All you need to know about the coarsening of America is that Die Hard is now considered a Christmas classic along with It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol and Miracle on 34th Street. One of these things is not like the other, no? I love Die Hard, but the kind of giving spirit that involves automatic weapons is an ill fit with good will towards men. Yippie-ki-yay Jesus.
One of the forgotten facts of 20th century history is how much the Christmas spirit was mistrusted by a great cigar chomping horde of laissez faire capitalists during the heyday of finding Communists under every bed. It’s a Wonderful Life was suspected by uber-American cross-dresser J. Edgar Hoover of being Communist propaganda. The website Aphelis has the story derived from John Sbardellati’s book J. Edgar Hoover Goes to the Movies: The FBI and the Origins of Hollywood’s Cold War.
Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (RKO, 1946) pivots on the clash of values between the populism of George Bailey, played of course by James Stewart, and the bottom-line ethics of Henry Potter, played so memorably by Lionel Barrymore. The film is now a perennial holiday classic, and has earned distinction with its inclusion, in 1998, on the American Film Institute’s list of the top one hundred American film (ranking number eleven). But modern-day viewers might be surprised to learn that at the time of its release, It’s a Wonderful Life appeared on another, secret, list of films maintained by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Such distinction was earned not because of popularity or artistic merit, but rather because of the bureau’s suspicion that Capra’s movie contained Communist propaganda. (New York: Cornell University Press, 2012, pp. 1-2)
What we’ve learned is that playful minx Ayn Rand was part of the analytical team that analyzed the film for the FBI. Rand had a famous hard-on (and having seen pictures of her I totally believe that’s literal, not figurative) for Communists. Having emigrated from Russia, Rand (neé Alisa Zinov’yevna Rosenbaum) was the go to expert on rooting out the boogie man wherever he might be plotting to be kind to his fellow man.
From the FBI files “FBI Investigation of Motion Picture Industry”:
With regard to the picture “It’s A Wonderful Life”, [REDACTED] stated in substance that the film represented a rather obvious attempt to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as “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 had made this picture portraying the banker, he wold have shown this individual to have been following the rules as laid down by the State Bank Examiners 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”.
Famous dramaturg [REDACTED] shows why he/she is wasting their talent as an informant for the FBI rather than working in Hollywood or Broadway. The dramatic sense that informs such critical analysis is right on. Capra blew it. If he had made a rousing documentary about how banks make loans the movie would not have suffered.
If he had drawn banker Potter in shades of grey, showing him to be a wise exemplar of capitalism, who maybe carried a puppy with him everywhere, that would have made the film so much more complex and satisfying. He didn’t have to be a “scrooge-type”. What did Dickens know about drama?
Maybe if George Bailey had been an alcoholic suffering from PTSD after having witnessed Soviet atrocities during WWII causing him to mishandle his clients funds in order to lasso the moon for Donna Reed (keep her in the style she’d become accustomed to) because he was afraid that if the spigot of Crystal and diamonds stopped she’d leave him. George was a post-war Madoff whose dastardly Ponzi scheme was foiled by the kindly old banker (and his puppy) who helps the authorities put George in jail forever (where he hangs himself).
Of course, Potter still has to foreclose on all the homeowners of Bedford Falls because business. They could have bettered themselves and owned a bank but they chose not to and they must be shown to suffer for their lack of discipline.
And this whole guardian angel business was a bit of tripe anyway. Scorcese doesn’t use guardian angels. No guardian angels in the Godfather films. Serpico doesn’t pray silently and have a guardian angel help him root out corruption. Capra was a supernaturalist sap like that red Dickens and his commie ghosts of Christmas.
Rand would have loved that more rationalist approach.
P.S. In the sequel Mary and Zusu would have moved in with Potter and while Mary may not love the old man, she is loyal to him and they found a philanthropic foundation where they take money away from the poor to incentivize them to better themselves (maybe open a bank!). Rand writes the screenplay.