It’s a Wonderful Life: Commie Propaganda?

Thursday, December 27, AD 2012

Hard to believe, but there was an FBI report in 1947 that deemed It’s a Wonderful Life as Communist propaganda:

To: The Director  

D.M. Ladd 


There is submitted herewith the running memorandum concerning Communist infiltration of the motion picture industry which has been brought up to date as of May 26, 1947….   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. This, according to these sources, is a common trick used by Communists.

>In addition, [redacted] 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. [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. Further, [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. 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.”   [redacted] recalled that approximately 15 years ago, the picture entitled “The Letter” was made in Russia and was later shown in this country. He recalled that in this Russian picture, an individual who had lost his self-respect as well as that of his friends and neighbors because of drunkenness, was given one last chance to redeem himself by going to the bank to get some money to pay off a debt. The old man was a sympathetic character and was so pleased at his opportunity that he was extremely nervous, inferring he might lose the letter of credit or the money itself. In summary, the old man made the journey of several days duration to the bank and with no mishap until he fell asleep on the homeward journey because of his determination to succeed. On this occasion the package of money dropped out of his pocket. Upon arriving home, the old man was so chagrined he hung himself. The next day someone returned the package of money to his wife saying it had been found. [redacted] draws a parallel of this scene and that of the picture previously discussed, showing that Thomas Mitchell who played the part of the man losing the money in the Capra picture suffered the same consequences as the man in the Russian picture in that Mitchell was too old a man to go out and make money to pay off his debt to the banker.

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8 Responses to It’s a Wonderful Life: Commie Propaganda?

  • Very interesting, Donald. The fourth branch will be the end of this country yet.

    Patrick Daneen also posted on this movie today – see here:

    I am curious as to your thoughts on his post.

  • “I am curious as to your thoughts on his post.”

    Overwrought comes to mind. Viewing George Bailey as a modernistic wrecker of Bedford Falls is an imaginative interpretation but not one that I agree with. Bailey is simply attempting to help people get homes of their own. With a growing population that would not be possible with existing housing stock. As a denizen of small towns my entire life, except for my seven years at the U of I, I have never been sympathetic with the impulse that small towns should be preserved in amber. They are not museum pieces for tourists to admire the quaint folkways of the inhabitants, but living communities that will inevitably change over time. Items of value will be lost as a result of the change, but items of value will be gained.

  • In fact, my commie, ex-twin brother employs (received an email on the topic Christmas Eve) the movie, and its “Potter” caricature, to indict capitalism, in general, and so-called “banksters”, in particular.

    The “Potter” character is not a capitalist or a banker. He is a thief (e.g., the deposit money in the newspaper).

    Likely, George Bailey isn’t a “saint.” The raison d’etre for building and loan associations and Federally-chartered savings and loan associations was to finance residential housing. Such institutions often used commercial banks to clear checks and to finance operations. In general, the bit about Potter calling the loan isn’t how it would have worked. And, from 1933, the Federal Home Loan Bank System served the financing role. Although, their terms were not much better than “Potter’s.”

    I see GB’s actions taken as much as any other motive to preserve the institution to which his father and uncle gave their working lives. It is unlikely that GB advanced a home loan to anyone that did not meet certain credit standards, as in, the ability to repay the loan.

    And, if you place any trust the state, consider this factoid from yesterday’s instapundit, “Frustrated that people continued to consume so much alcohol even after it was banned, federal officials had decided to try a different kind of enforcement. They ordered the poisoning of industrial alcohols manufactured in the United States, products regularly stolen by bootleggers and resold as drinkable spirits. The idea was to scare people into giving up illicit drinking. Instead, by the time Prohibition ended in 1933, the federal poisoning program, by some estimates, had killed at least 10,000 people.”

  • You are right they should not be. The question is what sort of land use attends the additional housing stock. You should have sidewalks, street trees, and proximity to commercial strips. It is also bad form to dig up cemeteries. Deneen does not mention that poor planning of commercial development has been rather more damaging to the urban landscape than suboptimal residential tract development. No hook for that, though, as George Bailey was the proprietor of a savings bank that undertook only home mortgage lending (and a fairly novel and unusual sort of mortgage lending by the standards of 1928).

  • Observant people there in the Forties could not be unaware of a Communist infiltration and conspiracy in the movie industry. as well as in the federal government. Joseph McCarthy was ultimately vindicated. What a pity it was not before he died. I saw this movie when it was first released, and I did not think it was a real threat to anyone.

  • I thought for sure this was an urban legend, but apparently not. Perhaps it was a case of “when you have a hammer everything looks like a nail” — with the Nazi threat gone by 1946 and the Soviets now in the position of World Enemy Number One, anything that appeared to be at all critical of capitalism was suspect.

