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Jimmy Stewart's “It’s a Wonderful Life" was a box office flop because it was “communist propaganda”?



… My “almost” interview with legendary Jimmy Stewart


As a young boy, one of the joys of my life occurred during football season when I would accompany my father to college football games in which he was officiating. I loved seeing Pitt and Penn State, but I also traveled to wonderful college towns like Indiana, Pa. to see players from what is now known as Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP) play.


When my dad drove down Philadelphia Avenue prior to entering the Indiana campus, he would point out the hardware store run by the father of Jimmy Stewart, who was a contemporary of his in the “Greatest Generation.”


At the time, I really had no idea who Jimmy was, just that he had already become a legend by the mid-to-late 1950s.


Only later did a I see one of his movies, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which was a flop when it was released in 1946 but is now an iconic vision in America during the Christmas holidays.

So, this is a personal story about the movie and an analysis of why some people believe that the movie failed.

My interview that never happened

I have written about this on a previous blog, but here is the gist of the story. In 1991, the tourist bureau in Indiana County came up with a great plan to entice Jimmy to return to his hometown. They designed a festive occasion to fly the entire cast of “It’s A Wonderful Life” to Indiana, hoping that Jimmy would jump at the opportunity.


The idea was brilliant, but what organizers did not realize was that Stewart was in the early stages of Alezheimer’s Disease, which was one of the causes of his death five years later.

He was unable to make the trip but sent his regrets.

I had a call from an editor from the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat where I was a free-lance writer at the time. He asked if I would like to cover that reunion, and I jumped at the opportunity to see Jimmy and his co-star, Donna Reed, whom I loved from her show in my younger years.

Reed had already passed away, and without Jimmy, the event lost its luster, but was still an interesting assignment. Never saw so much mink as I did that day. Some of those children had careers that allowed them to afford the luxury of such garments.


However, I had to research the movie, and this was prior to the Internet becoming a common search tool. So, the tourist bureau provided a great deal of information for us, along with interviews of the characters who did show. They were the children who had roles in the movie, but still, it was interesting to have one-on-ones with some Hollywood personalities, albeit minor ones.


What I did not know at the time was why the movie had been such a box-office flop. That was not included in the media notes.


Jimmy’s career interrupted by WWII

Stewart was sent to Germany during World War II when he was in his 30s, and he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after his service with the U.S. Air Force.

He had won an Oscar for best actor for “The Philadelphia Story” in the early 40s and had been nominated for another one prior to that in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” one of my favorites.

Nevertheless, from a career perspective, he had to rebuild himself and his brand.

Call from Frank Capra

Looking for some boost to his fortunes, he received a call from a director to see if he was available for an interesting movie,

But after spending three years fighting the Nazis in the US Air Force, the 37-year-old returned home in 1945 to find that everything had changed. His contract with MGM had run out, his agent had left the movie business, and he was suffering from what would later be recognised as post-traumatic stress disorder. “I was just a little bit scared,” he later recollected of his newfound circumstance. Then Frank Capra called.


Capra – who had directed Stewart twice before, including on Mr Smith Goes to Washington – wanted to pitch a film called It’s a Wonderful Life. The idea had come from the author Philip Van Doren Stern, who had become frustrated that he couldn’t get a short story published, and had sent it to friends as a 21-page Christmas card instead. When producer David Hempstead came across it, he bought the movie rights immediately.


Alexandra Pollard, “How It’s a Wonderful Life went from box office failure to Christmas classic,” The Independent, December 24, 2021


The pitch from Capra was one that appealed to Stewart’s rural roots and family persona,


“You play a fella in a small town,” Capra explained to Stewart, as the latter would later recall. “You get married, you have all these kids, and your father dies, and you have to take over the building and loans. And finally, you’re going to kill yourself, you’re going to jump off a bridge, and an angel, by the name of Clarence, comes in to help you, but he can’t swim, so you go down and save the …”

He trailed off. “This doesn’t sound very good, does it?” Stewart, desperate to work again and trusting in Capra completely, had just one question: “When do we start?”


