It’s A Wonderful Life bombed at the box office before becoming a Christmas classic. Along the way, it also caught the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The movie’s preview showing at New York’s Globe Theater took place on this day in 1946, a day before the movie opened to the public. “Though it has become a quintessential American classic, It’s a Wonderful Life was not an immediate hit with audiences,” writes Jennifer M. Wood for Mental Floss. The film’s producer and director, Frank Capra, ended up $25,000 in debt. In spite of this, Capra said he thought the tale of a suicidal man and his guardian angel was “the greatest film I ever made.”
An unnamed FBI agent who watched the film as part of a larger FBI program aimed at detecting and neutralizing Commie influences in Hollywood (fathered by, yes, J. Edgar Hoover) said it was “very entertaining.” However, writes scholar John A. Noakes, the agent “also identified what they considered a malignant undercurrent in the film.” As a result of this report, the film underwent further industry probes that uncovered that “those responsible for making It’s a Wonderful Life had employed two common tricks used by Communists to inject propaganda into the film.”
These two common “devices” or tricks, as applied by the Los Angeles branch of the Bureau, were smearing “values or institutions judged to be particularly American”–in this case, the capitalist banker, Mr. Potter, is portrayed as a Scroogey misanthrope–and glorifying “values or institutions judged to be particularly anti-American or pro-Communist”–in this case, depression and existential crisis, an issue that the FBI report characterized as a “subtle attempt to magnify the problems of the so-called ‘common man’ in society.”
George Bailey, the film’s protagonist, is also a small-scale community bank manager, and seen from one perspective his competition with aggressive tycoon (and Scrooge stand-in) Henry F. Potter, who runs the competing bank, tells a larger story about American business and industry. In the moment of post-war paranoia, even the idea of a community bank could be read as Communist. And George Bailey's deep unhappiness in a quintessentially American small town life could be perceived as failure, which was broadly portrayed as Communist as well. But the story of the movie is much subtler than that, writes Noakes: “It’s a Wonderful Life depicts a struggle between two bankers, each representing a different vision of capitalism and democracy.”
However, the FBI’s apparatus was set up to provide Hoover with the answers he wanted to hear. Either a movie was subversive or it wasn’t, and in the Bureau’s broad framing, this one certainly was. The organization handed over the results of its investigation to HUAC, presaging the organizational cooperation that was a hallmark of McCarthyist Hollywood witch hunts. However, in this case, HUAC chose not to call in the film's writers and director. The film continued to be shown unimpeded.
Ironically, it is the very aspects of the film that put it under suspicion that have helped to make it a Christmas favorite (a copyright lapse that caused royalty-free repeats of the movie to be played on television ad nauseam between 1974 and 1994 didn’t hurt either, writes Wood.) George Bailey’s central question of whether his life, good or bad, has been worthwhile, is the kind of thing a person might wonder in the dark of the year. It’s a question that transcended the FBI’s concerns.