The FBI Believed That ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ Was Communist Propaganda
The FBI Believed That ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ Was Communist Propaganda

The FBI Believed That ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ Was Communist Propaganda

Patrick Lynch - March 22, 2018

Although it has been over 70 years since its release, It’s a Wonderful Life is still a Christmas classic and a staple of holiday programming. It is also one of the most critically acclaimed movies in history and was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Even so, the 1946 film was not a commercial success and actually lost over $500,000 at the box office. Reviews at the time were mixed with Bosley Crowther of The New York Times railing against the movie’s sentimentality.

In It’s a Wonderful Life, James Stewart stars as George Bailey, a banker who is on the verge of suicide on Christmas Eve, 1945. However, his guardian angel shows George that he has lived a worthy life and illustrates how different his community, Bedford Falls, would have been had George never been born. He eventually concludes that life is worth living and at the end, the guardian angel gets his wings while George is helped by the townsfolk. It is the classic ‘feel good’ movie but according to certain members of the FBI, It’s a Wonderful Life was nothing more than communist propaganda.

The FBI Believed That ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ Was Communist Propaganda
George Bailey confronts Potter – The Atlantic

The Scrooge-like Character of Henry F. Potter

It’s a Wonderful Life appeared on a secret list of movies maintained by the FBI for up to a decade after its release. The purpose of the list was to weed out Communist propaganda and for FBI informants, this Christmas classic was guilty of discrediting bankers, a common Communist tactic. In 1947, an FBI memo said that the poor depiction of banker Henry F. Potter was an attempt to discredit the profession. It continued by saying that the depiction was a deliberate ploy to ensure that Potter was the most hated character in the movie.

In It’s a Wonderful Life, Potter (played by Lionel Barrymore) is Bedford Falls’ richest man and also the meanest. He is a powerful shareholder in the business, Bailey Brothers’ Building and Loan, but to his chagrin, he doesn’t own the bank as he does with most of the town’s businesses. Potter is also a greedy slumlord but becomes irritated when Bailey, who takes over Bailey Brothers, launches Bailey Park, an alternative to the overpriced slums offered by Potter. The miser is amazed at Bailey’s actions which he dismisses as ‘sentimental hogwash’. He also asks Bailey: “Are you afraid of success?”

The FBI Believed That ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ Was Communist Propaganda
Bailey contemplating suicide – Decent Films

Potter tries, and fails, to buy Bailey off with the offer of becoming his assistant along with an enormous annual salary of $20,000. However, Potter gains the upper hand because Bailey’s daft Uncle Billy misplaces $8,000 of the bank’s cash and it becomes clear that the bank could be subject to criminal charges. Bailey asks Potter for a loan but the miser phones the police instead to have his nemesis arrested. After contemplating suicide, Bailey returns to the town and finds that the people of Bedford Falls have raised the $8,000. As a result, Potter’s warrant is torn up and Bailey Brothers is saved. To the untrained eye, the plot is nothing more than a movie that illustrates the benefits of being kind but to the FBI, it was something far more sinister.

The FBI Believed That ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ Was Communist Propaganda
Movie Poster – The Digital Reader

Undermining the Wealthy

The FBI believed the movie “deliberately maligned the upper class attempting to show that people who had money were mean and despicable characters.” The Bureau said that instead of demonizing Potter, the film should have shown that he was only following the rules issued by State Bank Examiners about making loans. Furthermore, the sympathetic portrayal of George Bailey was nothing more than a subtle attempt to exacerbate the problems experienced by ‘common’ people in society. It was an odd conclusion to make, especially since George and Harry Bailey are also bankers and both men are loved and respected in Bedford Falls.

One of the reasons the FBI focused on It’s a Wonderful Life was because it suspected the creator, Frank Capra, of left-wing sympathies. The Bureau believed that the 1939 Capra movie, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, was a socialist film. Incidentally, that movie also starred James Stewart. Although the screenwriters of It’s a Wonderful Life, Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, were not suspected, they were found guilty by association because they were seen eating lunch with known Communists such as Lester Cole. Oddly enough, the FBI did not discover that at least three actual Communist Party members had uncredited work on the movie’s script.

