“All you need to make a film is a girl and a gun.”
In 1947, an executive director of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals deplored the “sizable doses of communist propaganda” in many films of the day. Leaving aside the question of whether “American ideals” could be identified—much less preserved—in the revolutionary medium of film, we would nevertheless yawn today at the nomination of such turkeys as Watch on the Rhine, The North Star, and Mission to Moscow. Of course they were propagandistic films, written by left-wingers and even by Stalinists. But also on his list was a sentimental bit of Americana, The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). Was it “communist” to show the ex-sergeant, played by Frederick March, lending money from the bank to a hard-pressed farmer?
Better yet, was it “communist” to render the psychological stress of the ex-bombardier, played by Dana Andrews, as he sat in the nose of a junked B-17 and fantasized that the engines were once again turning over? It was an unforgettable scene that said much not only about trauma but about the transition from a war economy. The coordination of elements in the junked-bomber scene transcends in...