Hoover's FBI thought It's A Wonderful Life was communist propaganda; Mitt Romney should have watched
More than Home Alone or Miracle on 34th Street, It's A Wonderful Life is probably the most beloved and iconic Christmas film for American audiences. Once a box-office bust, the film has received a second life as a prime-time television staple for holiday gatherings, and has now been adapted into a radio play premiering tonight at the Sherman Street Event Center.
But in 1947, J. Edgar Hoover's FBI considered the tale of George Bailey and Bedford Falls to be Communist propaganda, and 65 years later, the film's take on social welfare, real estate loans and class warfare remain poignantly relevant in the age of Occupy Wall Street and Mitt Romney's failed presidential bid.
When speaking with us on his book Our Divided Political Heart last summer, MSNBC's E.J. Dionne said, "I think that Americans, at our best, find a proper balance. We're constantly in search of decent balance between liberty and community, between public and private, between the state and the market."
This, ultimately, is the crux of the It's A Wonderful Life plot. George Bailey (played beautifully by Jimmy Stewart) begins the film as a hyper, ambitious, Steve Jobs-type character who plans to "design new buildings and plan modern cities." But over the next hour of the film Bailey's lust for life slowly dwindles. With each attempt he makes to leave his home town (in order to travel the world and become an architectural visionary), Bailey is pulled right back in, primarily by his father's failing Building and Loan Association, a small-town financial institution based more on social welfare than on capitalist ideology.
"Are you running a business or a charity ward?" asks the wealthy Mr. Potter to George Bailey's father, after finding out that Bailey didn't foreclose on non-paying debtors because "times were tough." After his father dies, George Bailey is left to defend the Building and Loan Association against Potter, who wants to dissolve the operation on the basis that it gives loans to unqualified applicants. "This rabble you're talking about, Mr. Potter, they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community," George Bailey explains to the miserly millionaire. "Is it too much to ask to have them work and pay and live and die with a couple of decent rooms and a bath? Anyway, my Father didn't think so. People were human beings to him. But to you -- a warped, frustrated old man -- they're cattle. And in my book, he died a much wealthier man than you'll ever be."
It was the ideological anatomy of Mr. Potter (cold and calculating, void of empathy) that most concerned the FBI in 1947. "The film represented rather obvious attempts to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore [Mr. Potter] as a 'scrooge-type' so that he would be the most hated man in the picture," read an FBI memo to J. Edgar Hoover, concluding that this tactic was "a common trick used by Communists."
Though looking back on the film over six decades later, it seems weirdly short-sighted of the notoriously paranoid FBI to only look at the Potter character for an -- at least socialist -- message inside It's A Wonderful Life. Because in 2012, it feels chock full of 'em. After George Bailey finds love and marriage with his childhood sweetheart Mary Hatch, he is literally minutes away from leaving Bedford Falls on an adventurous honeymoon ("a week in New York, a week in Bermuda, the tallest hotels, the oldest champagne!") when another disaster with the Building and Loan keeps him from getting outside the city limits. Rumors of insolvency have led to a run on the Building and Loan (many of the town's citizens own shares in the B&L), something the shoe-string operation simply cannot afford.
"Your money isn't here," explains Bailey to the angry mob. "Your money is in Joe's house, the Kennedy house, Mrs. Maklin's house and a hundred others. You're lending them the money to build and then they're going to pay you back as best they can. What are you going to do, foreclose on them?"
When Bailey's speech doesn't convince the crowd, he hands over the two-grand he'd saved for his honeymoon to individual account holders, telling them that this doesn't close their account, it's just a loan and "you don't have to sign anything, you pay it when you can."
On paper, scenes like this read like a satirical play by Ayn Rand. Throughout the film, George is constantly turning down big-money, capitalist ventures (Sam Wainwright's revolutionary plastics; Mr. Potter's come-to-the-dark-side offer of employing Bailey) that could afford him the lifestyle of travel, innovation and adventure that he craved as a youth. Instead, Bailey begrudgingly focuses his energy on the welfare of Bedford Falls and The Building and Loan. These decisions ultimately leave him broke, stuck in his hometown, and -- after a mixup with a deposit to the bank -- on the hook for eight-grand, which leads to a warrant for his arrest.
With Ayn Rand's economic philosophy gaining serious repute with today's Republican party leaders, the political message of It's A Wonderful Life seems to carry an adversarial tone against the GOP's ethos of rugged individualism. In her trans-generational best-seller, Atlas Shrugged, Rand writes of "the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute." She later argued in The Voice of Reason that man should "exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself."
While many view It's A Wonderful Life as a parable about the virtues of community and the value of human empathy, Rand would most likely have viewed it as a cautionary tale, pointing out that George Bailey's youthful exuberance could have lent the world many technological innovations in the field of architecture, when instead he strangled his passions in favor of becoming another cog in the wheel of socialism.
During the last four years of the Obama administration -- and throughout this year's presidential election -- the U.S. has experienced an anti-communist fever not unlike the one launched against the film industry in 1947 (only now we've replaced the trigger word "communist" with "socialist"). The accusations of wealth-redistribution lobbied against Barack Obama reached their zenith last September with a secretly taped video of Mitt Romney accusing 47 percent of America of being "dependent on government." When listing his grievances with nearly half the nation, Romney mentioned that he believed this 47 percent thought they were "entitled to housing."
After suffering an economic recession that can be (perhaps) partly blamed on giving home-loans to unqualified applicants, Romney probably assumed this tactic would strike the right tone with voters concerned about further rises in unemployment. What he most likely didn't consider was that a significant portion of the voting public (47 percent?) watch It's A Wonderful Life on NBC each holiday season, a movie that preaches the virtues of giving loans to unqualified applicants, and doesn't think "it's too much to ask to have them work and pay and live and die with a couple of decent rooms and a bath."
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