Our Sunday School class has been watching Frank Capra’s classic Christmas movie It’s a Wonderful Life recently and discussing it in the context of scriptures such as Philippians 2:3 and Psalm 90:17. Jimmy Stewart’s character George Bailey was indeed a man who “considered others better” than himself and who had the unique opportunity to see what difference the “work of his hands” made in the life and times of the people of the fictional town of Bedford Falls, New York. Like Clarence the Angel, we “like that George Bailey”–how could anyone not, right?
Well, it may surprise you that in 1946 when the movie was first released, the movie was unmercifully panned by critics as “too corny” and promptly flopped at the box office (it was not until PBS began re-broadcasting the movie in the 1970s that it finally got its second wind and became a Christmas classic). To add insult to injury, the FBI placed It’s a Wonderful Life on a list of “subversive” films with Communist overtones. According to a report in 1997 by Professor John Noakes of Frankin & Marshall College, the FBI took issue both with the negative portrayal of free enterprise and capitalism in Lionel Barrymore’s “Scrooge-like” character of Mr. Potter and the triumph of the “common man” George Bailey. A partial copy of the report is available for viewing here (It’s a Wonderful Life is mentioned on the 2nd page).
Of course, this was at the beginning of the Second Red Scare, a time of grave national angst over Communist infiltration of American institutions which began after World War II and was famously characterized by the intense anti-communist activities of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Now those of you who have ever heard me talk about bringing a heavy dose of humility to the study of history know I’m not going to stand here and wag my finger too hard at my ancestors. Had I lived in the days of “duck and cover” drills, I might have gotten a little jumpy too. Still, years later, it’s difficult to conceive how J. Edgar Hoover could have had a humble and gentle soul like George Bailey in his crosshairs.
The real irony is that George was also a financial guy like Mr. Potter, the difference being George represented small business with a soft heart as opposed to Potter’s mega-corporate coldness and heart of stone. As Noakes points out in his 1997 report, the real conflict which Capra sought to portray in the film was not communism versus capitalism but big capitalism versus the “mom and pop” small town institutions represented by the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan. Echoes of that skirmish continue unabated to this day.
Well, in any case, I’m glad that little bit of “subversive” ugliness is behind us and we can watch and enjoy It’s a Wonderful Life without being branded un-American. The movie is now available in a DVD version which contains some nice extras and NBC is doing a special Christmas Eve broadcast this year which will include a Descriptive TheatreVision presentation for the blind and visually impaired narrated by former President George H. W. Bush.
So get your family together on the night before Christmas and watch this American classic. If you look out the window and see a couple of “men in black” parked in an unmarked sedan with U.S. government plates, just march across the street, tap on the window, and yell, “Merry Christmas you wonderful old FBI!” Then invite the G-men in for a little eggnog and Christmas cheer. If they seem a little hesitant, tell them not to worry–J. Edgar Hoover will never know.