Seventy-five years is a very long time to commemorate an old black and white movie, even if it was directed by Frank Capra and brimming with a cast of talented actors and actresses. I’ve always wondered what is it about this particular film that caused it to evolve into a beloved holiday tradition for so many? This December I decided to travel, back in time to Seneca (Bedford?) Falls to see if I could discover the answer.
Accompanied by my husband and our friend Greg, a long-time fan of the movie, the first stop was James Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, and Ram where George Bailey’s car was on display. The guys were thrilled to see the impeccably kept 1919 Dodge Brothers automobile and our conversation with the current owners, Keith and Marilyn Smith, a lovely couple from Colorado, was a lesson in human generosity. Not only do the Smith’s allow pictures to be taken with the car at many fundraisers for veterans, they immediately said “yes” to being part of this year’s special celebration. In turn, the dealership footed the bill for their plane tickets and a room at the (possibly haunted!) Gould Hotel, aka “The Clarence”.
After parking at my office, conveniently located a short walk away from the main drag, we snacked on some free roasted chestnuts from the Knight of Columbus and window shopped while we waited for the parade to start. Upstate New York parades also seem timeless in that they rarely change their format. Anyone in the community who wants to be represented is-from elected officials, Scouts, a marching band, service clubs, and arts organizations. The grand finale is the local town and village firetrucks and ambulances-sirens blaring, volunteer’s hands waving out the windows. Candy is tossed to the spectators, much to the children’s delight and costumed characters from the movie waved enthusiastically at the crowd. However, it didn’t take us long to realize that someone essential to the script was missing.
We finally tracked down the bully of Bedford Falls, Mr. Potter, on Fall Street. Sitting in his wheelchair, puffing irately on a big cigar the curmudgeon shouted out “Bankruptcy!” instead of “Cheese!” for the photo, along with a few other caustic comments before focusing his attention on some other unlucky bystander.
One of the highlights of the afternoon for the three of us was seeing the Emmy-winning documentary, “The Real Bedford Falls: It’s a Wonderful Life.” Co-produced and co-directed by Francis DiClemente and Stu Lisson it featured multiple interviews of people “in the know” about the undeniable connections and between Seneca Falls and Bedford Falls ( More importantly, the interviewees spoke with great feeling about what the movie meant to them and others. Something that continues to resonate with me is the story of Antonio Varacalli, a young Italian immigrant who jumped into the icy canal waters in 1917 to save a woman attempting to commit suicide by jumping off the truss bridge, though he couldn’t swim. She lived but he drowned and apparently this selfless act touched the townspeople as deeply as it did me (and Frank Capra). Not only was his funeral standing room only, despite the negative sentiments about Italians back in those days, but in 2012 the town of Seneca Falls proclaimed April 12 Antonio Varacalli Day. On the famous bridge there is a plaque, “He honored the community, the community honors him.” Learn more at https://francisdiclemente.com/2021/12/10/documentary-screening/
I opened my blog post asking what it was about this movie that made it so special to so many. Cynics might find it corny or outdated by today’s standards but the film undeniably encapsulated a generation, a period of time in our history, and a gentle reminder that if George Bailey can make it through a period of personal darkness and troubled times, so can we.
People travel in many different ways and for a variety of reasons. Occasionally our wanderlust is focused on something less tangible than checking out the latest attractions, restaurants, or accommodations. Sometimes we travel to discover something about ourselves or because we have a strong desire to be part of something positive and affirming with other people; be it a concert, a ball game, or a celebration like the one I just attended for “It’s a Wonderful Life”.
Making a pilgrimage to Seneca Falls each December allows the fans and stars of the movie to receive what might be the best gift of all; a sense of connection and the validation that little kindnesses and considerations we give both friends and strangers really do make a difference. That our world is not only made up of Mr. Potter’s; there are plenty of caring, compassionate people out there too. And that, no matter how bad things get in our personal lives and the world around us, all is not lost. Merry Christmas!