The Real Bedford Falls? ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ Was Inspired By This New York Town, New Documentary Says

It’s a Wonderful Life is a classic Christmas film. And the town where George Bailey (James Stewart) and his family live is the quintessential small American town. But you won’t find Bedford Falls on any map. The place that George can’t wait to escape from is fictional. However, the town of Seneca Falls, New York, may have been the inspiration for Bedford Falls, according to a new documentary, The Real Bedford Falls: It’s a Wonderful Life. 

‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ director Frank Capra visited Seneca Falls 

'You are now in Bedford Falls' sign as seen in 'It's a Wonderful Life'
‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ | CBS via Getty Images

Speculation that Seneca Falls – an upstate New York town located between Rochester and Syracuse – is the real Bedford Falls isn’t new. But the 30-minute documentary directed by Francis DiClemente and Stu Lisson lays out the compelling case for the claim. 

For one, It’s a Wonderful Life director Frank Capra passed through Seneca Falls sometime before production on the movie began. While there, he chatted with residents, including a barber who shared a story about a local man who was celebrated for rescuing a woman who attempted suicide by jumping off a bridge. That story is suspected to have given Capra the idea to have George, who is considering ending his life, rescue the wingless angel Clarence when he falls into the icy river. 

In addition, the real Seneca Falls and the fictional Bedford Falls share a number of similarities, from their architecture to their street names to the look of their downtowns, the film notes. And there are several clues in the movie that point to an upstate New York location for Bedford Falls. However, interview subject John Mencl, a trial lawyer and the president of the Zuzu Society, admits that the case that Seneca Falls provided the blueprint for Bedford Falls is “circumstantial.”

Zuzu Bailey actor Karolyn Grimes sees the similarities between Seneca Falls and Bedford Falls 

George Bailey surrounded by his wife and children at the end of 'It's a Wonderful Life'
‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ | CBS via Getty Images

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There might not be definitive proof that Seneca Falls is the real Bedford Falls. But at least one person closely associated with It’s a Wonderful Life can see the connection. Karolyn Grimes played George’s young daughter Zuzu Bailey and is one of a handful of surviving cast members. In the documentary, she recalls her first visit to Seneca Falls. She describes arriving on a quiet and snowy night and walking down the town’s deserted Main Street. 

“I just said, ‘I’m in Bedford Falls,” the former child actor says. 

Movie critic Leonard Maltin has also visited the town and says the similarities are hard to ignore. 

“I think it can lay claim as close as anybody could to being a mirror of Bedford Falls in It’s a Wonderful Life,” he says. 

Why so many people love ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ and Bedford Falls 

Seneca Falls has wholeheartedly embraced its status as the real Bedford Falls. It’s home to an It’s a Wonderful Life museum and hosts an annual festival celebrating the movie. But why do people keep coming back to the film and making pilgrimages to the town of Seneca Falls? 

Part of it might have to do with a longing for a simple small-town life while at the same time wanting to broaden your horizons and leave the place you’re from. It’s a Wonderful Life recognizes that tension.  

“This movie acknowledges that. That the small town is both a place to love and come back to and return to and be buried in,” says Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “But it’s also a place that you really want to escape.” 

The Real Bedford Falls: It’s a Wonderful Life is currently available for purchase on Prime Video and other digital platforms. 

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