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Jacobin - December 24, 221

Few could confuse Christmas cheer with communist subversion quite like J. Edgar Hoover. The FBI director’s campaign to expose Soviet sympathizers among the postwar Hollywood elite is well documented, but his Bureau’s preoccupation with festive family favorite It’s a Wonderful Life as a suspected Trojan horse for disseminating red values to Middle America is a particularly absurd, and seasonally appropriate, episode to remember.

A report from the FBI’s Los Angeles field office shows that, from 1942 to 1958, more than two hundred Hollywood features were investigated by the Bureau with the help of film industry informants. Both the content of the films and the personnel involved in their production were scoured for signs that they may have been transformed into “weapons of Communist propaganda.” American picture houses were, according to Hoover and his investigators, one of the key grounds on which the USSR and its allies planned to fight the Cold War.

Many of the films investigated had overtly militaristic or political themes that FBI agents deemed to be promoting communist ideals or undermining American principles. Herbert Biberman’s 1942 flick The Master Race, in which three military officers — a confident, manly Russian, an overweight American, and a simpering Brit — attempt to jointly govern a formerly Nazi-occupied Belgian town is an obvious pick.

But director Frank Capra’s 1946 fantasy drama, these days staple viewing for millions of households every year, is unlikely to strike the average viewer as especially subversive or controversial. So what was it about It’s a Wonderful Life, a sentimental fairy tale of a family man saved by his guardian angel, that set Hoover’s goons so on edge?

The LA field report lays out three criteria under which a film can be identified to have propagandistic tendencies. Two of these are especially pertinent to It’s a Wonderful Life, embodying as they do the two opposing forces in the film’s narrative. The first is when

values or institutions judged to be particularly anti-American or pro-Communist are glorified in a movie. Examples: Failure; depravity; the “common man”; the collective.

It’s here we can see the FBI’s cynical assessment of the picture’s hero, Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey — a down-on-his-luck dreamer who sacrifices his own hopes for travel and success to sustain a small-town building and loan business inherited from his father. George’s life’s work is to issue mortgages to the working folk of Midwest Bedford Falls so they can buy their own homes and move out of the town’s run-down slums. ...
Read full report at Jacobin