I was watching  It’s a Wonderful Life on Christmas Eve with my family and  my oldest friend, Ron. Ron and I are film buffs and he wondered if there was a real town that the film’s Bedford Fall is based on. I thought I remembered hearing that there was a town in New York that was the basis for it. Being that it was the Eve, I didn’t immediately jump online to check. But this morning, I was watching CBS Sunday Morning, as always, and, as synchronicity often does, Bill Geist went to visit the town that has the best claim for being the basis for the film’s setting.

The film was produced and directed by Frank Capra and it was “based” (it’s just a frame for the film’s story) on the short story “The Greatest Gift“, written by Philip Van Doren Stern. It has been 65 years since the 1946 film was released and it certainly gets more showings now than it did at its release.

The film stars James Stewart as George Bailey, a man whose life did not go as he had planned it. He has a good life, but not the one of adventure and creativity that he dreamed as a boy. The heart of the film is the increasingly terrible Christmas Eve day that brings him to the point of considering suicide.

The film is pretty dark for a holiday film and I have heard it argued that it has many elements of film noir. But the ending is pure joy (what some critics have called “Capra corn”) because the intervention of George’s guardian angel, Clarence Odbody allows him to see what the world would have been without him.  George sees all the lives he has touched and the contributions he has made to his community.

Some historians think that Bedford Falls is just a amalgam of some small town America that is set in New York state. There is no evidence in the director’s archives that he had one town in New York state in mind. There are a bunch of towns with “Falls” in their name that could be candidates, but Seneca Falls has the edge on the others.

Frank Capra had signed a contract for the film a few weeks before and was still planning the film when he visited Seneca Falls. He visited an aunt in nearby Auburn. The he stopped in Seneca Falls. He got a haircut. The town barber, Tommy Bellissima, recognized Capra when the movie came out and saw the name on the movie poster and remembered that he had talked with the director about immigrating from Italy.

What else might Capra have seen in town that clicked for his upcoming film?

A mill town with a grassy median that George could run down, with a movie theater along the way and lots of  Victorian architecture. It’s in the right geographic location – Buffalo is nearby, so that fits the location of George’s sister-in-law’s father glass factory, and Sam’s plan to build a factory outside of Rochester, and the bank examiner wanting to get home to Elmira.

George’s family business, the Bailey’s Savings and Loan Association, is known for building low cost housing for residents in Bailey Park. Maybe he heard that in Seneca Falls, there was a similar effort that is still known as Rumseyville.

From the barbershop, he probably went over the steel truss bridge to get to the main part of town. Remember George Bailey’s almost suicidal moment on the bridge? On the Seneca Falls bridge, Capra would have seen a plaque honoring Antonio Varacalli who had leaped into the icy waters of the canal to rescue a girl who had just attempted suicide by jumping off the bridge. Movie George jumps in, not to end his life, but to save Clarence.

That’s the big moment of the film’s plot and it is the heart of the short story “The Greatest Gift” and Capra would have been a bit amazed at the connection.

It seems like Capra based Bedford Falls on Seneca Falls. Maybe it was unconscious.

Today, Clarence wouldn’t recognize the boutique hotel that carries his name.  It’s where plenty of tourists stay when the make the pilgrimage to Seneca Falls (especially at Christmas time).

It’s a Wonderful Life was not a blockbuster at its release. A combination of  high production costs and stiff competition. Not a flop, but not a hit either. It was nominated for five Oscars, but it didn’t win any.

Of course, now it is a holiday classic and on the American Film Institute’s list of  the 100 best American films ever made.

Maybe after a December visit to Seneca Falls, I might head to Indiana, Pennsylvania, the birthplace of my mom’s favorite actor, Jimmy Stewart, and the home of the Jimmy Stewart Museum.

When my wife and I were driving through North Carolina a few years ago, I saw the sign for Mount Airy and had to take the exit. So we visited Andy Griffith’s hometown that became the basis for Mayberry, the fictional setting for The Andy Griffith Show and Mayberry R.F.D.

But that’s another exit on the tour.

It’s a Wonderful Life has clear connections to Dicken’s A Christmas Carol. You could write a paper for film class about the use of an alternate universe in films. A person revisits their life and their potential death or total non-existence, aided by some supernatural agents, and ending with some positive revelation. The 2000 film, The Family Man, does a nice job of following the road to discovering your wonderful life.

Albert Einstein said that “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”  Maybe you can discover that in the “real” Bedford Falls.

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