Marxist and other radical ideologies tended to find their way into the United States cinema following the devastating impact of the Great Depression of the 1930s on American capitalism. Some films embraced a point of view reflecting merely the liberal social policies and outlook of President Franklin Roosevelt (1933–1945), whose New Deal defined the social worldview of several generations. Liberalism, designed to co-opt and diffuse a rising tide of Marxist and socialist activity in the United States during the 1930s, appeared in the films of conservative directors, including John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath (1939), and the various populist films of the less reactionary Frank Capra (1897–1991), such as Meet John Doe (1941) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). Films such as Our Daily Bread (King Vidor, 1934) celebrated the collectivist spirit that accompanied phases of the New Deal and seemed to invoke the stylistics of the Soviet cinema.
World War II caused Hollywood to take complex political turns. Because the Soviet Union was allied with the United States in fighting Nazism, the film industry, working with the Office of War Information, made films that burnished Stalin's image and even helped justify his purges of many of the original supporters of the October Revolution. The most famous and rather bizarre example is Mission to Moscow (Michael Curtiz, 1943), about the globetrotting of Ambassador Joseph Davies that becomes a paean to Stalin as ally. After World War II, the Hollywood studios would renounce such films while helping the government condemn various directors, screenwriters, and producers as part of an international communist plot. In the climate of the Cold War, members of the film community were called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, which aimed to root out suspected communists but also to roll back the pro-union, prosocialist activity of the Great Depression as well as delegitimate Roosevelt's progressive social programs. A "blacklist" was created to purge communists and "fellow travelers" from the cinema. The most notorious phase of this process was the case of the Hollywood Ten, a group of writers and directors including Ring Lardner Jr. (1915–2000), Alvah Bessie (1904–1985), John Howard Lawson (1894–1977), Herbert Biberman (1900–1971), Dalton Trumbo (1905–1976), Albert Maltz (1908–1985), Samuel Ornitz (1890–1957), Edward Dmytrk (1908–1999), Adrian Scott (1912–1973), and Lester Cole (1904–1985), who were sent to prison for refusing to tell HUAC their political sympathies or to "name names" of suspected communists within the industry. Dmytrk and others cooperated with HUAC when released from prison and were therefore allowed to return to work. Others were kept on the blacklist and forced either out of or to the margins of the industry. HUAC activity continued well into the 1950s, gaining new momentum with the activity of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, a late-coming opportunist to the anti-left crusade.
By the late 1950s the hold of the Cold War on Hollywood tended to loosen somewhat with the censuring and early death, in 1957, of McCarthy, and the attempt by high-profile stars and producers to break the
American cinema in the postwar period, though rarely explicitly Marxist, often contained powerful condemnations of the intellectual and spiritual bankruptcy of the bourgeois life extolled by 1950s conservatism. Sirk's melodramas are perceptive comments, made by a European émigré observing the scene, on the limits of American middle- and upper-class life, with its social and economic contradictions and forms of repression. The melodrama is, in fact, the filmic site that seems to show, in the context of the 1950s, deep skepticism toward the American ideological program of restoring a sense of normality shattered by the Great Depression. Picnic (Joshua Logan, 1955), Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955), Bigger than Life (Ray, 1956), Some Came Running (Vincente Minnelli, 1958), Home from the Hill (Minnelli, 1960), and Strangers When We Meet (Richard Quine, 1960) are all stunning rebukes of American patriarchal bourgeois civilization. Even the Western, Hollywood's traditionally conservative genre, showed the cracks in the postwar ideological facade in films such as High Noon (Fred Zinneman, 1952) and Man of the West (Anthony Mann, 1958). Rather like the films of Renoir, Buñuel, and Pasolini, these films and later works of Hollywood seem less involved in offering a revolutionary solution than diagnosing the maladies of life under the capitalist social order.