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Despite the fact that he came to prominence in the heyday of Hollywood's great film scores, Hugo Friedhofer never achieved the recognition enjoyed by his contemporaries Miklos Rozsa, Alfred Newman, Bernard Herrmann, and Franz Waxman. This may have been a result of the fact that he tended to score movies that were more noted for their stars than their dramatic content.
Hugo Wilhelm Friedhofer was the son of a cellist from Dresden. He quit school at the age of 16 to take a job as an office boy, and studied art at night at the Mark Hopkins Institute in San Francisco. He'd started learning the cello from his father at age 13, but for most of his teen years, music and art challenged each other as his first love. At 18, he finally decided to devote himself to music, taking up the cello in earnest and achieving a professional level of competency by the time he was 20. He played in a symphony orchestra and a theater orchestra while continuing to study music full-time, including composition courses with Italian composer Dominico Brescia. He worked periodically as an arranger for popular bands and playing in theater orchestras, and then, with the advent of talking pictures, was suddenly thrown out of work when the theater orchestras disappeared. He scrambled around for work for two years, already married and with a wife and child to support. Then in the late '20s, he landed a job in Hollywood as an arranger at Fox Studios. Arriving there in April of 1929, he took his first assignment, the movie Sunny Side Up, and then worked as a freelancer for the next few years. He was finally hired by Warner Bros. and spent the middle and end of the '30s orchestrating more than 50 of the movie scores written by Max Steiner, and 15 of the renowned scores of Erich Wolfgang Korngold.
By the early '40s, he was widely admired as an orchestrator even among the classical community, which normally looked down its nose at film music, including such renowned figures as conductor Jascha Horenstein. Friedhofer emerged very slowly as a composer. His first assignment, for The Adventures of Marco Polo starring Gary Cooper, came about in 1937 through his friend Alfred Newman. Unfortunately, the Warner Bros. music department had all of the composing talent it needed and only used Friedhofer as an orchestrator. Luckily, he had Newman's lasting friendship. In 1944, Newman got Friedhofer an assignment at 20th Century Fox to score The Lodger. Newman was the most respected creative figure in film music in Hollywood, whose word was law with many producers and even a few moguls, among them Samuel Goldwyn. It was on Newman's recommendation that Goldwyn — over the objections of director William Wyler (who wanted Newman) — selected Friedhofer to compose the music to the most important movie he had ever made, The Best Years of Our Lives, in 1945. Friedhofer's score for The Best Years of Lives was one of the finest ever written for a Goldwyn movie and it won the composer an Academy Award and attracted the favorable attention of serious music critics. Friedhofer's career as a composer was made, and he went on to score such diverse films as Ace in the Hole, The Bishop's Wife, Three Came Home, Seven Cities of Gold, An Affair to Remember, The Young Lions, and One-Eyed Jacks. He worked well into the 1970s on movies including Roger Corman's Von Richthofen & Brown and Paul Bartel's Private Parts. In the 1970s, Friedhofer was respected as an elder statesman of film music. As one of the few surviving members of his generation, he ended up as a spokesman for them and a symbol of the neglect to which their work was subjected; many of his scores were part of a massive amount of studio documents bulldozed as landfill during the early '70s. Ironically, by the end of that decade, scholars and record companies were busy reconstructing Friedhofer's orchestrations and arrangements for new recordings.