American Film and Society since 1945

By Leonard Quart; Albert Auster | Go to book overview

after them as they sing "We're really living, we're going on the town." Their energy is so infectious that it allows them to liberate three young women -- an overworked taxi driver ( Betty Garrett), an oversexed socialite ( Anne Miller) (class differences are no obstacle), and a pert ballerina reduced for financial reasons to kootch dancing at Coney Island (Vera Ellen). As they romp through New York, the city becomes a metropolis of grandeur, romance, vitality, and sentiment (even the cops are softhearted), the exuberant center of an even more buoyant America. 30

It is this inexhaustible sense of energy, joy, and confidence that more than anything else characterizes the forties and their films. Certainly there were dark clouds looming, such as the HUAC threat, to sap Hollywood's vitality. In addition, film noir had raised the curtain on a darker side of the American psyche and character. Nevertheless, for most Americans the forties -- particularly the late forties-were the first relatively unruffled period of peace and prosperity that they had enjoyed in almost two decades. Despite fears of the Soviet Union and a native communist fifth column, there was also the faith that America had both the material and the moral capacity to deal with the "red menace" and any other problem it confronted. For example, films like Howard Hawks's epic western about the first cattle drive up the Chisholm Trail, Red River ( 1948), conveyed great confidence in the strength of the American character. The film's monomaniacal, forbidding hero, Tom Dunson ( John Wayne), easily masters the land, cattle stampedes, and Indian attacks. And this exemplar of American individualism even learns to temper his rigidity and rage and reconcile himself with his more flexible, feelingful (but still tough) stepson, Matt Garth ( Montgomery Clift).

Hollywood had emerged from the war with its coffers, audience, and prestige at an all-time peak. As a result, the forties' films were perhaps the last time that Hollywood had sufficient self-confidence to create an insulated, coherent world, which could unselfconsciously endorse the American Dream. For most Americans and for Hollywood the forties were truly "The Best Years of Our Lives."


NOTES
1
Godfrey Hodgson, America in Our Time: From World War II to Nixon, What Happened and Why ( New York: Vintage, 1978), pp. 17-64.
2
Hodgson, America in Our Time, p. 20.
3
Hodgson, America in Our Time, p. 54.
4
Eric F. Goldman, The Crucial Decade -- and After, America 1945- 1960 ( New York: Vintage, 1960).

-39-

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