1947 May 26

FBI Memo Attacks “It’s A Wonderful Life” As Subversive, Anti-Capitalist Propaganda


An FBI memo on this day attacked the now-classic film, It’s A Wonderful Life, starring James Stewart and Donna Reed, for conveying a subversive, anti-capitalist, anti-banking message. The memo argued that making the banker Mr. Potter the most hated person in the film was a “common trick used by the Communists.” The attack, in fact, was a common FBI tactic of finding “Communist” influence in just about anything that criticized American life and institutions.

The FBI’s theory of aesthetics was not unlike the Soviet Union’s theory of “socialist realism,” in which the arts should glorify and never criticize anything about life under Communism. And it was capable of finding “anti-American” themes in the most unlikely places. Nazi Germany had a similar aesthetic. And as anyone who has seen It’s A Wonderful Life (is there anyone left who hasn’t by now?) knows, the film is a sentimental glorification of ordinary Americans whose generosity rises to help someone in need.

Although uncredited, Michael Wilson contributed to the screenplay of the film. In 1951 he was blacklisted for refusing to answer questions before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). After he was able to return to work in films in the 1960s, he wrote the script for the original film of Planet of the Apes (February 8, 1968), and included in it a wicked parody of HUAC. In that scene, Charlton Heston was forced to stand naked before an “Un-Ape Activities Committee.”

The first HUAC assault on alleged communist influence in Hollywood began with the conflict-ridden hearings on October 27, 1947. Ten witnesses refused to answer questions about the political associations and were cited for contempt of Congress, convicted, sentenced to prison, and subsequently blacklisted. The film industry imposed on December 3, 1947 its blacklist on Communist Party members and anyone who refused to answer questions before a legislative committee. Hollywood held a second round of hearings in Hollywood in 1951, after which far more people were blacklisted.

Learn more about the FBI attack: http://laist.com/2013/12/24/fbi_once_targeted_its_a_wonderful_l.php

Learn more: Jeanine Basinger, The It’s a Wonderful Life Book (1986)

And more: Athan Theoharis, The FBI & American Democracy: A Brief Critical History (2004)

Read FBI files on actors, musicians, and others: http://vault.fbi.gov/

Learn more: Curt Gentry, J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets (1991)

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