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Naughty or Nice: ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ Capra, Commies and the FBI

by Wayne Jordan (12/16/13).

The finale of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover didn’t like the themes of the movie and sent agents to investigate the production.

This original advertising poster is offer on eBay for $15,995.

“He’s making a list, checking it twice; gonna find out who’s naughty or nice…”

When Coots & Gillespie’s famous Christmas song debuted on Eddie Cantor’s radio show in 1934, they warned that “Santa Claus is coming to town.” Not many years later, in Hollywood, Calif., a new set of lyrics could apply: “J. Edgar Hoover was coming to town.”

Hoover, too, was making a list and checking it twice. One of Hoover’s Hollywood concerns was Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life,” now a Christmas classic. Were Capra and the movie’s production staff naughty, or were they nice? Hoover intended to find out.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 had sent shivers through Capitalists everywhere. After the First World War, the American government actively sought to identify and stop Communist threats in the U.S. When the FBI was created, this task fell to Director J. Edgar Hoover, who believed that Hollywood movie producers were a potential threat. His belief was not misplaced: Joseph Stalin often said that motion pictures were a strong channel for Communist propaganda. In 1925, columnist Willi Muenzenberg wrote in the Communist newspaper The Daily Worker that an important goal of the Communist Party “is the conquest of this supremely important propaganda unit, until now the monopoly of the ruling class. We must wrest it from them and turn it against them.”

A classic pose from Frank Capra.

That Hoover should consider Capra a threat is almost laughable. Capra, a veteran of both World Wars, was a decorated soldier, receiving the Distinguished Service Medal after World War Two for his Academy Award winning film series, “Why We Fight.” An immigrant (he was born in Sicily, Italy, in 1897), Capra was a firm believer in the American Dream. Capra’s personal rags-to-riches story led film historian Ian Freer to call him “the American Dream personified.” Capra left the Army as a colonel; he even tried to re-enlist in the Army during the Korean War, but was rejected due to his age. Not exactly the profile of a “commie,” is it?

During the years of the Great Depression, the Capra name was box-office magic. His stories of ordinary men succeeding against formidable odds caused movie-goers to flock to his films. During the ’30s and ’40s, he was either nominated for or won 11 film awards. He was one of the first directors whose name appeared above a film’s title.

After the war, however, Capra had a hard time assessing the public mood: the themes that brought him success during the Depression didn’t work anymore. Twenty-five years of deprivation and sacrifice had caused the American public to want movies that were lighter in tone. “It’s a Wonderful Life” didn’t fit the bill. Despite being nominated for five Academy Awards, it was a box-office disaster, losing $525,000 at the box office during its first run. It didn’t win any awards, either.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” is based on this short story by Philip Van Doren Stern.

But “Wonderful Life” did fit Capra’s movie model, and he thought he had a sure winner. He had purchased the script from RKO Pictures after the war for $10,000. RKO had endeavored for years to come up with a workable script for the film, to no avail. Originally a short story titled “The Greatest Gift” by Philip Van Doren Stern, RKO envisioned the work as a Cary Grant film. Mr. Grant didn’t like any of the three scripts that RKO submitted, so he never signed on. RKO dropped the project, but did secure the distribution rights when they sold the script to Capra.

Before the war, Capra had a successful run of films that used Jimmy Stewart as a lead (“You Can’t Take it With You” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”), and Stewart agreed to do the “Wonderful Life” project. After some casting about for the female lead (under consideration were superstars Ginger Rogers and Olivia deHavilland), the role was offered to Donna Reed. The writing staff included Capra, the husband-and-wife team of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, plus Jo Swerling, Michael Wilson and Dorothy Parker.

It was Capra’s association with Wilson and Parker that brought “It’s a Wonderful Life” to the attention of the FBI. Both Wilson and Parker were deemed to be “unfriendly” by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and were blacklisted by Hollywood. Capra couldn’t have cared less; by all reports, he was more interested in making good films than in politics, and he hired whomever he believed could get the job done. Both writers have been associated with a long line of memorable films.

An Anti-Communist propaganda poster from the 1940s.

The FBI’s concern centered on the film’s plot. Franklin & Marshall College Professor John Noakes wrote that in order to identify subversive films, the FBI established categories of “common devices that were used to turn non-political pictures into carriers of political propaganda.” These devices included:

1. Smearing values or institutions judged to be particularly American, such as wealth, free enterprise and the profit motive;
2. Glorifying values or institutions judged to be particularly anti-American, such as failure or the triumph of the common man; and
3. Making casual references to current events that belittled American political institutions.

According to the FBI, “It’s a Wonderful Life” fit into the first two categories.

As part of a running memo (it ran for 16 years), FBI agent D.M. Ladd reported to Hoover in 1947:

“With regard to the picture “It’s a Wonderful Life”; [witness] 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. This, according to these sources, is a common trick used by Communists… In addition, [witness] 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.”

A copy of the cover page of the 1947 FBI memo on “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Capra was never called to testify before HUAC, although he was under continual scrutiny because of his associations with left-wing actors and screenwriters in Hollywood. “It’s a Wonderful Life” languished in theaters for the next two decades, only screening in small venues at Christmas. Two occurrences gave new life to the film. The first was the introduction of feature films to network television. The second was a clerical error that put the film into the public domain. Network executives loved the idea of not having to pay royalties for a feature film, and “It’s a Wonderful Life” became a featured movie each Christmas. Over the years, it’s become one of the most critically acclaimed films ever made.

The fan base for “Wonderful Life” has continued to grow with each generation. It’s been made available in every video format, and has been packaged and re-packaged in anniversary and special editions. The film has been adapted to the stage, and a sequel and a musical version are in the works. In 1990, the U.S. Library of Congress declared the film “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry. In 2002, a BBC viewer poll ranked “It’s a Wonderful Life” number seven of “The 100 Greatest Films,” and in June 2008 an American Film Institute poll chose “It’s a Wonderful Life” as the third-best film in the fantasy genre.

These days, when so many movies are nothing more than strung-together action segments, movies like “It’s a Wonderful Life” are standouts. Some of Capra’s staff may have been (according to the FBI) “naughty,” but the film they made sure is nice.


Wayne Jordan spent more than 40 years in the music business as a performer, teacher, repairman and music store owner. In 25 years of musical instrument retailing he has bought, sold, rented or repaired thousands of pianos, band & orchestra, combo, and folk instruments. Wayne is currently a Virginia-licensed auctioneer and certified personal property appraiser. For more info, visit Wayne Jordan Auctions.

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