Nearly 75 years on, the movie is hauntingly familiar. We’ve run with George Bailey down Main Street, wishing the world a Merry Christmas.
We’ve gone sledding near an ice-covered river, driven past a cluster of tidy little houses built in the 20s, 30s and 40s not far from the painted ladies and architectural legacies of a bygone era. We’ve gone into the churches, stared down at the rivers from the iron-truss bridges.
We know a Burt and Ernie, a Mr. Martini. A Violet Bick and old man Potter.
We know how easy it can be, like George Bailey, to descend into cynicism and despair, making the climax of “It’s a Wonderful Life” so easy to covet: a chance to see how we made Bedford Falls better.
But for upstate New Yorkers, from Cortland to Auburn to Batavia, Seneca Falls, Geneva and beyond — we know Bedford Falls because we live there.
Director Frank Capra had relatives in Auburn, and visited from time to time, reports the It’s a Wonderful Life Museum in Seneca Falls, which claims to be the inspiration for Bedford Falls. And a Seneca Falls barber recalled giving him a haircut while the film was in development.
But is Seneca Falls really the sole inspiration for Bedford Falls?
WHERE IT CAN’T BE
References in the film are clear about where Bedford Falls cannot be: Buffalo, Rochester, Elmira and probably Corning. You can probably add Ithaca to the list, too.
George persuaded tycoon Sam Wainwright to reopen a local factory as a plastics plant rather than locate it in Rochester. Buffalo is out because Harry Bailey was offered a job at a glass factory outside Buffalo. That’s why Corning is probably out, too. How many cutting-edge glass factories are there in upstate New York? The only one that comes to mind is Corning, where a great deal of research and development has taken place over the past few decades — just the job Harry Bailey was hired for.
An early treatment of the script said Harry Bailey attended Cornell University in Ithaca, reports the It’s a Wonderful Life Museum, but the reference was removed from production. But that would rule out Ithaca, too.
And Elmira? The bank examiner on the day before Christmas urges George to get the books because he really wanted to spend the holiday with his family, in Elmira.
SO WHAT’S LEFT?
Now we’re looking for a small city within a certain range of Buffalo, Rochester and Elmira. And certainly Seneca Falls fits the ticket. But so does Auburn, Batavia, Geneva, Canandaigua, Watkins Glen — and Cortland. In fact, a host of small cities would match.
Sleuths try to point to a number of geographic clues that supposedly point to one city over another, but they’re either surprisingly vague or surprisingly common.
The Bailey Building and Loan lies near the intersection of Genesee Street, something Seneca Falls has touted.
Cortland doesn’t have a Genesee Street, but Batavia, Montour Falls, Auburn, Skaneateles and Binghamton all have some variant.
So do Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo, but they’ve already been ruled out.
IRON TRUSS BRIDGE
George jumps from the bridge to save Clarence (who was really saving George), and Seneca Falls does have one.
But so does Cortland, on Port Watson Street over the Tioughnioga River.
Binghamton has a majestic bridge on South Washington Street over the Susquehanna River. So did Owego, although it was replaced a few years ago.
In fact, iron-truss bridges dot upstate New York like freckles.
THE STREETS AND HOUSES
George Bailey runs down the median of a divided main street in the climax, and Seneca Falls once had one.
But many communities have divided streets, and still do. Look at south Church Street in Cortland, for example.
The museum also notes the Victorian architecture of Bedford Falls is similar to Seneca Falls, and it is.
But walk down Tompkins Street in Cortland, or South Street in Auburn or any number of neighborhoods in upstate New York — they’re all grand old Victorians, painted ladies and the odd Federalist revival.
Much of the heyday of upstate New York came in that period, particularly the cities along the northern tips of the Finger Lakes.
When Harry Bailey returns to Bedford Falls with a young wife in hand, leaving George with the building and loan, George wanders downtown Bedford Falls and meets childhood friend Violet Bick and proposes a “wild night” of running barefoot in the grass, climbing Mount Bedford and swimming in the pool beneath the falls.
