This is the thirty-seventh in a series of examinations of urban legends from movies and the people who make them and whether they are true or false. Today we discover how the FBI felt that It’s a Wonderful Life was communist propaganda while we also discover how at the same time DeBeers was paying to put ACTUAL (pro-diamond) propaganda into films. Also, learn just what film cars George Barris actually designed!
Click here to view an archive of the previous movie urban legends.
MOVIE LEGEND: The FBI felt that It’s a Wonderful Life was communist propaganda.
Nowadays (and for quite some time), Frank Capra’s 1946 film, It’s a Wonderful Life, is viewed as a film classic and more specifically, a Christmas classic, shown on television every year in the weeks leading up to Christmas.
However, amazingly enough, in 1947, the FBI had a different view of the film.
In a 1947 FBI memo about Communist infiltration of the film industry, the following was written about the film:
To: The Director
COMMUNIST INFILTRATION OF THE MOTION PICTURE INDUSTRY
There is submitted herewith the running memorandum concerning Communist infiltration of the motion picture industry which has been brought up to date as of May 26, 1947….
With regard to the picture “It’s a Wonderful Life”, [redacted] stated in substance that the film represented rather obvious attempts 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.
addition, [redacted] stated that, in his opinion, this picture deliberately maligned the upper class, attempting to show the people who had money were mean and despicable characters. [redacted] related that if he made this picture portraying the banker, he would have shown this individual to have been following the rules as laid down by the State Bank Examiner in connection with making loans. Further, [redacted] stated that the scene wouldn’t have “suffered at all” in portraying the banker as a man who was protecting funds put in his care by private individuals and adhering to the rules governing the loan of that money rather than portraying the part as it was shown. In summary, [redacted] stated that it was not necessary to make the banker such a mean character and “I would never have done it that way.”
[redacted] recalled that approximately 15 years ago, the picture entitled “The Letter” was made in Russia and was later shown in this country. He recalled that in this Russian picture, an individual who had lost his self-respect as well as that of his friends and neighbors because of drunkenness, was given one last chance to redeem himself by going to the bank to get some money to pay off a debt. The old man was a sympathetic character and was so pleased at his opportunity that he was extremely nervous, inferring he might lose the letter of credit or the money itself. In summary, the old man made the journey of several days duration to the bank and with no mishap until he fell asleep on the homeward journey because of his determination to succeed. On this occasion the package of money dropped out of his pocket. Upon arriving home, the old man was so chagrined he hung himself. The next day someone returned the package of money to his wife saying it had been found. [redacted] draws a parallel of this scene and that of the picture previously discussed, showing that Thomas Mitchell who played the part of the man losing the money in the Capra picture suffered the same consequences as the man in the Russian picture in that Mitchell was too old a man to go out and make money to pay off his debt to the banker.
Isn’t that fascinating?
Thanks to Michael Dean for suggesting this one and thanks to Will Chen for the transcription. Check out Chen’s site here for the original FBI documents.
MOVIE LEGEND: De Beers used the film industry in the 1930s and 1940s for pro-diamond propaganda.
During the late 1930s, the South African diamond conglomerate De Beers was desperate to get into the American market because of the upcoming war in Europe. Their problem was that their business model was (and still is) in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act (due to their price-fixing of the cost of diamonds). Still, as you might imagine, they found ways around it (including a deal with the British Government to sell diamonds at the British consulate in New York so that the sales were on British soil, not US soil).
The first thing they did in the United States was hire N.W. Ayer and Sons, then the largest advertising agency in the country. Ayer served as their agent in the US (getting office space for De Beers under Ayer’s name, etc.).
One of the major campaigns of the company (and we have the actual Ayer memos, so we know all of this stuff years later) was to hire an agent, Miss Margaret Ettinger, in Hollywood to serve as De Beers’ representative in the film industry as Ayer served to get De Beers represented in the popular culture of the United States.
Now, I’ve often seen it written that De Beers “created” the diamond engagment ring. That’s ridiculous, as people had been using diamond engagment rings for centuries. However, what is true is that De Beers POPULARIZED the giving of diamond engagement rings, and the use of diamonds in films certainly helped.
The most notable successes of Ettiniger were convincing the makers of the 1941 film Skylark to add a scene where the male lead buys diamonds for the female lead, Claudette Colbert and also convincing (with help from letters from the higher-ups at De Beers) to get the 1940 film, Diamonds are Dangerous to change the name of their film to Adventures in Diamonds.
De Beers gave actresses many diamonds in exchange for them prominently wearing them and mentioning them in interviews (a practice De Beers continues to this day).
In 1947, by the way, Ayer coined the phrase “Diamonds are Forever,” which helped De Beers even more (as the company was worried about a secondary diamond market from people selling their diamonds – they wanted people to hold on to their diamonds so that the price for “new” diamonds would remain artificially high). The “Diamonds are Forever” was so successful that through their earlier efforts, diamond engagment rings made up about half of the engagment rings purchased in 1950. By the late 1960s, it was over 80%!
Isn’t it hilarious how the FBI was worried about the propaganda in It’s a Wonderful Life when this was going on at the same time?
Thanks to Janine P. Roberts’s amazing book:
for the information for this piece!
MOVIE LEGEND: George Barris designed Ecto-1 for Ghostbusters and the Delorean for Back to the Future.
STATUS: False on Both Counts
George Barris dubs himself the King of the Kustomizers, and really, he is most likely correct, as he is almost certainly the most famous custom car designer in the world. He has been working as a custom car designer for many decades (Barris was born in 1925). His most famous design is likely the Batmobile for the Batman TV series.
Barris’ design company also customizes cars for private sale by turning cars into replicas of famous car designs from various TV series and movies. They would do this for cars that Barris designed but also for cars that he did not design.
Perhaps due to that fact (that he and his company would routinely do customizations of cars that were not his design), Barris has, over the years, become a bit overreaching with his claims over what cars he did designs for. Honestly, if you follow enough of his interviews, you can see his stories change as he takes slightly more credit as time goes by.
A lot of this I think likely came not from Barris himself (at least not initally) but by others making mistakes and Barris just not correcting them. Then, I suppose Barris convinced himself that the mistaken credits were true. Either way, Barris has, at times, taken credit for designing both the DeLorean time machine used in Back to the Future
and Ecto-1 from the Ghostbusters movies.
As Bob Gale explained on the great Back to the Future website, bttf.com:
The DeLorean was designed on paper by Ron Cobb and Andrew Probert, and was built by our Special Effects Supervisor Kevin Pike and his team, with artistic supervision by Michael Scheffe. These are the guys who earned and deserve the credit.
Steven Dane was the customizer of the Ecto-1, based on a design by Dan Aykroyd and artist John Daveikis.
Okay, that’s it for this week!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is email@example.com
Tags: "Diamonds are Forever", Adventures in Diamonds, Back to the Future, Batman, Batmobile, Claudette Colbert, Dan Aykroyd, De Beers, Diamonds are Dangerous, Ecto-1, F.B.I., Federal Bureau of Investigation, Frank Capra, George Barris, Ghostbusters, It's a Wonderful Life, John Davelkis, Miss Margaret Ettinger, N.W. Ayer and Sons, Skylark, The Letter, Thomas Mitchell, Will Chen