Here’s the annual re-post of a story of the close connections between George R. Stewart and Jimmy Stewart, and between the mythical town of Bedford Falls and the real town of Indiana, Pennsylvania, the boyhood home of both Stewarts.
It’s A Wonderful Story
This is the time of year when most of us watch the classic Christmas movies. A Christmas Carol with Alastair Sims, Miracle on 34th Street, A Child’s Christmas in Wales, (An almost unknown gem, produced in Canada, starring Denholm Elliot); and It’s a Wonderful Life. The local theater in Arroyo Grande, California, owned by a man who loves movies, shows one of those classics each Christmas. The admission is a can of food or a toy, to be donated to those in need – in the spirit of the movie.
To see such a film on the big screen, surrounded by local neighbors of all ages – to see how the children love the film – it is a reminder of what we’ve lost. Today we watch movies on TV, often alone, and usually less intently than in a movie theater. Yet at a showing of Miracle on Thirty-Fourth Street the audience clapped and cheered when the judge decided that, yes, Kris Kringle was indeed Santa Claus. How long since you’ve experienced that?
For many people It’s a Wonderful Life is the Christmas movie. So those who are George R. Stewart fans will be interested in the connection between that classic film and GRS.
George R. Stewart spent his boyhood 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 (it would 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 born and raised in Indiana.
George and Jimmy looked alike. With all the 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 Stewarts went to the middle-class Presbyterian church on the flats; Jimmy Stewart and his parents to 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. Their paths apparently never crossed. 12-year-old GRS and his family left Indiana for California in 1905, the year James Stewart was born. Out west, nothing in their interests or their work brought them together.
Still, the 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 went to Princeton, then moved to Pasadena; and spent his life in Southern California. GRS wrote books, two of which were filmed. Jimmy made films, like that grand Christmas classic we all love. GRS worked at the Disney studios for a time, an advisor to Walt himself. Jimmy worked at many studios, creating characters and stories that touched the hearts of millions. Ironically, GRS did not like the media, and apparently did not attend movies often, if at all.
Even though their paths never crossed, during the Christmas season we should remember there is one thing they shared: The experience of life in a small American town in the early 20th century. Like a trip to Disneyland, a viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life enfolds us in such a place. For a time, we walk the streets and meet the people of the town and the time where both boys grew up.
Here’s a passage from the biography of Stewart, about Indiana, Pennsylvania as Bedford Falls:
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, “George Bailey” in Capra’s film. 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.
Although the film’s Producer/Director, Frank Capra, is said to have modeled his mythical town on the upstate New York town of Seneca Falls, for Jimmy Stewart Indiana, Pennsylvania, where he and George R. Stewart grew up, was the place he had in his heart as he brought George Bailey to life.
Each year, Indiana 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. It’s a winter festival so the people lining the streets in their warm clothing bring life to a snow-bound town like the movie brings life to the streets of the movie set town.
As you watch Capra’s great film this Christmas, keep in mind that GRS celebrated his Christmases in a town which for another Stewart, Jimmy, was the model for iconic, Bedford Falls.
Merry Christmas to all.
PS. A Christmas gift, for 2019 readers – a link to the radio interview with “Tommy Bailey,” one of the Bailey children growing up in Bedford Falls, setting for It’s a Wonderful Life.