  • The Red Menance was very real in 1947 abroad as was Communist infiltration in Hollywood. Ronald Reagan, New Deal liberal, began his trek from Left to Right as a result of dealing with Communist dominated unions, often using violent tactics, during his several terms as President of the Screen Actors Guild in the late forties and early fifties. The problem was that the FBI was often as clueless in dealing with internal subverison by Communists as it was in dealing with the Mafia which Hoover at this time steadfastly denied existed.

Thaddeus Stevens: Film Portrayals

Monday, December 10, AD 2012

 “I repose in this quiet and secluded spot, not from any natural preference for solitude, but finding other cemeteries limited as to race, by charter rules, I have chosen this that I might illustrate in my death the principles which I advocated through a long life, equality of man before his Creator.

Inscription on the Tombstone of Thaddeus Stevens

As regular readers of this blog know, I greatly enjoyed the film Lincoln and praised it for its overall historical accuracy.  Go here to read my review.  One of the many aspects of the film that I appreciated was Tommy Lee Jones’ portrayal of Thaddeus Stevens (R.Pa.), a radical Republican who rose from poverty to become the leader of the abolitionists in the House, and one of the most powerful men in the country from 1861 to his death in 1868.  There haven’t been many screen portrayals of Stevens, but they illustrate how perceptions of Stevens have shifted based upon perceptions of Reconstruction and civil rights for blacks.

The above is an excellent video on the subject.

The 1915 film Birth of a Nation, has a barely concealed portrayal of Stevens under the name of Congressman Austin Stoneman, the white mentor of mulatto Silas Lynch, the villain of the film, who makes himself virtual dictator of South Carolina until he is toppled by heroic Klansmen.  The film was in line with the Lost Cause mythology that portrayed Reconstruction as a tragic crime that imposed governments made up of ignorant blacks and scheming Yankee carpetbaggers upon the South.  This was the predominant view of scholarly opinion at the time.  The film was attacked by both the NAACP and the Grand Army of the Republic, the Union veterans’ organization, as being untrue to history, a glorification of mob violence and racist.

By 1942 when the film Tennessee Johnson was made, we see a substantial shift in the portrayal of Stevens.  Played by veteran actor Lionel Barrymore, best know today for his portrayal of Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life, Stevens is portrayed as a fanatic out to punish the South and fearful that the too lenient, in his view, treatment of the South in Reconstruction will lead to a new Civil War.  This leads up to the climax of the film, the trial in the Senate of Johnson, with Stevens as the leader of the House delegation prosecuting Johnson, with Johnson staying in office by one vote.  The portrayal of Stevens is not one-dimensional.  Stevens is shown as basically a good, if curmudgeonly, man, consumed by fears of a new Civil War and wishing to help the newly emancipated slaves, albeit wrong in his desire to punish the South.  Like Birth of a Nation, Tennessee Johnson reflected the scholarly consensus of the day which still painted Reconstruction in a negative light, although not as negative as in  1915.  Additionally,  the issue of contemporary civil rights for blacks was beginning to emerge outside of the black community as an issue, and Stevens in the film is not attacked on his insistence for civil rights for blacks.

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6 Responses to Thaddeus Stevens: Film Portrayals

  • I saw “Lincoln” with my liberal in-laws.

    This thought kept running through my alleged mind every time Stevens was on screen, “Alinsky’s Rule 5: ridicule.”

    The movie didn’t change my opinion of Lincoln, one way or the other. I was impressed that I could sit through the whole of it: not much bang-bang, bloodshed or walking trees, etc.

  • It is one of the best films for showing the nuts and bolts of political horestrading that I have ever seen T.Shaw, and I, of course, found it fascinating for beginning to end. I have seen it twice now, something I have never done with any film while it was still in theaters.

  • T. Shaw I imagine you appreciate this line voiced by Stevens in the movie:

    “The modern travesty of Thomas Jefferson’s political organization to which you have attached yourself like a barnacle has the effrontery to call itself “Democratic”. You are a Dem-o-crat! What’s the matter with you? Are you wicked?”

  • Mac,

    That depends on how you define the word, “appreciate.”

    I think the seed of that “barnacle” was attached by Jackson. Politics and rhetoric are not my areas of expertise. I have a talent for flinging massive strings of four-letter words.

  • Historians often unconsciously reveal more about their own times than the periods they describe, Gibbon and Macaulay, being obvious examples.

  • PLOT SPOILER ALERT: I thought the bedroom scene with Stevens and his mistress/housekeeper was manipulatively gratuitous. His intimate relationship with his housekeeper was based on rumor. It would not be surprising if there was a romance going on, but rumors of one sort or another would of course fly anyway, given that he was single. What bothered me was that, by introducing this love interest, Stevens went from a man who opposed slavery on principle to one who may have been acting under the emotional influence of someone in his household.