That Time the FBI Scrutinized “It’s a Wonderful Life” for Communist Messaging

At the 2020 Republican National Convention, one of the speakers compared Donald Trump to the character of George Bailey in the film It is a wonderful life.

“In the classic Jimmy Stewart movie It is a wonderful life“George Bailey is getting a great gift – a chance to see what the world would be like without him,” announced Natalie harp, a Trump election council member who raised the signing of a bipartisan law by the former president to ease access to experimental drug treatments. “Tonight, Mr. President, we’d like to give you the same gift, because without you we’d all be living in Pottersville, sold out to a crooked Mr. – or I should say Mrs. – Potter with no hope of … escape other than death itself . ”

The comparison didn’t fit well with members of the family of Jimmy Stewart, the actor who played Bailey. In the film, Bailey runs a small-town build and loan company and is plagued by bad break-ins and a devious banker, but is ultimately saved by angelic intervention and the support of a community that prefers love and solidarity to self-service and greed. “Given that this beloved American classic is about decency, compassion, sacrifice, and the fight against corruption, our family views Ms. Harp’s analogy as the height of hypocrisy and dishonesty.” wrote Kelly Stewart Harcourt, the actor’s daughter, in a letter to The New York Times.

Columnists, commentators, and movie fans all agreed Donald Trump wasn’t George Bailey as they rushed to defend the honor of the film that has become a holiday classic.

But the status of the film as a classic only came with time. At the time of its publication in 1946 it was a till mistake that came under test by the Federal Bureau of Investigation as a subversive film allegedly showing evidence of the Communist Party’s infiltration of the film industry. During the “Red Terror” after World War II, Hollywood was a prime target of those claiming that Communist Party members were using propaganda to induce anti-capitalist positions among the American people. Writer Ayn Rand – who worked in the film industry before writing fictional celebrations of greed that became touchstones for politicians, including former House Speaker Paul Ryan and U.S. Senator Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) – and hers Allies had considerable success in promoting the idea that Communist directors, writers, and actors undermined American values ​​through popular films.

edge testified on the matter before the House Un-American Activities Committee and consulted the FBI, which prepared a report that subjects by a group she was associated with – the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. The report o “Communist infiltration of the film industry“Claims:

The purpose of the communists in Hollywood is not to produce political films that openly advocate communism. Their purpose is to corrupt non-political films – by injecting small, casual bits of propaganda into innocent stories and getting people to indirectly and implicitly absorb the basic principles of collectivism. Few people would get communism in a nutshell, but a constant stream of clues, lines, touches, and suggestions beating the public from the screen will act like drops of water splitting a rock if continued long enough. The rock they are trying to split is Americanism.

Could anyone seriously imagine that It is a wonderful life was an anti-capitalist manifesto wrapped in the sentimental story of an angel helping a suicidal businessman see the value of family, friends, and Christmas? It seems absurd, but it’s not that far removed from the notion of today’s right wing that even the most modest expansion of a government program is evidence of creeping socialism.

In a May 1947 memo to FDI Director J. Edgar Hoover, a special agent at the FBI’s Los Angeles branch warned, “With regard to the picture ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, [an informant] essentially stated that the film was a fairly obvious attempt to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as the “Scrooge guy” so that he would be the most hated man in the picture. According to these sources, this is a common trick communists use. ”

Barrymore played Mr. Potter, the cruel and obstinate banker whose machinations brought the Honorable George Bailey’s construction and credit company to the brink of ruin, and Bailey himself on the bridge, contemplating suicide before seeking advice from a Guardian Angel Led home.

According to the FBI report, the informant told the sales representative that “in his opinion, this picture is deliberately defaming the upper class and trying to portray the people who had money as mean and despicable characters.” The source also suggested that the film could have been made differently by portraying Mr. Potter as a conscientious banker who simply “followed the rules set by the state auditor in relation to lending” and as “a man who who it was ”. to protect the funds entrusted to him by private individuals and to adhere to the rules for lending that money instead of showing the part as it was shown. ”

Aside from being very poor cinematic advice, the source’s suggestion would actually have undermined the essential message of a film that in many ways claims classic small-town values ​​about right and wrong dealing with people.

However, the FBI report compared It is a wonderful life on a Soviet film, arguing that the film’s producer and director, Frank Capra, was “affiliated with left-wing groups” and “captured an image that was decidedly socialist in nature – ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. ‘”It was also alleged that screenwriters Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett were” very close to prominent communists. ”

John Noakes, who in the 1990s was a professor of sociology at Franklin & Marshall College investigating the FBI’s efforts to identify films as subversive, stated when he came across the agent’s memo: “The FBI was trying to get the contents of films analyze to find evidence that Hollywood communists tried to bring propaganda into films. They had been watching Hollywood for several years, keeping track of the affiliations of the people who were having lunch with whom, and sympathizing with communist causes. Your reasoning was that if you are either a communist, or known to be associated with communists, you could incorporate communist propaganda into your films. ”

Noakes, who wrote detailed on the once hidden history of the FBI investigation into It is a wonderful life, listed in 1997:

The interesting thing about the FBI criticism is that the Baileys were bankers too, and what really goes on is a fight between the big city banker (Potter) and the little banker (the Baileys). Capra was clearly on the side of small capitalism and the FBI was on the side of big capitalism. The FBI misinterpreted this classic fight as communist propaganda. I would argue that “It’s a Wonderful Life” is a poignant film about the transition between small and large capitalism in the US, with Jimmy Stewart representing the last hope for a small town. It’s very similar to the battle between Home Depot and the mom and dad hardware store.

This observation only got truer over time. Indeed, in an Amazon moment when size seems to threaten any business, It is a wonderful life reminds of what is lost when multinational corporations and the billionaire class overwhelm not only trade, but common sense and the Christmas cheer as well.


Leave a Comment