Too Many Coincidences to Ignore…
Seneca Falls, NY —
Was the Upstate New York village of Seneca Falls Frank Capra’s inspiration for the design of Bedford Falls in It’s A Wonderful Life?
Karolyn Grimes, the actress who played Zuzu, one of the children of George and Mary Bailey (James Stewart and Donna Reed) in the American movie classic, thinks it was.
“When I came around the corner and saw [Seneca Falls’] main street, I gasped and said, ‘This is Bedford Falls!’” Grimes then saw the steel bridge that flows over the canal: “It is nearly a replica of the same bridge that George Bailey had grown up with all his life.”
Physical similarities between Seneca Falls and Bedford Falls are striking. In addition to the architecture along the main street and the steel truss bridge, Seneca Falls has many Second Empire Victorian homes (like the large, old house George and Mary owned in the movie). Both towns have a canal. In 1945, when the movie was shot, Seneca Falls was a mill town, just like Bedford Falls. Seneca Falls had the globe street lamps seen in the movie and even had a median on a portion of its main street.
There were also similarities in the towns’ characters. Both had a large Italian community and both had a neighborhood where people of modest means could live comfortably, courtesy of the generous terms of a community leader. In the movie it was “Bailey Park,” named in honor of George Bailey’s family building and loan; in Seneca Falls it was “Rumseyville,” named after the owner of one the town’s large pump manufacturers.
Seneca Falls’ town leaders are so sure it served as Capra’s inspiration that they have created an It’s A Wonderful Life festival. This year’s event is December 7-10 and will include a screening of It’s A Wonderful Life, during which featured guest Karolyn Grimes will discuss her experiences shooting the movie. (Her character closes the movie with the famous line, “Look, Daddy; teacher says, ‘Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.’”) The downtown will be decorated with replicas of the Christmas lights of Bedford Falls, and the shops and restaurants will serve up It’s A Wonderful Life fare.
So why does Seneca Falls think it is Bedford Falls? After all, Bedford Falls strikes a chord with millions of people in small towns across the country. Jimmy Stewart said the set reminded him of his hometown of Indiana, Pennsylvania. Many towns have similarities to Bedford Falls. Why isn’t the movie set just an excellent depiction of the look and feel of small-town America?
Seneca Falls’ claim begins with geography. It’s hard to dispute that Capra set Bedford Falls in New York State. Rochester, Buffalo, and Elmira are mentioned in the script and referenced as being relatively close. All three are an easy drive from Seneca Falls. And, a reference to Cornell University in Ithaca, just 40 miles south, was taken out of the script by the studio’s rights clearance lawyers.
There are road signs in the movie pointing to Katonah and Chappaqua, both of which are in Westchester County and near the towns of Bedford and Bedford Hills. Maybe they were Capra’s inspiration?
But Bedford is a very affluent community of Colonial-era homes and sprawling horse farms, not like the humble Bedford Falls in the movie at all. And Bedford has just a few buildings on one side of its main street, nothing at all like the center-of-town feeling in the movie.
Bedford Hills comes closer; it was populated by a large Italian immigrant population in the ‘40s, and its main street has buildings on both sides, some of which are same-era architecture as Capra’s Bedford Falls. But the town is much smaller and doesn’t have the same physical layout as that in the movie, and there isn’t a steel bridge over water.
There’s something else against the Bedfords being Capra’s inspiration. Both of these towns are just 45 miles from New York City. Even in 1945 train and automobile travel times, neither Bedford nor Bedford Hills resembled the remote spot that has Jimmy Stewart’s character feeling hopelessly isolated from the world. (A check with the local historian and townspeople revealed no evidence or local legend of Capra visiting the area or any knowledge of the towns’ connection with the movie.)
Capra’s Bedford Falls has a Genesee Street, and that is a common street name in Upstate New York. Seneca Falls has a Genesee Turnpike.
A check of the map of New York reveals half a dozen towns with “Falls” in their names, but each lacks significant characteristics of Bedford Falls.
Comparing Seneca Falls to other towns in the state gives more evidence in its favor. When It’s a Wonderful Life was made, New York State had many towns the size of Bedford Falls. Some had similar architecture, some were mill towns, some had a large proportion of immigrants, and some had a steel bridge.
But none of them had as many similarities to Bedford Falls as Seneca Falls.
