Seneca Falls has long believed itself as the inspiration for Bedford Falls in the film classic It’s a Wonderful Life. Some evidence of the connections and similarities between the two towns include:
- Frank Capra’s visit to Seneca Falls while writing the script. Former Seneca Falls barber, Tom Bellissima, recalled cutting the hair of a man who introduced himself as Frank Capra at the time when the screenplay was underdevelopment. Frank Capra is known to have often visited relatives in nearby Auburn. Both being of Italian heritage, Tom Bellissima recalls joking with Frank Capra saying, “I’m the beautiful one and you’re the goat” as bellissima is Italian for ‘beautiful’ and capra for ‘goat.’
- The location within western New York. The film makes references to surrounding areas such as Buffalo, Rochester, and Elmira. Originally, Harry Bailey attends Cornell University, located in nearby Ithaca. However, the studio recommended not referring to the college by name and this detail was cut from the movie.
- Much of the architecture is strikingly similar, including the old Seneca Falls railroad station, local houses, the steel truss bridges and formerly the lower portion of main street in Seneca Falls had a median dividing the street, just as in the film.
- Both Seneca Falls and Bedford Falls constructed affordable housing developments. Bailey Park in the film was built by the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan and provided affordable, decent housing for working-class families. Similarly, 19th century industrialist and Seneca Falls resident, John Rumsey, built and sold decent affordable homes for his employees. that neighborhood became known, and is still known, as Rumseyville.
While these details could conceivably be coincidences, nothing is quite as telling as the real life story of Seneca Falls resident Antonio Varacalli. On Thursday, April 12, 1917, Antonio Varacalli drowned while successfully rescuing a young woman who had jumped in from the bridge attempting to commit suicide. Varacalli was a young man of the age of 17 (though some sources state differently as he reportedly lied about his age so he would be able to get a job) when he heard a woman scream for help. He rushed into the canal and managed to bring her close enough to shore where another man helped to pull her to the bank. Unfortunately, Varacalli himself could not swim and he himself drowned.
The original newspaper story that ran mentioned the name of Ruth Dunham, the woman whom he saved, but it did not mention Antonio Varacalli’s name, instead referring to him as a young “Italian… whose first name was Tony.” In response, a letter to the editor was written by William Bours Clarke, pastor of the Trinity Episcopal Church, calling for full recognition of his “supreme heroism and self-sacrifice.”
The town came together to recognize the young man and he was awarded the Carnegie Hero Medal and they raised money to fulfill Antonio Varacalli’s dream of working to save enough to bring his family over from Italy. Several years later in 1921, a plaque was erected and placed on the bridge where it can still be seen today.
This is believed to be the inspiration for two key scenes in the movie. Prior to Frank Capra coming on as director, the George Bailey character did not jump into the water to save Clarence, rather he is stopped by a mysterious man who says, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” in response to George contemplating suicide.
The true story is also believed to be the inspiration for the end scene when the town comes together to raise money to help the man who changed their lives, much as the people of Seneca Falls came together to raise money to bring Antonio Varacalli’s family to America.
While Frank Capra never directly said that Seneca Falls was the inspiration for Bedford Falls, stating later that Bedford Falls is a collection of many small little town, the community believes that the proof is in our history.