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It’s a wonderful life against the FBI


Few could confuse the joy of Christmas with Communist subversion like J. Edgar Hoover. The FBI Director’s campaign to expose Soviet sympathizers among the postwar Hollywood elite is well documented, but his office’s concern for the favorite family holiday It’s a wonderful life as an alleged Trojan horse for the dissemination of red values ​​to Central America is an episode particularly absurd and appropriate to the season to remember.

A report from the local FBI office in Los Angeles shows that, from 1942 to 1958, more than two hundred Hollywood feature films were investigated by the Bureau with the help of film industry informants. The contents of the films and the personnel involved in their production were searched for signs that they may have been turned into “Communist propaganda weapons”. American picture houses were, according to Hoover and his investigators, one of the main terrains on which the USSR and its allies planned to fight the Cold War.

Many of the films studied had overtly militaristic or political themes that FBI agents saw as either promoting Communist ideals or undermining American principles. Herbert Biberman’s film in 1942 The race of the masters, in which three military officers – a manly and confident Russian, an overweight American and a smug Briton – attempt to jointly rule a Belgian town formerly occupied by the Nazis is an obvious choice.

But director Frank Capra’s 1946 fantasy drama, watched by millions of homes each year today, is unlikely to strike the average viewer as particularly subversive or controversial. So what was it It’s a wonderful life, a sentimental fairy tale of a family man rescued by his Guardian Angel, that got Hoover’s henchmen so nervous?

The LA field report presents three criteria by which a film can be identified as having propaganda leanings. Two of them are particularly relevant for It’s a wonderful life, embodying as they do the two opposing forces in the film’s narrative. The first is when

values ​​or institutions considered particularly anti-American or pro-communist are magnified in a film. Examples: failure; depravity; the “ordinary man”; collective.

It’s here that we can see the FBI’s cynical assessment of the pictured hero, Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey – an hapless dreamer who sacrifices his own hopes of travel and success to support a small town and business. loan inherited from his father. George’s lifelong job is to provide mortgages to workers in Midwest Bedford Falls so they can buy their own homes and move out of the city’s run-down slums. Stewart delivers some of the character’s most exciting monologues in defense of the plight of the working class – the people who “work, pay and live and die in this community” – usually in direct protest against his foil, which embodies the Second Criterion of the FBI to note:

Values ​​or institutions deemed particularly American are defamed or presented as bad in a film. Examples: The free enterprise system; wealth of industrialists; the motive for profit; Success; independent man.

The greedy double Mr. Potter, played to poisoned perfection by Lionel Barrymore, is the quintessential capitalist ogre who seeks to take over all the properties and businesses in town and get working families to rent out shacks in the slums he owns. Bailey, the last man standing between Potter and complete domination of Bedford Falls, stands in the way of exceptionalism, individualism and the prosperity of “free enterprise”. Long regarded as the gold standard of the all-American hero on screen, he becomes, in the minds of the FBI, an infantryman in the campaign to destroy Western civilization.

Of course, when you look beyond the narrative properties of the film to those involved, as the FBI did, the argument fails. The report names screenwriters Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett as individuals known to be “very close to the Communists”, and indeed other suspected affiliates, such as blacklisted penman Dalton Trumbo, were known to have taken permits. – pass uncredited on the script as it travels to the screen. . But the two dominant personalities on It’s a wonderful life – director Capra and star Stewart – couldn’t have been further from the people of interest.

Although they are known for their work on populist “little man against the system” features, especially in the 1939s Mr. Smith goes to Washington, both men were in fact devout registered Republicans. Capra himself had openly expressed his admiration for the fascist regimes of Benito Mussolini and Francisco Franco. While working with well-known left-wing screenwriters such as Jo Swerling, Robert Riskin and Sidney Buchman, he also strove to preserve the credibility of his own establishment and distance himself from the inclinations of his collaborators by serving as an informant for the FBI on his contemporaries on the left.

Ultimately, It’s a wonderful life (and its reception) is the product of a tension between conflicting personalities and agendas – the end result being a heartwarming story, to be sure, but without an explicit ideological framework. It’s a story about how important each of us is to the community – a basic enough pure vanity from which viewers of all stripes can derive whatever message is best for them.

Reflecting on the FBI investigation, John A. Noakes speculates that the conflict between Bailey and Potter does not represent the struggle of communism against capitalism, but rather a “dying form” of family capitalism centered on small businesses against “the most centralized ”. , more corporate ”which will finally take its place in the second half of the 20th century. That said, there are probably plenty of savvy socialists who are reaching out to those close to them to watch this film as Christmas approaches. So what can we get out of it?

It’s a wonderful life reads me as the triumph of collective action over individual interest. To spoil a seventy-five-year-old movie: George is pushed to the brink of suicide by the threat of bankruptcy and jail when an $ 8,000 deposit falls into Potter’s hands, convinced that everyone would be better off if he had never been born. But the townspeople, mobilized by George’s wife Mary (Donna Reed), are ultimately his salvation as they collect crumpled dollars and spare change to fill the gap. This moving display of mutual support takes place offscreen as George is shown a dystopian world he doesn’t exist in by his guardian angel Clarence (Henry Travers) to remind him of his worth.

The FBI report considers Potter a “scrooge” character, but he is not redeemed like his predecessor and therefore plays no part in the film’s euphoric conclusion. Rather, it is a resounding confirmation that the people cannot rely on the capitalists who control our systems and resources to save us; we have to look at each other.

“No man is a failure who has friends,” Clarence reminds George when he visits family and neighbors. To quote Jimmy Stewart completely incorrectly in the film’s emotional climax: “Merry Christmas, Frank Capra. Merry Christmas, J. Edgar Hoover. Merry Christmas, comrades.


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Cory E. Barnes

The author Cory E. Barnes