A Wonderful Story for Christmas


For many of my friends It’s a Wonderful Life   is the Christmas movie.   They, and George R. Stewart fans, will be interested in the connection between that classic film and Stewart. George R. Stewart – and another Stewart – spent their boyhoods in a town that was one of the inspirations for “Bedford Falls.”

George R. Stewart was raised in Indiana, Pennsylvania, where his mother’s family lived.  His maternal grandfather, Andrew Wilson,  planned to be a teacher and even helped found a school nearby (which would eventually become the prestigious Kiski School).  But he couldn’t earn enough to support his family so he went into the mercantile business.  He  had a hand in a hardware store there, owned by another Stewart.  That Stewart’s son was James Stewart, also raised in Indiana, PA.

George and Jimmy bore a remarkable resemblance to each other.  With all their similarities in family history, geography, and physiology, you’d expect they were related.  But they  shared only one possible distant relative.  And they lived in different worlds, in Indiana.  The George Stewart family went to the middle-class Presbyterian church on the flats; Jimmy Stewart and his parents attended the upper-class Presbyterian church on the hill.  GRS went to a public high school out west, Jimmy to a prestigious private school in the east.

Still, the two young Stewarts’ lives paralleled in remarkable ways.  GRS and his family moved to Pasadena; he went to Princeton; and after marriage,  moved his family to Berkeley, California.  Jimmy Stewart also went to Princeton and also moved to Pasadena; then spent his life in Southern California.  GRS wrote books, two of which were filmed.  Jimmy made films, like the beloved Christmas classic.   GRS worked at the Disney studios for a time, as an consultant to Walt.  Jimmy worked at many studios, creating characters and stories that touched the hearts of millions. 

With all these similarities, their paths apparently never crossed.  GRS and his family left Indiana for California when he was 12, in 1905 – the year James Stewart was born. Out West, nothing in their interests or their work brought them together.  Since the film we now consider a classic failed in its initial run, it is unlikely GRS would have seen it. (For one thing, GRS didn’t like the mass media and rarely if ever  attended movies.)

Yet in the Christmas season we should remember there is one thing they shared – which, thanks to Capra’s film, we share with them:  The experience of life in a small Midwestern American town in the early 20th century.  For a time, we walk the streets and meet the people of the town, and the time, where both boys grew up. Indiana, Pennsylvania, is one of the inspirations for “Bedford Falls”.

From my book: 

“George R. Stewart’s boyhood town was so archetypically American that it could pass for George Bailey’s “Bedford Falls” in Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life. In fact, the town was “Bedford Falls” – at least for the movie’s male star. Indiana, Pennsylvania, was also the boyhood home of James Stewart, who played “George Bailey” in Capra’s film.  

In fact, Producer/Director Frank Capra probably modeled his set on the upstate New York town of Seneca Falls. But for James Stewart, Indiana, Pennsylvania, was the place he held in his heart as he brought George Bailey to life on the set of “It’s a Wonderful LIfe.”  Although the movie’s “Bedford Falls” was built on a studio backlot in the San Fernando Valley, Jimmy Stewart said that when he walked onto the set for the first time he almost expected to hear the bells of his home church in Indiana.”

Each year, Indiana, Pennsylvania, holds an It’s a Wonderful Life Festival, with a parade, hot chocolate,  tree lighting, and continuous showings of the film at the Jimmy Stewart Museum.  The people lining the streets in their warm winter clothing bring life to the snow-bound town, in the same way the movie brings life to the streets of “Bedford Falls.”

When you watch Capra’s film this Christmas please give a thought to the boyhood town of George R. Stewart, Indiana, Pennsylvania, where he celebrated his Christmases.  A town, which for Jimmy Stewart, was the model for the fictional Bedford Falls. A town which although fictional, brings an American Christmas into our hearts.

Merry Christmas!



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