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‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ Had an FBI File, and It’s Kind of Hilarious

Tomorrow night, NBC will present the second of its annual holiday season airings of It’s a Wonderful Life, Frank Capra’s 1947 story of guardian angels, small-town power struggles, and holiday suicide attempts. The film also ran last Friday night, and the following day, Phillipe Theophanidis put together a fascinating look at the film’s FBI file over at the excellent Aphelis blog. Yes, It’s a Wonderful Life had an FBI file. Would you be surprised to learn that Ayn Rand was involved?

According to historian John A. Noakes, who analyzed the FBI’s 13,533-page “Communist Infiltration of the Motion Picture Industry” file, the Los Angeles field office pinpointed eight films in general release in 1947 as possible carries of stealthy Commie propaganda. “To determine which films were subversive and to identify the actual subversive content,” Noakes writes, “the Los Angeles field office utilised a report issued by a self-assembled ‘group of motion pictures writers, producers and directors who had been alerted to the common menace within the industry’. This ad-hoc group identified three categories of ‘common devices used to turn non-political pictures into carriers of political propaganda’.”

That group included Fountainhead writer and future Tea Party pin-up girl Ayn Rand, who had herself, according to her own FBI file, “published a booklet which was designed for furnishing information concerning the type of Communist propaganda used in motion pictures.” Sadly, we have no way of knowing if the dour Rand wrote the hilarious “report” on It’s a Wonderful Life and all of its subversive themes; it may have been her, or she may have been assigned to write up some of the other very dangerous titles on the list, like The Best Years of Our Lives, The Farmer’s Daughter, or (I’m not making this up) Abbott & Costello’s Buck Privates Go Home.

Anyway, to It’s a Wonderful Life, the vile piece of Red propaganda that you’ve been unknowingly welcoming into your home for all these years. The film’s analysis from the FBI file breaks it down into three general complaints:

  • Written by Communist sympathizers: “According to [REDACTED] the writers Frances Goodrick [sic] 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.” For the record, writers Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett’s other credits include such notoriously pro-Communist titles as The Diary of Anne Frank, Easter Parade, and Father of the Bride.
  • Attempting to instigate class warfare: “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.”
  • Demonizing bankers. “[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…[REDACTED] related that if he had made this picture portraying the banker, he would have shown this individual to have been following the rules as laid down by the State Bank Examiners in connection with making loans.” And what a dramatic and electrifying sequence that would have been, am I right?

What’s striking, while perusing the file and the other bits of HUAC-era ephemera assembled by Theophanidis, is not how arcane these complaints about Capra’s classic sound from our more-enlightened 2013 perch. If anything, now that mainstream conservative views have shifted (regressed, really) into Ayn Rand-ian dogma, it’s remarkable we haven’t heard more of these complaints about the film. After all, the film applauds small-town values and places a small-business owner at its center — but it sure does vilify Mr. Potter, just the kind of Job Creator that Bedford Falls needs! Such (seemingly serious) talk bubbles up every once in a while; two years back, Boston talk radio host Michael Graham penned an editorial in that city’s Herald, dubbing Life “a movie that only an Occupod could love,” and preferring a version that gives us “George in his New York penthouse, with that hottie Violet dressed to the nines, talking about the new dam he’s building in Central America, bringing power to an entire country.” It’s not too late to crowd-fund that alternate version, now that the sequel is sunk, eh? (The editorial is archived, but you can read most of it here.)

A couple of weeks back, Jimmy Kimmel presented, with tongue firmly planted in cheek, a commercial for Fox News’ presentation of It’s a Wonderful Life, retitled Mr. Potter and the Commies of Bedford Falls. It’s a solid bit of political/media satire, but it’s also not a stretch to imagine It’s a Wonderful Life encompassing much of the Fox mindset’s holiday rage. After all, the network’s John Stossel recently warned viewers about giving to the homeless — if you do, Stossel announced, “you’re an enabler,” a pronouncement roughly equivalent to Mr. Potter’s dismissal of Bedford Falls’ “discontented, lazy rabble,” or, even better, Ebenezer Scrooge’s inquiry about the prisons and workhouses. The network has instead re-engaged in its annual “War on Christmas” screech-fest, insisting that there is nothing more important in this (or any) holiday season than saying “merry Christmas” instead of “happy holidays,” unless it’s making sure that everyone knows Santa just is white.

It’s a Wonderful Life, on the other hand, is a holiday movie that doesn’t mention Christmas until the 99-minute mark, and while it includes angels looking over us, it’s mighty light on Jesus talk. (How’s about putting the “Christ” back in Christmas, Capra?) Instead, it takes a mostly secular reading of the holiday as a time to take stock of your life, of the true blessings of family and friends. And it culminates in an act of charity and giving: when George is in need, everyone chips in and lends him a hand, a smile, and a few bucks. To those obsessed with the preferred holiday greeting and the color of Santa’s skin and other symbols of the season, rather than the sentiments of it, this must sound like quite the Communist subversion indeed.

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