The Classic Film The FBI Called ‘Communist Propaganda’

“You want the moon? Just say the word and I’ll throw a lasso around it and pull it down. Hey. That’s a pretty good idea. I’ll give you the moon, Mary.” —It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

In A Nutshell

In the late ’40s and early ’50s, the FBI and a team of filmmakers analyzed a number of movies, searching for hidden Communist messages. When they were finished, they’d written a gigantic treatise on how to spot subversive films. And in the FBI’s opinion, one of the most radically red movies in Hollywood was It’s a Wonderful Life.

The Whole Bushel

Every December, families hang up bright lights, decorate trees with glass ornaments and gather around their televisions to watch Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. This heartwarming film has become a holiday tradition, nay, an institution. However, there’s something sinister lurking beneath all that talk of generosity and friendship. It turns out George Bailey and his angel buddy, Clarence, are really Commie spies indoctrinating freedom-loving Americans with filthy red propaganda. Well, that’s what the FBI thought anyway.

During the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, major Hollywood players came under scrutiny for their alleged ties to the Communist Party. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was especially keen to smoke out Tinseltown’s Fifth Column and had his agents work with a team of patriotic filmmakers (including Ayn Rand) to sniff out subversive flicks. The result was a 13,533-page manifesto big enough to choke a horse. Titled Communist Infiltration of the Motion Picture Industry, the file was filled with little tips on how observant agents could spot a Marxist movie. It explained how scenes from The Best Years of Our Lives and Buck Privates Come Home (starring that notoriously subversive duo, Abbott and Costello) were actually pinko propaganda. And most shockingly, the file took aim at Jimmy Stewart’s Christmas classic.

According to the FBI and their Hollywood lackies, Wonderful Life was brimming with socialist dogma, largely thanks to its leftist writers. Of course, the Bureau was making quite an assumption. It’s a Wonderful Life was penned by the husband-wife writing team of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. In addition to writing beloved films like The Third Man, Father of the Bride, The Diary of Anne Frank, and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, the couple were also friends with a few Communists. As we all know, bad company corrupts good character, and in the FBI’s eyes, Goodrich and Hackett were guilty by association.

Article Continued Below

Since Goodrich and Hackett hung out with Commies, their screenplays were undoubtedly full of radical ideas. For example, the FBI hated Wonderful Life‘s big baddie, Mr. Potter. Played by Lionel Barrymore, Mr. Potter is one of cinema’s nastiest villains. Sure, he isn’t as psycho as Hannibal Lecter or Norman Bates, but his greed more than makes up for his lack of a body count. And it was his stingy attitude that tipped off the Bureau to Goodrich and Hackett’s scheme. Obviously, by making Mr. Potter such a vile character, the writers were trying to show that capitalism is evil. The picture was intentionally attacking the hardworking businessmen of America! They even claimed this was a common ploy used by red writers to incite class envy. In the FBI’s eyes, It’s a Wonderful Life was a proletariat screed against the bourgeoisie, plain and simple.

Of course, the FBI completely ignored the fact that James Stewart and Frank Capra were as patriotic as it gets. After all, these were the same guys who made Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, a story about a man who courageously fights for American idealism. In fact, Capra was so far right he even sympathized with Benito Mussolini who wasn’t exactly tolerant of liberals. But despite Capra’s political affiliations, the FBI listed It’s a Wonderful Life as propaganda from 1946 to 1956. Fortunately, the Red Scare eventually died down, and It’s a Wonderful Life has become a cherished holiday tradition, reminding everyone that no man is a failure who has friends. And that the government is full of paranoid crazy people.

Show Me The Proof

‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ alleged Communist propaganda: The FBI Files and HUAC Hearings
‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ Had an FBI File, and It’s Kind of Hilarious
NY Times Obituaries: Albert Hackett, 95, Half of Prolific Drama Team