Hoover's FBI thought It's A Wonderful Life was communist propaganda; Mitt Romney should have watched
More than Home Alone or Miracle on 34th Street, It's A Wonderful Life is probably the most beloved and iconic Christmas film for American audiences. Once a box-office bust, the film has received a second life as a prime-time television staple for holiday gatherings, and has now been adapted into a radio play premiering tonight at the Sherman Street Event Center.
But in 1947, J. Edgar Hoover's FBI considered the tale of George Bailey and Bedford Falls to be Communist propaganda, and 65 years later, the film's take on social welfare, real estate loans and class warfare remain poignantly relevant in the age of Occupy Wall Street and Mitt Romney's failed presidential bid.
When speaking with us on his book Our Divided Political Heart last summer, MSNBC's E.J. Dionne said, "I think that Americans, at our best, find a proper balance. We're constantly in search of decent balance between liberty and community, between public and private, between the state and the market."
This, ultimately, is the crux of the It's A Wonderful Life plot. George Bailey (played beautifully by Jimmy Stewart) begins the film as a hyper, ambitious, Steve Jobs-type character who plans to "design new buildings and plan modern cities." But over the next hour of the film Bailey's lust for life slowly dwindles. With each attempt he makes to leave his home town (in order to travel the world and become an architectural visionary), Bailey is pulled right back in, primarily by his father's failing Building and Loan Association, a small-town financial institution based more on social welfare than on capitalist ideology.
"Are you running a business or a charity ward?" asks the wealthy Mr. Potter to George Bailey's father, after finding out that Bailey didn't foreclose on non-paying debtors because "times were tough." After his father dies, George Bailey is left to defend the Building and Loan Association against Potter, who wants to dissolve the operation on the basis that it gives loans to unqualified applicants. "This rabble you're talking about, Mr. Potter, they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community," George Bailey explains to the miserly millionaire. "Is it too much to ask to have them work and pay and live and die with a couple of decent rooms and a bath? Anyway, my Father didn't think so. People were human beings to him. But to you -- a warped, frustrated old man -- they're cattle. And in my book, he died a much wealthier man than you'll ever be."
It was the ideological anatomy of Mr. Potter (cold and calculating, void of empathy) that most concerned the FBI in 1947. "The film represented rather obvious attempts to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore [Mr. Potter] as a 'scrooge-type' so that he would be the most hated man in the picture," read an FBI memo to J. Edgar Hoover, concluding that this tactic was "a common trick used by Communists."
Though looking back on the film over six decades later, it seems weirdly short-sighted of the notoriously paranoid FBI to only look at the Potter character for an -- at least socialist -- message inside It's A Wonderful Life. Because in 2012, it feels chock full of 'em.