At the Republican National Convention in 2020, one of the speakers compared Donald Trump to the character of George Bailey in the film It’s a Wonderful Life.
“In the classic Jimmy Stewart film It’s A Wonderful Life, George Bailey is given a great gift—the chance to see what the world would be like without him,” announced Natalie Harp, a Trump campaign advisory board member who was talking up the former president’s signing of bipartisan legislation that made it easier to access experimental drug treatments. “Tonight, Mr. President, we’d like to give you that same gift, because without you we’d all be living in Pottersville, sold out to a crooked Mr.—or I should say Mrs.—Potter with no hope of escape except death itself.”
The comparison did not sit well with members of the family of Jimmy Stewart, the actor who played Bailey. In the film, Bailey runs a small-town building-and-loan company and is bedeviled by bad breaks and a devious banker, but is eventually saved by an angelic intervention and the support of a community that chooses love and solidarity over self-service and greed. “Given that this beloved American classic is about decency, compassion, sacrifice and a fight against corruption, our family considers Ms. Harp’s analogy to be the height of hypocrisy and dishonesty,” wrote Kelly Stewart Harcourt, the actor’s daughter, in a letter to The New York Times.
Columnists, commentators, and film buffs agreed that Donald Trump was no George Bailey, as they rushed to defend the honor of the film that has become a holiday classic.
But the film’s status as a classic has only come with time. At the time of its release in 1946, it was a box office failure that came under scrutiny by the Federal Bureau of Investigation as a subversive film that supposedly displayed evidence of Communist Party infiltration of the film industry. During the post–World War II “Red Scare,” Hollywood was a prime target of those who claimed that members of the Communist Party were using propaganda to sway the American people toward anti-capitalist positions. The author Ayn Rand—who worked in the film industry before penning novelistic celebrations of greed that became touchstones for politicians, including former House speaker Paul Ryan and US Senator Ron Johnson (R-Wis.)—and her allies had considerable success promoting the idea that Communist directors, writers, and actors were undermining American values through popular films.
Rand testified on the topic before the House Un-American Activities Committee and consulted with the FBI, which produced a report that echoed themes from a group she was associated with—the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. The report o “Communist Infiltration of the Motion Picture Industry” asserted:
The purpose of the Communists in Hollywood is not the production of political movies openly advocating Communism. Their purpose is to corrupt non-political movies—by introducing small, casual bits of propaganda into innocent stories and to make people absorb the basic principles of Collectivism by indirection and implication. Few people would take Communism straight, but a constant stream of hints, lines, touches and suggestions battering the public from the screen will act like drops of water that split a rock if continued long enough. The rock that they are trying to split is Americanism.
Could anyone seriously imagine that It’s a Wonderful Life was an anti-capitalist manifesto cloaked in a sentimental storyline of an angel helping a suicidal businessman recognize the value of family, friends, and Christmas? It seems preposterous, but it’s not that far removed from how today’s right wing imagines that even the most modest expansion of a government program is evidence of creeping socialism.
In a May 1947 memo to FDI Director J. Edgar Hoover, a special agent in the FBI’s Los Angeles field office warned, “With regard to the picture ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ [an informant] 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.”
Barrymore played Mr. Potter, the cruel and clutching banker whose machinations brought the honorable George Bailey’s building-and-loan firm to the brink of ruin, and Bailey himself to the bridge where he contemplated suicide, before a guardian angel’s counsel turned him homeward.
According to the FBI report, the informant told the field agent 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 source also suggested that the film could have been made differently, by portraying Mr. Potter as a conscientious banker who was simply “following the rules as laid down by the State Bank Examiner in connection with making loans” and 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.”
In addition to being very bad cinematic counsel, the source’s suggestion would have actually undermined the essential message of a film that in many senses was asserting classic small-town values regarding right and wrong ways to treat people.
However, the FBI report compared It’s a Wonderful Life to a Soviet film, and argued that the film’s producer and director, Frank Capra, was “associated with left-wing groups” and “made a picture which was decidedly socialist in nature—’Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.’” It also alleged that screenwriters Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett were “very close to known Communists.”
John Noakes, who in the 1990s as a professor of sociology at Franklin & Marshall College studied FBI efforts to identify films as subversive, explained when he came across the agent’s memo, “The FBI tried to analyze the content of movies in order to find evidence that Hollywood communists were trying to put propaganda into movies. They had been keeping Hollywood under surveillance for several years, keeping track of people’s affiliations, who ate lunch with whom, and who was sympathetic to communist causes. Their reasoning was that if you were either a communist or known to consort with communists, then you might put communist propaganda into your films.”
What’s interesting in the FBI critique is that the Baileys were also bankers, and what is really going on is a struggle between the big-city banker (Potter) and the small banker (the Baileys). Capra was clearly on the side of small capitalism and the FBI was on the side of big capitalism. The FBI misinterpreted this classic struggle as communist propaganda. I would argue that “It’s a Wonderful Life” is a poignant movie about the transition in the U.S. between small and big capitalism, with Jimmy Stewart personifying the last hope for a small town. It’s a lot like the battle between Home Depot and the mom and pop hardware store.
That observation has only become truer with time. Indeed, in an Amazon moment when bigness seems to be threatening every enterprise, It’s a Wonderful Life serves as a reminder of what is lost when multinational corporations and the billionaire class overwhelm not just commerce but common decency, common sense, and the Christmas spirit.