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It's a Wonderful (Life) Museum


If you're a fan of sentimental American movies, you're likely familiar with, or possibly even addicted to, It's a Wonderful Life, Frank Capra's 1947 sermon on how important people are to each other, and how much depends on our actions.


The movie is set at Christmas time in a picture-perfect town called Bedford Falls, populated with good-hearted bankers and bad, salt-of-the-earth cabbies, Officer Friendly style cops, loving wives, beautiful children and even a drunken druggist.


Gower's Drug Store helped Professor Abe, PortMoresby and George G identify the location for this week's One-Clue Mystery.


Bedford Falls doesn't really exist, but its model does: Seneca Falls, New York, whose other claim to fame is as the home of the women's suffrage movement. And true to the Bedford Falls small-town vibe, Seneca Falls has a museum dedicated to the movie—and it's just the sort of home-folks easy-going museum that fits the theme.

Always someone watching: The financier Harriman noticed that in one of the subplots the Baileys lose money that is found and kept by evil Potter, but we never find out what became of it.

It's filled with articles about the movie, memorabilia (some for sale), photos of actors and their stories of how they came to be in the movie and what it meant to them. But most interesting to me was learning about a real-life incident in Bedford Falls that found its way into a key place in the movie.

For those of you who may have escaped seeing the movie, it centers on George Bailey, whose family owns a local friendly savings-and-loan. The story is told in flashbacks from George's youth to adulthood, and his family's struggles against the bad banker who is jealous of their place in the community.

Eventually, we come to a scene where George faces so many issues in his life that he is about to commit suicide by jumping off the town bridge. At that moment, he is taken in hand by a bumbling angel out to earn his halo by saving a life. The angel, Clarence, shows George the Sodom that his town would have become if he had never been born, and then there's a happy ending.

P1080373P1080376Bridge Antonio Varacalli Plaque

But in real life, the drama at the bridge didn't have such a happy ending. In real life, a young woman fell or jumped from the bridge, and a young worker, Antonio Varacalli, an Italian immigrant jumped in to save her. She lived, but he died.


Local churches and other groups raised funds to help his family; he was nominated for a Carnegie fund hero medal and funds (the medal was granted but without money), and a plaque was attached to the bridge, where Capra saw it while he was working on adapting the short story by Philip van Doren that eventually became It's a Wonderful Life. The bridge and the story found their way into the movie.


After touring the museum, my daughter and I found ourselves in need of watching the movie again. It might be the last time. In all the dozens of times I've watched it, I never noticed before what an unpleasant, self-absorbed bully George Bailey is. He orders his wife about, he yells at his cowering children, he acts as if he owns the world. I found myself thinking: this man deserves his troubles. And maybe Clarence should have let him jump.

But for all that...It's a Wonderful Movie...



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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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