It’s a Wonderful Life is a staple of the holiday season in the United States, but it was once considered un-American by the government.
From the film’s release in 1946 until 1956, it was listed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation as suspected Communist propaganda. Mr. Potter, the villainous banker who nearly drives George Bailey to financial ruin and suicide, “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,” according to an FBI report (pdf, pg. 14) in 1947.
The report called it “a common trick used by Communists.”
Now, anyone familiar with It’s a Wonderful Life knows that George and Peter Bailey are also bankers—beloved by the people of Bedford Falls, New York, and nearly seven decades of film audiences. George’s actions, though occasionally imprudent, ultimately save the Bailey Bros. Building and Loan from financial ruin. But these details escaped the FBI’s analysis, which concluded that the film ”deliberately maligned the upper class.”
Of Mr. Potter’s refusal to give George a loan, an informant interviewed by the FBI felt “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.”
Under the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI spent much of the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s investigating Americans for alleged ties to the Communist Party. Hollywood was a major focus of those probes. Many writers of It’s a Wonderful Life were, indeed, likely Communists, but the film’s director, Frank Capra, was a lifelong conservative who hated Franklin Delano Roosevelt and sympathized with Franco and Mussolini.
In 1947, the House Un-American Activities Committee held a hearing on the matter. The film critic John Charles Moffitt defended the film: “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.”
That’s a lesson we can all take to heart on Christmas.