Skip to main content

Mountain Home Magazine

It's a Wonderful Story

Dec 01, 2023 09:00AM ● By Maggie Barnes

It all began with a baby boy born in Wyalusing, Pennsylvania, and, in a way, it ended with him. This is the story of a mother in need of a place to give birth, a baby who grew into a man who wrote a story, and a film director who deeply believed in the value of the human race at any time of year, but especially at Christmas.

Anne Van Doren Stern was a nurse at a hospital in Williamsport. In 1900 she had a lot on her mind. She was pregnant, and her husband’s sales job kept him away most of the time. She shared her worry with some of her patients. They urged her to relocate to their town, Wyalusing, to bring her child into the world. The folks there, they told her, would help and support her and the baby. So, like another mother in another time, Anne traveled to a place she hoped would allow her child to be born in peace and love.

On September 10 of that year, Anne delivered her son, Philip, into that circle of strangers-turned-friends. It’s hard to know how long they stayed, maybe until Philip was a toddler, then the little family moved to New Jersey where Anne had been raised. Philip grew up with a keen interest in history, especially the Civil War. He went on to become a renowned editor and author of historical books. During World War II, he served in the Office of War Information and adapted popular books to a size that would fit into a military uniform pocket.

But it was a story that came to him in a dream for which Philip would be known. He was shaving one morning in February of 1938 when he remembered his dream. It was the tale of a forlorn man who thinks the world would be better off without him. The historian put pen to paper. Only 4,000 words in length, the work, titled The Greatest Gift, would take five years of tweaking before the author considered it complete. Despite his track record as a published writer, Philip could not convince anyone to give the slender book a chance. It was “fantasy,” and such a departure from his career that there seemed to be no value in it.

But Philip loved his little story, and at Christmastime of 1943 he printed 200 copies and sent them to friends and family as holiday wishes, using that slim sizing he had learned for the military. That simple act of goodwill triggered a series of events that reverberate to this day. Like a Christmas fruitcake regifted a dozen times before getting to the one person who would know how to serve it, The Greatest Gift passed through many lives before landing with a movie studio executive and becoming a classic. The book recounts a brief tale—it spans only a matter of hours, and involves about a dozen people. So it’s doubtful even Philip could have imagined the robust, decades-long story that ultimately swept up an entire community that lay beneath his words. But someone else saw it.

Today, too many families to count settle into couches and recliners in the glow of twinkle lights and evergreens to watch their traditional holiday favorite, It’s a Wonderful Life.

How that moment came to be is a tale of luck, human error, perseverance, and faith.

Capra Makes the Greatest Film from “The Greatest Gift”

Frank Capra was fresh out of the military and looking to return to his civilian life as a movie director in Hollywood. He felt disconnected from the normal world and worried he had lost his relevance in the realm of moviemaking. He and some friends started a film studio, Liberty Films, and were on the hunt for their first project.

A studio executive called him and told him of a story he had just purchased for which Capra was the perfect director. The exec told him he had paid $50,000 for a Christmas card and he wanted a movie made of it. Capra said, “You paid $50,000 for a Christmas card? I’ve got to see that card!”

Philip Van Doren Stern’s little story was now in the hands of the only man who could have brought it to life on film. Capra would write about The Greatest Gift: “It was the story I had been looking for all my life! Small town. A man. A good man, ambitious. But so busy helping others, life seems to pass him by. Despondent. He wishes he’d never been born. He gets his wish. Wow! What an idea. The kind of idea that when I get old and sick and scared and ready to die—they’d still say, ‘He made The Greatest Gift.’”

The movie was made with one of the biggest stars of the time, Jimmy Stewart, born in another Pennsylvania town, Indiana, and himself a war veteran. Stewart’s greatest gift as an actor was to be an “everyman,” someone to relate to, especially in facing adversity. His trauma as an Air Force pilot informs his portrayal as George Bailey unravels on screen. It was a masterful performance.

Stewart knew from the beginning that the film had something special, calling it his favorite of the more than seventy movies in his career. It wasn’t profound in any way, he thought, but it carried an inspiring message. “It’s simply about an ordinary man who discovers that living each ordinary day honorably, with faith in God and a selfless concern for others, can make for a truly wonderful life,” Stewart said in an interview.

