Ayn Rand Tried To Convince The US Government "It's A Wonderful Life" Was Communist Propaganda

Remember when Ayn Rand investigated Hollywood? Probably not, but during the 1940s and 1950s, the threat of Communism in the US had people scared. Really scared. As a result, Russian-born author Ayn Rand was tasked with rooting out communism from the film industry.

During the Red Scare, more than 200 movies were investigated for hints of communist propaganda. Rand was put in charge of looking into films, directors, and writers, and she came to conclusions that resulted in censorship and blacklisting professionals. 

One of Rand's most surprising conclusions was there was communism in It's A Wonderful Life. Rand - and a slew of other people part of the House Un-American Activities Committee - believed Frank Capra's film about everyman George Bailey was a Trojan horse designed to subliminally convert the America public into comrades.

  • The FBI Labeled The Film As Subversive

    It's a Wonderful Life, a mainstay around the holidays (although it only mentions Christmas once), was once included on a list of movies the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) thought advanced a specific communist agenda.

    The film was based on a story by Philip Van Doren Stern and the screenplay went through several iterations before director Frank Capra acquired the rights. Screenplays by Dalton Trumbo and Clifford Odets were replaced by the written words of Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, and Jo Swerling, and Capra released the movie in 1946. Although it was initially supposed to star Cary Grant, it starred James Stewart, Lionel Barrymore, and Donna Reed. The movie was a flop at the box office.

    The year it came out, It's a Wonderful Life got unwelcome attention, however, from the FBI. The government, which had been investigating Hollywood since 1942, called it, in the words of An Army of Phantoms author J. Hoberman, "practically a Soviet production."

  • According To Informants, The Film Tried To Discredit Bankers And Capitalism

    It's not clear how much Ayn Rand contributed to the report on the film industry - it was 13,533 pages - but the FBI definitely consulted with her when producing it. When it came to It's A Wonderful Life, the FBI concluded it "was a rather obvious attempt to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as a 'scrooge-type' so that he would be the most hated man in the picture."

    By making capitalism seem unappealing and unpleasant, the film had to be communist propaganda. The movie could have shown the banker, Mr. Potter, as simply following mandates of the State Banking Examiners when it came to making loans, according to the FBI.

  • The Film Encouraged Class Awareness And Class Conflict
    Photo: Liberty Films / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    The Film Encouraged Class Awareness And Class Conflict

    In addition to making bankers look bad, It's A Wonderful Life exposed audiences to issues of class differences by "deliberately maligned the upper class, attempting to show the people who had money were mean and despicable characters." 

    That wasn't all. By showing the main character, George Bailey (played by James Stewart) as a sympathetic "everyman," the film made a "subtle attempt to magnify the problems of the so-called 'common man' in society."

  • The FBI Thought 'It's A Wonderful Life' Was Eerily Similar To The Russian Film 'The Letter'
    Photo: National Telefilm Associates / WikiMedia Commons / Public Domain

    The FBI Thought 'It's A Wonderful Life' Was Eerily Similar To The Russian Film 'The Letter'

    An additional keen observation by the FBI involved a Russian movie from the 1930s called The Letter. The Letter had been released over a decade earlier and briefly made its way to the United States.

    The plot involved a old, sympathetic inebriated man who takes a multi-day trip to the bank to ask for a letter of credit to pay his debts. On his way home, he loses the funds the bank gave him. The man takes his own life, only to have the letter returned to his wife some time later. The old man in The Letter was just like the old man in It's a Wonderful LifeUncle Billy (played by Thomas Mitchell), who was unable to repay his debts as well. 

  • Frank Capra Had More Than One Film On The FBI's Left-Wing List
    Photo: Unknown / WikiMedia Commons / Public Domain

    Frank Capra Had More Than One Film On The FBI's Left-Wing List

    Frank Capra was under suspicion for more than It's a Wonderful Life. His 1939 film Mr. Smith Goes To Washington was viewed as socialist in nature. The plot of Mr. Smith Goes To Washington involves a man named Jefferson Smith, again played by James Stewart, who takes a vacant spot in the US Congress only to find Washington, D.C. full of corruption.

    Mr. Smith is a young, idealistic man who is persuaded to fight the system, ultimately winning out against by staging a long filibuster. Politicians were upset at the negative portrayal of American politics and called for the film to be banned, calling it communist and anti-American.

    Capra's 1936 movie Mr. Deeds Goes To Town was also cited as suspect because the title character, Mr. Deeds (played by Gary Cooper) was sympathetic to the underprivileged

  • A Screenwriter And Former Communist Testified On Behalf Of 'It's A Wonderful Life'
    Photo: National Telefilm Associates / WikiMedia Commons / Public Domain

    A Screenwriter And Former Communist Testified On Behalf Of 'It's A Wonderful Life'

    In front of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearing in 1947, former Communist and Hollywood screenwriter John Charles Moffitt more or less shut down talk of It's a Wonderful Life being communist propaganda in a few sentences. When asked about how the banking industry was portrayed by Hollywood, specifically if bankers were the "heavies," Moffit responded with the following:

    Yes, sir. I think that due to Communist pressure he is overfrequently cast as a heavy. By that I do not mean that I think no picture should ever show a villainous banker. In fact, I would right now like to defend one picture that I think has been unjustly accused of communism. That picture is Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. The banker in that picture, played by Lionel Barrymore, was most certainly what we call a “dog heavy” in the business. He was a snarling, unsympathetic character. But the hero and his father, played by James Stewart and Samuel S. Hines, were businessmen, in the building and loan business, and they were shown as using money as a benevolent influence.

    The HUAC didn't really know what to say and the room descended into a state of commotion. Moffitt continued:

    Well, to summarize, I think Mr. Capra’s picture, though it had a banker as villain, could not be properly called a Communist picture. It showed that the power of money can be used oppressively and it can be used benevolently. I think that picture was unjustly accused of Communism.