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Why Did the FBI Issue A Memo on the Film “It’s A Wonderful Life”?

The height of paranoia regarding communism was at an all-time high during the 40s. This resulted in several government-led projects to ensure that this ideology didn’t spread throughout the United States. But did you know that big-screen motion pictures were not safe from accusations from the FBI? 

In 1947, the FBI issued a memo on the 1946 film “It’s A Wonderful Life.” The Bureau felt that the movie depicted obvious attempts to malign bankers and the upper-class citizens in its portrayal of “Mr. Potter,” promoting communism.

It’s A Wonderful Life

It’s A Wonderful Life was a 1946 film produced and directed by Italian-born director Frank Capra. The movie has been recognized as one of the classics watched by many viewers during Christmas.

The film is set during Christmas, with the main protagonist George Bailey, played by James Stewart, contemplating ending his life due to his troubles. Clarence Oddbody, played by Henry Travers, a second-class angel who has yet to earn his wings, is assigned to save Bailey.

Before Oddbody embarks on his mission, highlights of Bailey’s life are shown to help the angel understand his task. Bailey was portrayed as a selfless and kindhearted person. Bailey takes over the family savings and loans business and at the same time earns an unknown foe in the character of Mr. Potter, played by Lionel Barrymore. Mr. Potter was on a mission to close Bailey’s business by all means.

Bailey’s story unfolds, showing that he marries and builds his own family. But on one Christmas Eve, Bailey’s uncle, Uncle Billy, unknowingly gives the bank deposit to Mr. Potter, who in turn, wishing to ruin the business, keeps the money for himself. Mr. Potter’s action caused Bailey’s business to face a financial disaster and may lead to Bailey being arrested.

The movie portrays this as the lowest point for Bailey, who decides to get drunk and resolves to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge. The second-class angel suddenly appears and shows the poor Bailey what life would be like for his loved ones had he never existed.

This apparition renewed Bailey’s passion for life, sparking an outpouring of love and benevolence in the small community he lives in. As soon as Bailey returns home, he is visited by relatives and friends, each of them donating money to cover for the missing money. The movie ends as the characters sing Auld Lang Syne. (Source: Britannica)

The FBI and It’s A Wonderful Life

At the same time as the movie’s screening, the FBI had a program to detect and neutralize communist influences in Hollywood and the cinema industry. An unnamed FBI agent was assigned to watch and evaluate Capra’s film.

The agent reports that the film was very entertaining. But according to scholar John A. Noakes, the unnamed agent also reported that the film has a malignant implication. This report led to further evaluation of the film and felt that those who produced It’s A Wonderful Life used common tricks that Communists used to inject propaganda.

The first communist trick was to portray the character Mr. Potter, a capitalist banker, as an antagonist, glorifying the ideology of anti-American feelings toward capitalism. The Bureau also reports that the film attempted to magnify the common man’s problems in society, which they felt was also a Communist ideology. (Source: Smithsonian Magazine)

The FBI filed a memo to the House Un-American Activities Committee, an investigative subcommittee established to check out organizations and individuals with suspected communist ties. However, HUAC decided not to take any action and allowed the film to be distributed and screened. (Source: Washington Post)

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