The movie is released in December 1946. Its reception is lukewarm at best. In the post-war years, maybe the public didn’t want heavy, emotional fare, favoring musicals and comedies. And it could have died a quiet death right there, relegated to the miles of movie film discarded the next time the studio needed storage space.

But fate had not yet finished with The Greatest Gift or It’s a Wonderful Life. Human failure, so much a part of Philip’s original story, would prove critical on the path of this tale becoming part of millions of holiday celebrations. The Copyright Act of 1909 governed copyrightable works created before 1964. That act broke copyright into two terms, an original twenty-eight-year term, and a twenty-eight-year renewable term. That first step happened automatically, but you had to file for the renewal. For whatever reason, by whoever person, the copyright for It’s a Wonderful Life was not renewed on that second round. That made it free for any television station that wanted to air it. Stations saw it as a Christmas gift to fill the December schedule.

That’s when families everywhere first saw the story that Philip had penned. The story that came to him in a dream. The story that, perhaps, his lonely mother had felt wrap around her when a community of people embraced her and her infant son. The story that began in Wyalusing.

Where Is Bedford Falls?

One community in New York felt the story so deeply, they based their identity on it. No one can argue that Capra meant to plop Bedford Falls into upstate New York. There are references to Buffalo, Rochester, and Elmira in the movie. There was originally a mention of Cornell University, but the school’s lawyers quashed that. Seneca Falls bears more than a passing resemblance to the community Capra invented to be the place where The Greatest Gift played out. Both are mill towns with a canal and a steel truss bridge where something significant happened. Both had large Italian immigrant neighborhoods. The housing stock and downtown configurations are nearly identical. Some of the street names are the same.

If you know the film, you know the steel bridge is where George Bailey comes to his crossroad. He jumps into the icy water to rescue another and, unknowingly, begins his own redemption. On the actual bridge in Seneca Falls in 1917, immigrant Antonio Varacalli leapt into the canal to save a young woman, losing his life in his brave act.

The locals in Seneca Falls will tell you that Capra himself made a visit to the town in 1945 while enroute to visit an aunt in Auburn. They say the director got a haircut from one of the immigrants, an Italian named Bellissima, who remembers his customer because they spoke in Italian, and he teased Capra about his last name, which means “goat” in their native language. This would have been about the time the screenplay for The Greatest Gift was being developed. He would have had to cross the steel bridge where a plaque honors Antonio’s self-sacrifice. So, maybe Capra saw Seneca Falls and the vision for Bedford Falls came to his mind? Heck, even famed Paul Harvey has done a “Rest of the Story” on the comparison.

Residents believed it to be the case, and decided there was such a connection to the film that they should have an event, something small, to celebrate it.

“It was a very low-key event,” recalls Anwei Law, director/president of the It’s a Wonderful Life Museum. “There was a screening of the movie at the theater, and we collected canned goods for the food bank.” The event started to gain traction through the ’70s and ’80s, but what happened in 1994 launched it into the heavens. Actress Karolyn Grimes, who played Zuzu, the youngest child of protagonist George Bailey, came to Seneca Falls. She was immediately struck by a feeling of familiarity with the town, and encouraged the festival’s growth.

“By 2010, we knew we needed something more formal,” Anwei remembers. “We had one display case of items, but more was turning up all the time.” Enthusiasts combed Hollywood archives to find photos of the sets, scripts, production notes, Capra biographical information, and more. Unfortunately, since the film showed no signs of becoming relevant at its release, few of the original props were maintained—a couple of cars and two pairs of earrings are some of what is still around.

Today, the It’s a Wonderful Life Festival attracts some 15,000 to a weekend of events—December 8 through 10 this year (visit or call (315) 568-5838 for more information). People take photos on the famed bridge and tie small bells to its railings, an homage to Zuzu’s final line about ringing bells bringing angels their wings. The museum, located in the center of town in a storefront, features lots of photos from the movie and replicas of items used during filming. Down the block there is a sort of headquarters for the town’s claim to fame; Anwei is there on a Saturday welcoming visitors. It has an extensive gift shop where you can buy everything from character dolls and ornaments to serving trays and those bells, made by the same company that made them for the movie. There is a full-size copy of the “You Are Now In Bedford Falls” sign that George rejoices over on Christmas Eve. Every group that comes in has their photo taken standing behind it, and the smiles are huge.