Who has more falls than Ithaca, even if it’s already ruled out? And people do routinely swim in the pools beneath them. You can find falls in Moravia and Watkins Glen, too.
Bedford Falls has a large Italian community — note Mr. Martini’s bar and Mr. Potter’s pejorative use of “garlic eaters” to describe the people George helped build homes.
But most upstate New York cities have large Italian communities, including Cortland — such as St. Anthony’s parish. Binghamton sported two distinct Italian communities in the 1940s, drawn to work for shoemaker Endicott-Johnson.
The central Italians clustered near downtown Binghamton; the southern Italians on the north side of Endicott. Nothing about “Italian community” immediately distinguishes “Seneca Falls” from any other upstate New York city.
Part of George’s wild night plan with Violet Bick includes climbing Mount Bedford, a 10mile jaunt.
Do you see any mountains around Seneca Falls? In fact, many of the most popular candidates for Bedford Falls lie in the Great Lakes flood plain — pretty flat territory. But a number of mountains lie within a few miles of downtown Cortland, including Greek Peak and Virgil Mountain. Binghamton has Prospect Mountain, around which an interstate interchange now wraps. It would have been a good hike in 1947.
George persuades Sam Wainwright to ditch Rochester for Bedford Falls and a factory that had closed, putting half the community out of work.
But it was the Depression find a community that didn’t have a similar story to tell. Unemployment hit 23% in America. It would be difficult to imagine a city without an empty factory a former wagon factory in Cortland, for example (there were several major manufacturers), or perhaps a declining corset company.
Well, this is one to raise an eyebrow.
A George Bailey lived in Dryden in the 1940s, the founder of the George B. Bailey Insurance agency, what is now known as Bailey Place Insurance. It’s entirely reasonable, theorizes Jeremy Boylan, vice president for Bailey Place, that Capra would have seen the sign on his way through Dryden to Auburn and family.
It is entirely possible. But reasonable? The agency sat on Route 13 and 38 in Dryden at the time, and if Capra were heading to Auburn from the Southern Tier, turning north on Route 38 in Owego would be a route to get there. Given the pre-interstate days of the 1940s, 38 wasn’t a bad road. Boylan suggests Route 13 from Elmira, which is also possible.
But what if Capra came by train? And if not train, Routes 5 and 20 across would take him straight to Auburn — and then to Seneca Falls.
Still, Bailey’s story has some interesting parallels. Bailey had been a salesman for a furnace company and traveled a great deal.
One day, his son, William Bailey, turned from his rarely-home father to his mother and asked “Who is that man?” It does, as William Bailey said decades later, suggest a certain ethic among small-business owners. “If Frank Capra did in fact choose the name for the main character in his movie at this time, this is probably how he envisioned small business in rural America.”
Frank Capra meant George Bailey to be an everyman, a normal paisan toiling his life away. George wasn’t selfless, he understood exactly what sacrifice he made every time he gave up a bit of his dream to help a brother, a friend, a community. So his popularity comes as viewers see themselves in his shoes, with his dreams and his resentments and eventually, his enlightenment.
Bedford Falls was the same idea, writ onto a community: a place that for one person’s effort, could have been an idyllic little community, or a cesspool of greed, cynicism and vice.
Karolyn Grimes, who played George Bailey’s younger daughter, Zuzu, has several times visited Seneca Falls to celebrate the film. While she has acknowledged the similarities between Bedford Falls and Seneca Falls, she also has some insight into what director Frank Capra was thinking in creating Bedford Falls:
“I don’t think Capra wanted it mentioned,” she told National Public Radio in 2016, 70 years after the film. “I think Capra wanted everyone to identify with their own community.”
If Capra meant to show that there’s a little George Bailey in all of us, perhaps he meant to show, as well, that there’s a little Bedford Falls everywhere, too.