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Is Seneca Falls the Real Bedford Falls? A New Documentary Examines the Evidence from It's A Wonderful Life

The still classic-looking main street of Seneca Falls, New York bears numerous similarities to the town depicted in It's A Wonderful Life, Bedford Falls. Local filmmakers take an in-depth look at the connections.
Lisson, DeClemente/Virgil Films
The still classic-looking main street of Seneca Falls, New York bears numerous similarities to the town depicted in It's A Wonderful Life, Bedford Falls. Local filmmakers take an in-depth look at the connections.

One of the most beloved and popular Christmas Movies has a mystery around it. And now a new documentary tries to answer the question of whether Bedford Falls is really based on Seneca Falls. WAER’s Chris Bolt reports on the evidence … and why the movie resonates with fans.

There’s a bridge in Seneca Falls, off of which a women jumped to commit suicide in 1917, and was saved. Fans of It’s a Wonderful Life know George Bailey jumped off of a bridge, starting a key plot element of seeing his town had he never been born. Documentary maker Stuart Lisson sees significant evidence there because the film’s director Frank Capra heard the story on a trip upstate.

“So, when Frank heard about that, they were writing the screenplay for the movie.  And it’s based on the original story ‘The Greatest Gift.’  In the story, there’s no mention of suicide or rescue or a bridge or anything like that.  This was added after a period of time.  So, that lends credence to the fact that (Seneca Falls) had an influence.” 

The documentary “The Real Bedford Falls” by Lisson and Francis DiClemente presents a lot more connections, even presented as Lisson says like evidence at a trial.

“There are a lot of references in the movie to upstate New York cities, Rochester, Buffalo, Elmira.  Genesee (Street) frequently appears in the movie.  All Upstate New York places.”

These elements in the documentary – and more – were pretty convincing to one media expert.

“I was never as convinced as this film convinced me, very quickly, in half-an-hour, of how many thing lined up.  If any town gets to claim to be Bedford Falls, it’s gets to be Seneca Falls,”  said Syracuse University popular culture and media professor Bob Thompson

Thompson is in this new film more to discuss why It’s a Wonderful Life resonates so well through the years. For one thing, it’s the nostalgia many feel for small town America, but he adds there’s also some really good filmmaking.

“That banister decoration, or whatever, it keeps coming off; it keeps becoming this symbol of his frustration at the fact that ‘I’m never going to get out of this place.’  And then, when he starts screaming at the kid for her little piano playing, that is not a pleasant thing to watch.  And I think that is really a nice bit of filmmaking.”

And he sees the story arc as a bit more complex than the simple redemption and resolution messages.

“It is a happy ending movie; you have to weep at the end if you’re a human.  But it’s also an incredibly melancholy film.  And in that great final shot where the bell rings and they’re singing Auld Lang Syne and George is with his family, embraced by the town, there’s that happy look on his face that this is truly the American Dream, to be in the great American town,” Thompson notes.  “There’s also a little look in his face, though, ‘I’m never going to get to Rome; I’m never going to see Paris; I’m never going to get out of this place.’” 

Thompson concludes that Bedford Falls is ultimately not Seneca Falls. Bedford is after all, fictional. But he adds, since Plato, just about all fiction has some element of reality. And for those who want to judge the evidence themselves, The Real Bedford Falls: It’s a Wonderful Life is streaming on Apple TV, Amazon Prime and Vudu … and available through Virgil Films online.

A website dedicated to the debate of whether Seneca Falls is the inspiration for Bedford Falls, with even more evidence, can be found here.

Chris Bolt, Ed.D. has proudly been covering the Central New York community and mentoring students for more than 30 years. His career in public media started as a student volunteer, then as a reporter/producer. He has been the news director for WAER since 1995. Dedicated to keeping local news coverage alive, Chris also has a passion for education, having trained, mentored and provided a platform for growth to more than a thousand students. Career highlights include having work appear on NPR, CBS, ABC and other news networks, winning numerous local and state journalism awards.