The FBI Believed That ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ Was Communist Propaganda
Dalton Trumbo – PBS

The Investigation Was a Product of its Time

The FBI was in the midst of a detailed investigation into Hollywood which officially lasted from 1942 to 1958. Although the Bureau didn’t find out that Albert Maltz, Michael Wilson, and Dalton Trumbo had worked on It’s a Wonderful Life, Maltz and Trumbo, along with Cole, were placed in the Hollywood Ten, a blacklist that denied employment to people suspected to have Communist leanings. Wilson ended up on the list in the 1950s. The first Hollywood blacklist was created on November 25, 1947, a day after ten directors and writers refused to testify before the House un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).

The Hollywood Ten, as they became known, were cited for Contempt of Congress and the ten were fired. In 1950, Red Channels was published. It was a pamphlet that named 151 people in the entertainment industry who were either ‘Reds’ or at least sympathizers. The majority of those named, along with hundreds of others, was barred from working in America’s entertainment industry. The ban lasted until 1960 when Trumbo worked as a screenwriter in the successful movie Exodus and also had a major role in writing Spartacus.

It was the era of the Second Red Scare (1947 – 57) which became known as McCarthyism after the staunchest advocate of anti-Communism, Senator Joseph McCarthy. During this era, hundreds of Americans were accused of Communist ties and were often hauled before the HUAC to answer for their ‘crimes’. While government employees were often questioned in this manner, members of the entertainment industry were arguably the prime targets. While Trumbo managed to find work after a ban of over a decade, others were not so lucky and continued to be banned well into the 1960s. Why did the FBI focus so heavily on Hollywood?

The FBI Believed That ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ Was Communist Propaganda
Second Red Scare Propaganda Poster – Patrick Hubert Design

Did Certain Films Spread ‘Suspect’ Ideas?

In the modern era, the notion of Communism being spread through the cinema seems ridiculous but it was a clear and present danger in the period immediately after World War II. Remember, this was an age when television had yet to reach the masses so the cinema was regarded as the best way to spread ideas. At that stage, more people went to the movies each week than church and school combined. With this in mind, it is easy to see that the cinema was a great way to spread an ideology.

Organizations such as the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (MPA) joined HUAC and the FBI in pressurizing the movie industry to spread ‘American’ ideology while ensuring that ‘suspect’ ideas such as Communism were either not given the time of day or were portrayed in a negative light. When It’s a Wonderful Life was released, the FBI didn’t see a heart-warming tale of human kindness and redemption. Instead, it saw a Communist movie that demonized the rich which exaggerating the plight of ‘the people’.

The actions of the FBI were also a reaction to the formation of the Popular Front which gained momentum in the mid-1930s. It was a coalition of left-wing thinkers who wanted to create a cultural project which showcased works of art that were politically progressive and socially relevant. Movies that followed this line of thought featured working-class heroes, were antiracist, and also antifascist. Interestingly, there was a brief period during World War II where Hollywood allowed the showing of pro-Soviet movies such as Mission to Moscow in 1943. This film showed a false image of the Soviet Union at a time when America was its ally.

The FBI Believed That ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ Was Communist Propaganda
Frank Capra – Wikipedia

As far as It’s a Wonderful Life is concerned, the FBI and HUAC decided not to take action after a lengthy investigation. To be fair, there were a number of Communists who worked on the movie and if you want to read too much into it, you could see why the FBI thought it was Communist in the context of the time. The richest man in the town was also the worst human being while poor George Bailey was trampled on by the elite.

However, it is crucial to note that while several writers and crew members were socialist, Frank Capra was certainly not. As well as being an ardent Conservative, Capra despised Franklin D. Roosevelt and was closer to being a fascist than a Communist. In fact, not only was he a lifelong Republican, but Capra also admired Mussolini and Franco and believed that America was the land of opportunity and a place where you can solve your problems within the existing system. Therefore, we have to conclude that regardless of the FBI’s suspicions, there is no way that Capra would knowingly be party to Communist propaganda.

 

Where Did We Get This Stuff? Here Are Our Sources

“The Working-Class Majority: America’s Best Kept Secret..” Michael Zweig. 2012.

“Ready 2 Go: 15 Heart-Changing Programs for Youth and Young Adults.” Randy Fishell. 2008.

“The FBI Once Thought ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ Was Communist Propaganda.” Hoai-Tran-Bui in Slash Film. December 2017.

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