None of those stories may be said to reflect or advance the agenda of anything you would possibly call the left. Mainstream American movies have, for many years, been in love with guns, suspicious of democracy, ambivalent about feminism, squeamish about divorce, allergic to abortion, all over on matters of sexuality and really nervous about anything to do with race.
I do know there are exceptions, and I’m not attempting to flip the script and reveal the reactionary face of Hollywood, though it’s true that within the years of the Production Code (from the mid-’30s until the late ’60s), Hollywood upheld a reasonably conservative vision of American life. Nonmarital sex was strictly policed, interracial romance completely forbidden. Crime couldn’t pay, and the dignity of institutions needed to be protected. Even within the post-Code years, what mainstream American movies have most frequently supplied aren’t critical engagements with reality, but fantasies of the established order. The dominant narrative forms, tending toward completely satisfied or redemptive endings — or, more recently, toward a horizon of countless sequels — are fundamentally affirmative of the way in which things are. What they affirm, most of all, is consensus, a perfect of harmony that isn’t a lot apolitical as anti-political, finding expression not within the voting booth but on the box office.
At the least because the end of World War II, the production of consensus has been integral to Hollywood’s cultural mission and its business model. In the course of the war, the studios worked closely with the military to deliver morale-boosting, mission-explaining messages to the home-front public, a collaboration that helped raise the industry’s prestige and its sense of its own importance. Within the postwar era, whilst they faced challenges from television, the antitrust division of the Justice Department and the demographic volatility of the audience, the studios conceived their mission in universal terms. Movies were for everyone.
That article of religion has at all times been a tough sell in a society defined by pluralism and, perhaps more persistently than we’d prefer to admit, by polarization. The notion that movies within the second half of the twentieth century reflected a now-vanished consensus is doubly dubious. The consensus was never there, except insofar as Hollywood manufactured it. Perhaps greater than every other American institution, Hollywood worked to foster agreement, to assume an area — throughout the theater partitions and on the screen — where conflicts might be resolved and contradictions wished away. Within the westerns, the cowboys fought the Indians, the ranchers battled the railroads, and the sheriffs shot it out with the outlaws. However the final result of those struggles was the pacification of the frontier and the advance of a less violent, more benevolent civilization. Within the dramas of racial conflict, Sidney Poitier and an avatar of intolerance (Tony Curtis, Spencer Tracy, Rod Steiger) found common ground ultimately.
This wasn’t propaganda in the same old sense, but reasonably an elaborate mythos, a reservoir of stories and meanings that didn’t have to be believed to be effective. We’ve at all times known that movies aren’t real — we prefer to insist that watching them is a form of dreaming — and that’s partly why we love them a lot.