“It’s like visiting my childhood to see this,” a woman from Michigan comments as Anwei snaps her picture. Work is underway on a much larger facility that will offer an expanded IAWL experience.

“We plan to recreate the sets from the movie,” Anwei says. “You’ll be able to visit Gower’s Drugstore and give town curmudgeon Mr. Potter the dressing down he so desperately needs.” (Actually, there was a scene in an early script where Clarence, George’s angel, appears to Potter and lays a little truth on him about his wasted life. But Capra wanted to leave it out, mirroring real life which often sees the bad guy go unpunished.)

One of the surprising things Anwei has noted through the years is the love affair men have with the movie. “I’ve seen men tear up at the showing,” she says. “I think because Capra’s work always validated the man, reassured him that he was a success and worthwhile, even if the world didn’t think so. Men can relate to that.”

Everyman’s Everytown

The truth is, there really is no way to know if Frank Capra had a real community in mind when he breathed life into Bedford Falls. He refused to ever identify his inspiration, saying that he meant the town to be any town and the people in it to represent commonality with folks anywhere.

“Bedford Falls is everywhere, every town that someone loves and remembers,” Anwei says. “That’s the whole message of the film. That everyone has value if someone loves you and remembers you. This town was honored by the selfless act of Antonio Varacalli and we, in turn, honor him by remembering him.”

She pauses and watches the foot traffic outside a window display of a miniature Bedford Falls set on snow-like cotton material. It’s sunny this day, but it takes very little imagination to see the snow falling, collecting on the globe lamp streetlights and muffling the traffic noise.

“People need the message of this movie,” she says firmly, “You need to step out of the world once in a while and remember that there are good people who do the right things for the right reasons.”

Philip Van Doren Stern was one of those people. The baby boy born in Wyalusing wrote a little story that rejoiced in the human condition, celebrating the faceless George Baileys of the world, telling him he was valued.

Frank Capra stated that he didn’t give care “whether critics hailed or hooted Wonderful Life. I thought it was the greatest film I have ever made. Better yet, I thought it was the greatest film anyone had ever made. It wasn’t made for the oh-so-bored critics, or the oh-so-jaded literati, it was my kind of film, made for my kind of people. A film to tell the weary, the disheartened and the disillusioned, that no man is a failure. No man is poor who has one friend. Three friends and you’re filthy rich.”

But let’s go back to that dropped ball on the copyright renewal. In 1993, Republic Pictures wanted to reclaim ownership of the film, so they went back to the beginning, back to Philip, and bought the rights to The Greatest Gift, which gave them the handle they needed to reign in the film and make it a special holiday broadcast. It also launched a robust home video and streaming market for it once those technologies came along.

And that means that Philip’s vision, coming to him in its entirety while shaving one morning, has outlived him and will do the same to the rest of us someday. The two storytellers had little in common, but are linked forever in a hopeful vision for humanity. They bequeathed us a lifeline for the dark days. Capra said as much in his autobiography.

“There is a radiance and glory in the darkness, could we but see. And to see we have only to look. I beseech you to look.”

Wyalusing looks. Each year the Lions Club there provides meals to struggling families on nearly every holiday. The Helping Hands Food Pantry is on hand for the ordinary days. Each Christmas, residents stand together in the cold air and sing the old and familiar hymns.

Corning looks. Their Lions Club joins with the Gaffer District for a celebration to support families who need a hand. The Palace Theatre shows holiday movies for the cost of food donations and to raise money for prostate cancer.

Wellsboro looks. They helped bring Christmas back by producing a special ornament that reinvigorated a post-war industry and continues to adorn homes today. Each December, their Rotary Club hosts a Santa party for foster children at the Penn Wells Hotel, spreading the message that this small town values every person.

Everytown, everywhere, with help from everyman.

May this Christmas bring the realization that the world is only what it is because we are all in it. Let’s remember Philip’s story and never think everyone would be better off without us. And may we never hear the song of a bell without also sensing the flutter of angel wings.

Could a simple book have a better legacy?

Explore Wellsboro, Fall/Winter 2023-2024
Experience Bradford County 2023
#ExploreCorning 2023