Among all the classic holiday films, It’s a Wonderful Life has struck me as kind of an outlier. Because it’s pretty darned dark for the bulk of the story. It could be that complexity that makes it now considered an American tradition reflecting the values of community, of family, of love, and ultimately, of faith, the movie was kind of a flop when it was released in 1946. It left its creator, Frank Capra, $25,000 in debt. And it created a political panic.
An unnamed FBI agent who watched the film as part of a larger FBI program aimed at detecting and neutralizing Commie influences in Hollywood (fathered by, yes, J. Edgar Hoover) said it was “very entertaining.” However, writes scholar John A. Noakes, the agent “also identified what they considered a malignant undercurrent in the film.” As a result of this report, the film underwent further industry probes that uncovered that “those responsible for making It’s a Wonderful Life had employed two common tricks used by Communists to inject propaganda into the film.”
These two common “devices” or tricks, as applied by the Los Angeles branch of the Bureau, were smearing “values or institutions judged to be particularly American”–in this case, the capitalist banker, Mr. Potter, is portrayed as a Scroogey misanthrope–and glorifying “values or institutions judged to be particularly anti-American or pro-Communist”—in this case, depression and existential crisis, an issue that the FBI report characterized as a “subtle attempt to magnify the problems of the so-called ‘common man’ in society.”
George Bailey, the film’s protagonist, is also a small-scale community bank manager, and seen from one perspective his competition with aggressive tycoon (and Scrooge stand-in) Henry F. Potter, who runs the competing bank, tells a larger story about American business and industry. In the moment of post-war paranoia, even the idea of a community bank could be read as Communist. And George Bailey’s deep unhappiness in a quintessentially American small town life could be perceived as failure, which was broadly portrayed as Communist as well. But the story of the movie is much subtler than that, writes Noakes: “It’s a Wonderful Life depicts a struggle between two bankers, each representing a different vision of capitalism and democracy.”
The film was deemed “subversive” by the FBI, and it was referred to the House Un-American Activities Committee, the Joe McCarthy creation that was to become a scourge of the entertainment industry in the next decade. For whatever reason (maybe the huge popularity of the film’s star, Jimmy Stewart), HUAC didn’t move forward with an investigation.
But how little times have changed, huh? If the film hadn’t become an American icon, if it wasn’t beyond attack, we’d surely be hearing the same warnings about its subversion in 2017.