The final proof offered for the town’s claim is the story that Frank Capra visited the town in late 1945. He was going to visit an aunt in nearby Auburn and stopped in Seneca Falls and had his hair cut. Barber Tommy Bellissima didn’t know who Frank Capra was at the time, but when the movie came out, he recognized the name of his famous patron on the poster. He remembered Capra because the two had talked at length about their lives in Italy and common experiences as immigrants. The name stuck with Bellissima because capra in Italian means goat.
But Capra never mentioned Seneca Falls in his memoirs, and nothing about the town is found in his archives. No definitive proof has been found that Frank Capra visited Seneca Falls and brought the image of the town back with him to Hollywood.
So is it just a coincidence that Seneca Falls is practically identical to Bedford Falls, or did Capra deliberately keep the Seneca Falls connection to himself? After all, he wanted the town of Bedford Falls to appeal to everyone. Making it known his set design was based on one place would have compromised its universal appeal.
Consider this scenario:
It is documented that Capra was in New York City in November 1945 trying to talk Jean Arthur into the female lead in It’s A Wonderful Life. A check of historical maps shows that the most direct route in the ‘40s from New York to Auburn, where his aunt reportedly lived, would have been west across NY Route 17 and then north when he got to the southern Finger Lakes region – a route that would have taken him through Ithaca and then Seneca Falls.
Leaving Bellissima’s barbershop, Capra would have gone over the steel truss bridge on Bridge Street to get to the main part of town. On that bridge was a plaque honoring Seneca Falls resident Antonio Varacalli, who had leaped into the icy waters of the canal in April 1917 to rescue a girl who had just attempted suicide by jumping off the bridge. Varacalli saved her but he was overcome by fatigue from the rescue and drowned.
Varacalli’s “guardian angel” sacrifice would have certainly captured Capra’s attention. It’s A Wonderful Life was based upon the short story “The Greatest Gift” by Philip Van Doren Stern. The movie is remarkably true to the story: A man frustrated and beaten down by life contemplates suicide by jumping off a bridge, a guardian angel intercedes and grants him his wish that he had never been born, the man gets to see how terrible things in his small hometown would have turned out if he had never lived, then he frantically goes back to the bridge and pleads to get his life back. His wish is granted and the man rushes back into town in euphoria to celebrate his life with his wife and children.
Here on the bridge in Seneca Falls was a real story similar to the opening incident in his upcoming movie; Capra certainly would have been inspired.
Capra was still in the early planning stages of It’s A Wonderful Life when he visited Seneca Falls, having just signed the contract a few weeks before. Not only did the bridge over the canal and the guardian angel match the plot of “The Greatest Gift,” but Seneca Falls also had the size, look, and personality of the town depicted in the story. It’s not hard to imagine that he would have wondered into town and started taking notes…
And while the movie closely follows the storyline of “The Greatest Gift,” there is no mention of location in the short story. Capra on his own placed Bedford Falls in Upstate New York.
Bedford Falls might just be a composite of small towns across America, set in Upstate New York. But the fact is no town in Upstate New York has as many similarities to the town in It’s A Wonderful Life as does Seneca Falls.
Either by design or extraordinary coincidence, when Frank Capra created Bedford Falls, he replicated Seneca Falls.
The Similarities between Bedford Falls and Seneca Falls
- Seneca Falls and Bedford Falls are both mill towns.
- Seneca Falls had a grassy median same as the one George runs down in Bedford Falls with a movie theater located off to the side.
- Both communities boast Victorian Architecture and a large Italian population.
- The location is perfect: George’s sister-in-law’s father owns a glass factory in Buffalo, NY.
- Bailey’s friend Sam wants to build a soybean processing plant outside of Rochester.
- The bank examiner wants to get back to Elmira on Christmas Eve.
- The train ran through Seneca Falls just as it did in Bedford Falls.
- The Bedford Falls High School was dedicated in 1927 the same year as the old Mynderse Academy was dedicated.
- In the film, the Bailey’s Savings and Loan Association builds low cost housing called Bailey Park. In Seneca Falls, 19th Century factory owner John Rumsey helped immigrant workers by lending them money and building low cost housing. It is still known as Rumseyville today.
- A local businessman named Norman J. Gould owned Gould Pumps, and was one of the richest men in town. He drove his car with license number NJG1. Norman Gould also had great control over politics and economics of the area. Much as Mr. Potter did in the movie. Norman could send someone to fight in the military or retain them for his factory.