What do you remember most about It’s a Wonderful Life?
Little Karolyn Grimes adorably telling Jimmy Stewart, “Look daddy, teacher says every time a bell rings an angel gets its wings”?
The overly familiar “this is what the world would be like if you’d never been born” plot which has been repurposed and revised by countless other movies and TV shows in the last seven decades?
All those times you’ve watched it over Christmas with mixed family only to have yet another relative point out, “Damn this movie is dark. Jimmy Stewart almost kills himself!”?
The rampant communist message?
I’m guessing it’s probably not that last one, yet back in 1947, a year after It’s a Wonderful Life’s release, that’s all the FBI saw in the film.
Because after WWII the FBI pretty much saw communism everywhere, and by late 1947 the House Un-American Activities Committee formally started subpoenaing suspected Hollywood communists to testify. Plus, the further removed you are from watching It’s a Wonderful Life the more you forget just how much of the film is concerned with the finer points of banking. As The Atlantic recently summarized, “The film’s protagonist, George Bailey, gives up his dreams of traveling the world to run Bailey Building and Loan, a small community bank with a mortgage business. But all is not well in Bedford Falls. The decisions of the well-intentioned Bailey as he faces an unfortunate deposit-envelope mix-up and tries to fend off an aggressive tycoon make for a clear-cut narrative set piece.”
Clear-cut from a storytelling perspective, sure, but it was also as clear as day to the FBI that director Frank Capra and his screenwriters were advancing their communist cause by turning a banker (played by Lionel Barrymore) into the villain even though he was acting perfectly within his legal right. Here’s the FBI’s 1947 memo discussing the film, as part of the 1947 document “Communist Infiltration of the Motion Picture Industry” which ran 13,533-pages long:
With regard to the picture “It’s a Wonderful Life”, [redacted] stated in substance that the film represented rather obvious attempts to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as a “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 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 Examiner in connection with making loans. Further, [redacted] stated that the scene wouldn’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 irony here is Frank Capra was far from the bleeding-heart liberal, New Deal advocate most had interpreted him to be based on his films like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Meet John Doe. According to Joseph McBride’s 1992 biography Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success, “Capra was a lifelong Republican who never once voted for Roosevelt. He was an admirer of Franco and Mussolini. In later years, during the McCarthy period, he served as a secret F.B.I. informer. In part, the misperception was due to Capra’s writers, who generally ranged from New Deal Democrats to card-carrying Communists.”
It’s a Wonderful Life’s writers were Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, who had been twice nominated for a Best Screenplay Oscar at that point and were best known for 1936’s The Thin Man. Sure enough, the FBI suspected them of being communists, writing elsewhere in their memo:
According to 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 [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 [sic] and Hackett practically lived with known Communists and were observed eating luncheon daily with such 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.
The FBI was at least right about one thing: the screen credits are misleading. While Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett are the credited It’s a Wonderful Life writers along with Capra himself and Jo Swerling (credited for “Additional Scenes,” whatever that means), Clifford Odets, Dalton Trumbo and Marc Connell are now known to have also contributed to the screenplay.
So, what happened? Why didn’t Hackett, Goodrich, Capra and any of the other connected parties end up being blacklisted? Actually, Trumbo famously was (as depicted in that perfectly watchable Bran Cranston movie everyone ignored last year).
Clifford Odets cooperated with HUAC in 1952, refusing to name new names but agreeing to confirm the names of those already accused of being Communists. However, that was less to do with their respective work on It’s a Wonderful Life and more about their own political affiliations and wider body of work.
According to media archival website Aphelis (via BillMoyers.com), any momentum against It’s a Wonderful Life and its chief architects fizzled out at the HUAC’s October 1947 hearings when a former Communist and screenwriter named John Charles Moffitt went out of his way to defend the film after being asked by HUAC Chief Investigator Robert E. Stripling if Hollywood was in the habit of portraying bankers as villainous characters:
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?
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.
This caused a commotion in the room.
Here’s what happened next:
THE CHAIRMAN. Just a minute. Come away. Everybody sit down. Will all you people who are standing up please sit down? And the photographers.
MR.MOFFITT. All right.
THE CHAIRMAN. Go ahead.
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.
Interestingly enough, that’s similar to the conclusion reached by Bourree Lam in the aforementioned Atlantic piece about It’s a Wonderful Life‘s commentary on the morality of banking:
I actually think the movie does a good job of portraying the downsides of what it means to be both a “good” bank (one that lends to people who need it, but is likely over-leveraged) and a “bad” bank (a more profitable one that loans at high interest rates and only provides credit to people who already have money). But there are also inherent moral judgments about the way a bank should work that come across as too black-and-white. For example, when Potter asks Bailey, “Are you running a business or a charity?” we know it’s not mutually exclusive like that. After all, a bank ideally would help people reach financial goals while also turning a profit.
Of course, if It’s a Wonderful Life had stuck with its original ending those “communist propaganda” charges probably would have stuck to it longer:
SNL joking aside, the brief controversy over It’s a Wonderful Life is a reminder that history is always the ultimate arbiter of legacy. At the time of its release, It’s a Wonderful Life bombed, the one and only film released by Frank Capra’s new film studio Republic Pictures. On top of that, it came under the radar of the Communist hunters in the Federal Government. That was a long, long time ago, though, and while It’s a Wonderful Life‘s commentary on banks is still surprisingly (and sadly) on point today it’s not what most people think of. Instead, It’s a Wonderful Life is simply that classic movie you watch over Christmas, or at least it has been for many, many years. Personally, I’m up for Die Hard and Krampus this year.