Around this time, the FBI reviewed “It’s a Wonderful Life” for Communist messages.

At the Republican National Convention in 2020, one of the speakers compared Donald Trump to the character of George Bailey in the film It’s a wonderful life.

“In the classic Jimmy Stewart movie It’s a wonderful lifeGeorge Bailey receives a great gift: the chance to see what the world would be like without him, ”said Natalie Harp, a member of the Trump Campaign Advisory Board who spoke about the former president signing bipartisan legislation to facilitate access. experimental drug treatments. “Tonight, Mr. President, we would like to give you the same gift, because without you we would all be living in Pottersville, sold to a crooked Mr. – or should I say Mrs. – Potter with no hope of escape except death herself -” same.

The comparison did not suit members of the family of Jimmy Stewart, the actor who played Bailey. In the film, Bailey runs a construction and loan business in a small town and is plagued by bad breaks and a devious banker, but is ultimately saved by angelic intervention and the support of a community that chooses the love and solidarity rather than self-service. and greed. “Since this beloved American classic is about decency, compassion, sacrifice and fighting corruption, our family considers Ms. Harp’s analogy to be the height of hypocrisy and dishonesty.” wrote Kelly Stewart Harcourt, the actor’s daughter, in a letter to The New York Times.

Columnists, commentators and moviegoers agreed that Donald Trump was no George Bailey, as they rushed to defend the film’s honor, which has become a holiday classic.

But the status of the film’s classic only came with time. When it was released in 1946, it was a box office failure that came under scrutiny by the Federal Bureau of Investigation as a subversive film that allegedly showed evidence of Party infiltration. communist in the film industry. During the post-WWII “Red Fear”, Hollywood was a prime target for those who claimed that Communist Party members used propaganda to influence the American people into anti-capitalist positions. Author Ayn Rand – who worked in the film industry before writing romance celebrations of greed that have become touchstones for politicians, including former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and the US Senator Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) – and his allies have had considerable success in promoting the idea that Communist directors, writers and actors undermine American values ​​through popular films.

Rand has testified on the matter before the House Un-American Activities Committee and consulted with the FBI, which produced a report echoing the themes of a group she was associated with, the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of Ideals. Americans. The report “Communist Infiltration of the Film Industry” asserted:

The goal of the Communists in Hollywood is not the production of political films openly advocating Communism. Their aim is to corrupt non-political films by inserting occasional little bits of propaganda into innocent stories and to get people to absorb the basics of collectivism through indirectness and involvement. Few people would take Communism directly, but a constant stream of clues, lines, touches, and suggestions hitting the audience from the screen will act like water drops splitting a boulder if continued long enough. The rock they’re trying to split is Americanism.

Could anyone seriously imagine that It’s a wonderful life Was an anti-capitalist manifesto concealed in a sentimental story of an angel helping a suicidal businessman recognize the value of family, friends and Christmas? It sounds absurd, but it’s not that far removed from how today’s right-wing imagines even the smallest expansion of a government program is evidence of rampant socialism.

In a May 1947 memo to FDI Director J. Edgar Hoover, a special agent in the FBI Field Office in Los Angeles warned: “Regarding the ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ image [an informant] said in essence that the film represented some pretty obvious attempts to discredit the bankers by portraying Lionel Barrymore as a ‘scooge guy’ so that he was the most hated man in the film. This, according to these sources, is a common trick used by the Communists. ”

Barrymore played Mr. Potter, the cruel and relentless banker whose machinations brought the construction and loan business of the Honorable George Bailey to the brink of ruin, and Bailey himself on the bridge where he considered to commit suicide, before the advice of a guardian angel takes him home.

According to the FBI report, the informant told the field agent that “in his opinion this image deliberately defamed the upper class, attempting to show that the people with the money were mean and despicable characters. “. The source also suggested that the film could have been made differently, portraying Mr Potter as a conscientious banker who “simply followed the rules set by the State Bank Examiner for granting loans.” and as “a man who was to protect the funds entrusted to his care by individuals and to adhere to the rules governing the lending of that money rather than representing the coin as it was shown.

As well as being really bad cinematic advice, the source’s suggestion would actually have undermined the core message of a film that in many ways affirmed classic small town values ​​about good and bad ways of dealing. the people.

However, the FBI report compared It’s a wonderful life to a Soviet film, and argued that the film’s producer and director, Frank Capra, was “associated with leftist groups” and “made a film that was decidedly socialist in nature—” Mr. Smith is going to Washington. He also alleged that screenwriters Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett were “very close to known Communists”.

John Noakes, who in the 1990s as a professor of sociology at Franklin & Marshall College studied FBI efforts to identify films as subversive, explained when he came across the agent’s note: “The FBI tried to analyze the content of the films in order to find evidence. that the Hollywood Communists were trying to put propaganda in the movies. They had watched Hollywood for several years, monitoring people’s affiliations, who had lunch with whom, and who were sympathetic to Communist causes. Their reasoning was that if you were a Communist or known to hang out with Communists, then you could put Communist propaganda in your films. ”

Noakes, who has written extensively on the once-hidden story of the FBI’s investigation into It’s a wonderful life, noted in 1997:

What’s interesting about the FBI review is that the Baileys were also bankers, and what’s really going on is a fight between the big city banker (Potter) and the little banker (the Bailey’s). ). 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 say “It’s a Wonderful Life” is a poignant film about America’s transition from small to big capitalism, with Jimmy Stewart personifying the last hope for a small town. It’s kind of like the battle between Home Depot and mom and pop hardware store.

This observation only became more true with time. Indeed, at a time in the Amazon when greatness seems to threaten every business, It’s a wonderful life serves as a reminder of what is lost when multinational corporations and the billionaire class overwhelm not only commerce, but decency, common sense and the Christmas spirit.

About Catherine Sturm


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