Frank Capra never admitted that Bedford Falls, the fictional setting of his 1946 movie “It’s A Wonderful Life,” was based on Seneca Falls, New York. But citizens of Seneca Falls firmly believe that to be so. They have several reasons why, but one rises above the others.
Capra visited Seneca Falls while he was developing the script of It’s A Wonderful Life. There are a lot of structural similarities between the towns, including a steel truss bridge. What happened on that bridge in both towns ties them together.
On April 12, 1917, Ruth Dunham, in a supposed suicide attempt, jumped off of the Bridge Street bridge into the canal, then started screaming for help. A young Italian canal worker named Antonio Varacalli, who could not swim, jumped in to save her. He managed to push her far enough toward the bank to be rescued by another man who was swimming out with a rope, but then Varacalli drowned.
This true story is very similar to the part of It’s A Wonderful Life when a suicidal George Bailey jumps off of a steel truss bridge, not to take his own life, but to save Clarence Oddbody, his guardian angel who had jumped off the bridge to save George’s life by giving him someone to save. Reportedly, this was added to the script after Capra’s visit to Seneca Falls.
Varacalli’s heroism is acknowledged on a plaque on the Bridge Street bridge, and the town thanked him by raising money to allow his mother and sisters to come to the United States. Varacalli was also awarded the Carnegie Hero Medal.
Every December, Seneca Falls hosts an It’s A Wonderful Life-themed Christmas festival, and Karolyn Grimes and Carol Coombs (Zuzu and Janie Bailey in the movie) have occasionally attended. Every corner of the bridge has a Wonderful Life-themed street sign.