It has been hailed as an American classic and placed on the American Film Institute’s List of 100 Greatest American movies and the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry, but would you believe that It’s A Wonderful Life was once considered communist propaganda? From 1947 to 1956, Frank Capra’s iconic film was under suspicion by the Federal Bureau of Investigation as being a ‘carrier of political propaganda.’
During the post-World War Two years, a wave of paranoia swept across the country about possible communist infiltration into various aspects of American life, with Hollywood and the film industry falling into firmly into the crosshairs of such hysteria. People working in the film industry were investigated for possible communist affiliations, often based on the either a passing interest in the political philosophy from years or even decades earlier or on the unsubstantiated word of an informer. In 1947, the FBI undertook an analysis of several recent Hollywood films, It’s A Wonderful Life being one of them. (Also included in the study were the 1945 Academy Award nominated Pride Of The Marines, the 1946 seven-time Oscar winner The Best Years Of Our Lives and the 1947 Abbott and Costello comedy Buck Privates Come Home.) The results were compiled into a file titled Federal Bureau of Investigation file no. 100-HQ-138754 “Communist Infiltration of the Motion Picture Industry” or COMPIC. From this file, the FBI has released 2008 pages, some heavily redacted, which can be viewed at the Internet Archive.
The portion regarding It’s A Wonderful Life can be found in Section IV: “Communist Influence in Motion Pictures,” under the subsection titled “Analysis of Motion Picture Disclosing Communist Propaganda Therein.”
According to the Informants [REDACTED] in this picture the screen credits again fail to reflect the Communist support given to the screen writer. According to [REDACTED] the writers Frances Goodrick and Albert Hackett were very close to known Communists and on one occasion in the recent past while these two writers were doing a picture for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Goodrick and Hackett practically lived with known Communists as Lester Cole, screen writer, and Earl Robinson, screen writer. Both of these individuals are identified in Section I of this memorandum as Communists.
With regard to the picture “It’s A Wonderful Life”, [REDACTED] stated in substance that the film represented a rather obvious attempt to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as “scrooge-type” so that he would be the most hated man in the picture. This, according to these sources, is a common trick used by Communists.
In addition, [REDACTED] stated that, in his opinion, this picture deliberately maligned the upper class, attempting to show the people who had money were mean and despicable characters. [REDACTED] related that if he had made this picture portraying the banker, he wold have shown this individual to have been following the rules as laid down by the State Bank Examiners in connection with making loans. Further, [REDACTED] stated that the scene woundn’t have “suffered at all” in portraying the banker as a man who was protecting funds put in his care by private individuals and adhering to the rules governing the loan of that money rather than portraying the part as it was shown. In summary, [REDACTED] stated that it was not necessary to make the banker such a mean character and “I would never have done it that way”.
The analysis noted one of their redacted informants trying to draw a parallel between the film and a Russian film from “approximately 15 years” titled The Letter in which a banker is also the villain. Perhaps the FBI could have benefited from the internet being in existence back then as I can find no trace of such a film on the IMDB or via a Google search.
Interestingly, one of the people who helped the FBI develop the standards by which they “analyzed” It’s A Wonderful Life and other films was none other than Ayn Rand, whose political-themed novel The Fountainhead was already starting to gain her notoriety. However, when Rand appeared in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) in October 1947, she was considered an “expert witness” on Hollywood, based on the fact that she had done some work for the studios intermittently. Her testimony wasn’t about It’s A Wonderful Life, but instead concentrated on the 1944 war film Song of Russia, produced by MGM at the height of the United States wartime alliance with the Soviet country.
But not everyone who was hauled in front of HUAC saw the Red Menace in the film. Film critic and former screenwriter John Charles Moffitt (1944’s Passage To Marseille) also appeared before the committee in October 1947. A one-time member of the communist party, Moffitt went out of his way in his testimony to Chief Investigator Robert E. Stripling to dispel the notion that It’s A Wonderful Life contained any subtle communist messages.
MR. STRIPLING. The term “heavy” has been used here as a designation of the part in which the person is a villain. Would you say that the banker has been often cast as a heavy, or consistently cast as a heavy, in pictures in Hollywood?
MR. MOFFITT. Yes, sir. I think that due to Communist pressure he is overfrequently cast as a heavy. By that I do not mean that I think no picture should ever show a villainous banker. In fact, I would right now like to defend one picture that I think has been unjustly accused of communism. That picture is Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. The banker in that picture, played by Lionel Barrymore, was most certainly what we call a “dog heavy” in the business. He was a snarling, unsympathetic character. But the hero and his father, played by James Stewart and Samuel S. Hines, were businessmen, in the building and loan business, and they were shown as using money as a benevolent influence.
MR. MOFFITT.Well, to summarize, I think Mr. Capra’s picture, though it had a banker as villain, could not be properly called a Communist picture. It showed that the power of money can be used oppressively and it can be used benevolently. I think that picture was unjustly accused of communism.
It is not known if Moffitt’s testimony has any influence on the thinking of the FBI or the HUAC members, but it should be noted that the principal creators of It’s A Wonderful Life, director Capra and screenwriters Goodrick and Hackett, never were affected by the Black Listing that ruined the lives and livelihoods of other writers and directors during this period. It would be almost a decade from when It’s A Wonderful Life first came under suspicion until the Red Scare-generated Black List would start to crumble. Over the years, It’s A Wonderful Life would go on to become an American classic, an ironic fate for a film once considered to be “unAmerican.”
FBI Records via Aphelis.