Alexandra Pollard, The Independent, December 24, 2021

Stewart loved the idea

The cast and writers and producers were convinced that they had a winner, including Jimmy himself,

The story touched Stewart, who was still suffering from the effects of the war. In one early scene, his character finds himself in a roadside bar, praying, with an almost unwatchable desperation, to a god he only half believes in. “I’m not a praying man,” he says, “but if you’re up there and you can hear me, show me the way. I’m at the end of my rope. Show me the way, god…” As he rubs a clenched, trembling hand against his mouth, he starts to cry. That moment, which actor Carol Burnett later described as “one of the finest pieces of acting anyone has ever done on the screen”, wasn’t in the script.


“As I said those words,” Stewart said in 1977, “I felt the loneliness, the hopelessness of people who had nowhere to turn, and my eyes filled with tears. I broke down sobbing. That was not planned at all.”

Alexandra Pollard, The Independent, December 24, 2021


Critics: “Simple Pollyanna platitudes”


It was a complete failure and lost as much as $500,000, which was enough to send the producers into bankruptcy.

Critics panned it,

The New York Times critic Bosley Crowther wrote that “the weakness of this picture is the sentimentality of it”, describing George Bailey as “a figment of simple Pollyanna platitudes”. The New Republic’s Manny Farber accused Capra of taking “an easy, simple-minded path that doesn’t give much credit to the intelligence of the audience”.

The film placed 26th in box office revenues for the year. “By the end of 1947,” said Stewart, “the film was quietly put on the shelf.”

Alexandra Pollard, The Independent, December 24, 2021


A communistic plot?


Here is what I wrote about the allegations of the movie being a communistic plot. It started with the wacky writer Ayn Rand, whose economic and political ideas are hardly the bedrock of Jimmy Stewart’s beliefs.

How did this far-right wacko attempt to discredit a war hero?

Here is what I wrote in 2014,

I now realize that the film that was directed and produced by Frank Capra was considered by the FBI and the House Un-American Committee (HUAC) to be part of a communist plot.

Seriously!

Indeed, the controversial author Ayn Rand was one of those behind this plot.

Here is what Rand's group wrote according to the web magazine, The Raw Story: “


The purpose of the Communists in Hollywood is not the production of political movies openly advocating Communism. Their purpose is to corrupt non-political movies — by introducing small, casual bits of propaganda into innocent stories and to make people absorb the basic principles of Collectivism by indirection and implication. Few people would take Communism straight, but a constant stream of hints, lines, touches and suggestions battering the public from the screen will act like drops of water that split a rock if continued long enough. The rock that they are trying to split is Americanism."


The HUAC, which merged and became the same committee that would be abused by the late Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 50s, held controversial hearings in late 1947 that tried to assert that Hollywood was infused by Communists. Testifying along with Rand were Walt Disney, Gary Cooper, and a man who would rail against communists four decades later, Ronald Reagan.

The major complaint of Rand and her group about the iconic movie is the role of Henry Potter (played by Lionel Barrymore), the banker who was trying to bleed as much money as he could from the hero of the movie, George Bailey, played by Stewart.

According to the website Aphelis, which archives old documents like transcripts of hearings similar to those of HUAC, Rand and her group said this about the role of Potter:


“With regard to the picture ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’, (words redacted) stated in substance that the film represented 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. This, according to these sources, is a common trick used by Communists."


The actors and actresses whom I interviewed -- although I cannot find the text of that interview -- were shocked when the film started to become popular in the 1980's. They basically said that they played in the movie, watched it bomb at the box office, and then watched with amazement as it finally became one of the most popular Christmas movies of all time.

"It's a Wonderful Life" was the most famous movie of Frank Capra's career according to experts. It ultimately became a classic after many zealots called it un-patriotic, but they are hard-pressed to defend that today.


Was the fact that Capra was a Sicilian-immigrant a factor in this. Probably not, but who knows.

The quality of Capra's work with It's a Wonderful Life continues to be recognized today despite the efforts of Ayn Rand and her cohorts who called it a communistic effort.

This would be funny were it not so sad.


Hugh Brady Conrad on blogspot


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