The beloved holiday classic It's A Wonderful Life was not always revered by fans and critics the way it is today. Aside from the film's lack of initial box office success, the movie was initially considered communist propaganda by the FBI for a decade after its release in 1946. The film is no longer looked at in that light, and airs every year on NBC.
The Frank Capra classic is a dark twist on A Christmas Carol. Powerful banker Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) makes it impossible for George Bailey (James Stewart) to succeed financially because of a loan, leading George to consider suicide on Christmas Eve. But before he can, the guardian angel Clarence (Henry Travers) arrives to convince him otherwise by showing him how horrible Bedford Falls would be without him.
Working with FBI files day in and day out either makes you a great academic or a seasoned conspiracy theorist, and I'm not sure which I've become.#Caprafordays #ItsaWonderfulLife #Conspiracytheory pic.twitter.com/5zwLCk9Uus— It's a Vaughnderful Life (@gvaughnjoy) October 21, 2019
More than seven decades since its release, the film has become an integral part of the Christmas season in the U.S., with annual broadcasts on NBC. But in 1946, the FBI put it on the list of suspected communist propaganda and kept it there until 1956, notes The Wire. "With regard to the picture It's a Wonderful Life, [redacted] stated in substance that the film represented rather obvious attempts to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as a 'scrooge-type' so that he would be the most hated man in the picture," an FBI memo dated May 26, 1947 reads. "This, according to these sources, is a common trick used by Communists."
Of course, anyone who has seen the film knows that George and his father Peter (Samuel S. Hinds) are also bankers. They ran the Bailey Bros. Building and Loan, which Mr. Potter sought to ruin. George's actions eventually save the bank his father and Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) built. However, the FBI's memo does not mention that It's A Wonderful Life's hero is a member of the profession the film supposedly discredits. "In addition, [the FBI's informant] stated that, in his opinion, this picture deliberately maligned the upper class, attempting to show the people who had money were mean and despicable characters," the memo reads. "[Redacted] related that if he made this picture portraying the banker, he would have shown this individual to have been following the rules as laid down by the State Bank Examiner in connection with making loans."
The FBI's informant, whose name was redacted, also claims to know what would make a movie better than Capra, a three-time Best Director Oscar-winner with two Best Picture winners on his resume. "[Redacted] stated that 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," the memo read. "In summary, [redacted] stated that it was not necessary to make the banker such a mean character and 'I would never have done it that way.'"
In 1947, the House Un-American Activities Committee even had a hearing on It's A Wonderful Life, during which critic John Charles Moffitt was called to defend it. "I think Mr. Capra's picture, though it had a banker as villain, could not be properly called a Communist picture," Moffitt testified. "It showed that the power of money can be used oppressively, and it can be used benevolently."
While the FBI might have thought It's A Wonderful Life was communist propaganda, Capra was on the opposite of the ideological spectrum. He was a lifelong Republican who never voted for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, according to Joseph McBride's Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success. Capra also joined the Army during World War II and produced the Why We Fight propaganda series. Capra was also known to never let politics get in the way of making a good movie and did not keep it from making films that would appeal to a wide variety of audiences.