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Ruining Your Holiday....Why the FBI Thought "It's a Wonderful Life" was a Subversive Film Franklin & Marshall Professor uncovers the "dark side" of Capra classic
LANCASTER, Pa. -- "It's a Wonderful Life" is one of the most popular and heartwarming films ever made. Long regarded as the definitive Christmas movie, "It's A Wonderful Life" tells the tale of a man's life that is recognized as wonderful and truly rich after he suffers through many hardships and trials.
Yet in 1947, the FBI had some very different ideas about this holiday classic. In fact, the FBI branded "It's a Wonderful Life" and seven other films, including "The Best Years of Our Lives" as subversive.
To add insult to injury, the film's producer and director, Frank Capra, was reported to have "associated with left-wing groups and, on one other occasion to have made a picture which was decidedly socialist in nature--'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.'"
"The FBI tried to analyze the content of movies in order to find evidence that Hollywood communists were trying to put propaganda into movies," explained John Noakes, F&M assistant professor of sociology. "They had been keeping Hollywood under surveillance for several years, keeping track of people's affiliations, who ate lunch with whom, and who was sympathetic to communist causes. Their reasoning was that if you were either a communist or known to consort with communists, then you might put communist propaganda into your films."
In searching for subversive frames in Hollywood films, the FBI set up three categories of "common devices that were used to turn non-political pictures into carriers of political propaganda." These devices included smearing values or institutions judged to be particularly American, such as wealth, free enterprise and the profit motive; glorifying values or institutions judged to be particularly anti-American, such as failure or the triumph of the common man; and making casual references to current events that belittled American political institutions.
"According to the FBI, "It's a Wonderful Life" fit into the first two categories," said Noakes.
The casting of Lionel Barrymore as a "scrooge-type" resulted in the loathsome Mr. Potter becoming the most hated person in the film. According to the official FBI report, "this was a common trick used by the communists."
And, the triumph of George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) represented the triumph of the common man, thus satisfying the second condition.
"What's interesting in the FBI critique is that the Baileys were also bankers," said Noakes. " and what is really going on is a struggle between the big-city banker (Potter) and the small 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 struggle as communist propaganda. I would argue that 'It's a Wonderfil Life' is a poignant movie about the transition in the U.S. between small and big capitalism, with Jimmy Stewart personifying the last hope for a small town. It's a lot like the battle between Home Depot and the mom and pop hardware store."
Noakes is available to discuss the history of FBI's surveillance of Hollywood, "It's a Wonderful Life," and the relationship between the FBI's investigations and the ensuing Hollywood Blacklist.
Contact Noakes at (717) 399-4488.