friedhofer as the plane's engines rumble awake, and enemy machine gun fire rakes the glass nose bubble where Derry sits. It's a bravura musical achievement, made even more effective because much of it is based on material Friedhofer already has introduced in a previous scene involving Derry ('The Nightmare.')

The Best Years of Our Lives may have been producer Sam Goldwyn's greatest film, and it's no surprise that his choice to score it wasn't Friedhofer. Alfred Newman, who had scored Wuthering Heights for Goldwyn and Wyler, was their first pick, but he recommended Friedhofer. "I got the job even though William Wyler and others didn't want me," Friedhofer told Goldwyn biographer Scott Berg. Although long rated among the greatest Hollywood scores ever written, it wasn't recorded until John Lasher offered it on LP on the Entr'acte label in 1979 - more than 10 years after Lasher first approached the composer about reworking the score into a suite for symphony orchestra. Now, two decades later, Lasher continues to improve on the initial recording with this remixed and remastered CD. One quibble: While the liner notes by Brown (discussing the film's production history) and by Page Cook (focusing on Friedhofer) are informative, I would have liked to know more about the conductor, Franco Collura (a native of Buffalo, N.Y., he's just Frank on the LP's credits) and the recreation of the score itself which, performed by the London Philharmonic, is one of the finest full-score recreations I've ever heard.

John Huether


And Jeffrey Wheeler sent me this communication:-

Dear Ian,

You mentioned to me awhile back that Hugo Friedhofer's score for "The Best Years of Our Lives" is one of your favorite film scores. Now I cannot imagine how a fan of orchestral film music would disagree! Here I am, listening to the CD re-mastering and re-issue of it for the umpteenth time. It is tremendously beautiful, sounding impossible to upbraid. While not Friedhofer's own, original filmusic recording, which I wish we could hear (being something of a completist), I think Franco Collura and the London Philharmonic did an appreciable job. Re-recordings are tough now, so I have no doubt that they were over 20 years ago.

Friedhofer's music signifies extraordinary emotion from a past age. His work with Korngold, Steiner and others is distinguished; no film critic could mistake his scholarly precision flavoring the instrumentation. It seems that in the present, the mention of Hollywood's Golden Age film scores prompts thoughts of unison, cookie-cutter string sections and sappy melodies. "The Best Years of Our Lives" sets itself apart from the generalized view as any other truly classic score... The orchestrations further established a dramatic standard that a precious number of film composers emulate to this day. The 'Homecoming' exposition is especially theatrical. The 'Fred and Peggy' blues motif, nicely performed by Robert Burns on alto saxophone, confirms the score as one about relationships on various levels. Throughout the score, the romance, the dissonance, and the blues mingle in an ideal union of tradition and invention. Recall Friedhofer's noble main theme - a cynosure of the period, a classic, insuperable in its kind. Music is a perfect vessel for philosophy, music itself is a philosophy, and beyond the drama the composer gives us thought. It 'works' like a stunning symphony.

There is not much to say that has not been said already, whether here or in the release's multifarious sleeve notes by Royal S. Brown, the late Page Cook, and soundtrack producer John Steven Lasher. "The Best Years of Our Lives" garners every particle of that insight and every ounce of that praise with worthiness.

Thanks and regards,

Jeffrey Wheeler


While Paul Tonks contributes:-

Were a film (most likely for television) like this to be made today, the score would unquestionably be unbearably saccharin and overly patriotic in Americana. The tale of Homer Parrish and other WWII vets returning to lives complicated by their absence is a powerfully emotional one. Hollywood of the '90s just cannot treat such material today with anything other than tired cliché both in dialogue and music (for a recent example of how their 'respect' for the period currently works, see U-571…). So thank goodness this was made when it was relevant (just after the war), and when "Master" orchestrator Friedhofer could make its emotions resonate realistically.

Winning an Oscar back then meant a little more than it does today, so if our reviews don't sway you toward believing its quality. For this really is one of the all-time greats. It's somehow manipulative while unobtrusive, and mournful yet joyous. It's by no means contradictory in the sense of incomprehensible as a standalone. But whether to picture or not, this music performs that double trick of making you feel happy and sad all at once. It's a strings-heavy piece and that sets a warm tone right from the "Main Title".

Although a re-release of what made it to vinyl in the seventies, this has been digitally re-mastered. Collectively, the reviews on this site should have you rushing to obtain one of the best scores of our lives.

Paul Tonks


A note from Fifth Continent Music

I note that John Huether lamented the lack of info on conductor Franco Collura and the reconstruction of the score by Tony Bremner. In the former respect a brief bio follows. You may contact Mr Bremner about the restoration at 3 Dukes Avenue, Finchley N3 2DE.

FRANCO COLLURA was born in Buffalo, New York, USA. After completing his studies under William Vacchiano, he joined the trumpet section of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. In 1968 he assumed a position in the faculty at the State University of Buffalo. He began conducting studies in 1971 under Charles Bruck, followed by advanced instruction in Italy under Franco Ferrara (himself, a noted conductor of music for Italian films). Since 1972 he has appeared as conductor with the Buffalo Philharmonic, Kansas City Philharmonic and Santa Barbara Symphony. Guest appearances include the RTO of Sofia (Bulgaria), Honolulu, Indianapolis and Oakland Symphony Orchestras, among others. In 1978, duputising at the eleventh-hour for an ailing Emil Newman, he was engaged by the Entr'acte Recording Society to conduct the London Philharmonic Orchestra in a world-premiere recording of Hugo Friedhofer's legendary score for 'The Best Years of Our Lives'. A  digitally remixed and remastered CD was released by Fifth Continent Music Classics on Label 'X' through Hot Records UK to rave reviews.


Ian Lace

John Huether

Jeffrey Wheeler

Paul Tonks


Reviews from previous months

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