Bedford Falls, NY could be almost any small town if you didn’t qualify weather and the appearance of book-carrying angels as criteria. The setting for the movie It’s a Wonderful Life supposedly is fashioned in a striking fashion after Seneca Falls, NY and plays host to one of the best stories of the holiday season to grace the screen, even though it has been monopolized by NBC for prime time viewing.
While it would be easy to make parallels to the state of society with the state of the Bailey household, the struggle to follow the American Dream while still helping others, and the fight against greed embodied in one Mr. Potter, it is the one institution in the movie that I believe gets overlooked that serves as a great foundation of the community: Bedford Falls High School.
Early in the movie when George’s (Jimmy Stewart) little brother, Harry, goes to his graduation party at the school’s gym, George has a wonderful conversation with his father about living in a small town. It turns out that it would be their last talk together as later his father suffers a stroke.
George, in a fit of boredom, decides to go to the graduation party himself. He is welcomed with open arms. Everyone seems to be there. Why? Everyone has ties to the local high school –not just the students who are about to graduate. All relatives, all friends, all community members – in fact, all stakeholders are there.
Sam Wainwright. Marty Hatch. Violet. Even the guy who plays Alfalfa in The Little Rascals is there.
See? Told you.
And of course, Mary Hatch, who becomes Mary Bailey, played by Donna Reed.
There’s the dance. The Charleston contest. And then the pool under the gym floor. Then Alfalfa gets mad because George dances with Mary so he gets the key to open the floor and then everybody falls in the water.
As The Herald Journal in my hometown of Greensboro, GA would say, “A good time was had by all.”
Especially George and Mary. They plant a seed that blossoms later into love.
Since they all have wet clothes, they need dry ones. Look Spirit Wear!
But the role of the local school doesn’t stop there.
Harry was a star end on the football team and while George stayed behind to run the Building & Loan after the death of their father, Harry made second team All-American. And even though George still kept his dreams of travel alive, he must have had a good education to be able to keep afloat a business like a finance company that survived the crash that preceded the Great Depression.
With the advent of the Second Great World War, one could imagine that the local school would also play a central role in the community. Some schools served as bomb shelters or places where items like rubber and metal were collected for the war effort. And even if they were not, schools were the constant for so many families going through the Great Depression.
Later in the movie, when Uncle Billy misplaces the money that Potter steals in hopes to finally bankrupt the Bailey Building & Loan, an emotionally distraught George lashes out at Zuzu’s teacher on the phone for supposedly allowing her to come home without a coat in the freezing cold. That leads to a scuffle with the husband of the teacher in Nick’s bar in a later scene as the husband reveals how personal his wife takes her job.
I have not even talked about how George actually had an after-school job when he went to school with Mr. Gower.
If one was to look at the script of It’s A Wonderful Life, then he/she would find the word “school” fourteen times, five are used in stage directions.
But it’s the last time where the word “school” is used that may be the most powerful. It comes when George is granted his wish from Clarence to get his “life back” and return to his family only to find that the town had rallied behind him to raise the money needed to cover the loss of money.
It is a stage direction.
Stage Direction – Mr. Partridge, the high school principal, is the next donor.
Then it is followed by an act that schools sometime do for their communities – rally for them.
PARTRIDGE: There you are, George. I got the faculty all up out of bed (hands his watch to Zuzu). And here’s something for you to play with.