The Sicilian American film director Frank Capra was once described by Ian Freer as the “American dream personified”. His 1946 film, “It’s a Wonderful Life “, though it did not do well on first release, was in 2006 voted the movie that has inspired the most Americans, in a poll taken by the American Film Institute.
It was based on a short story by Philip van Doren Stern, which he self-published in the form of a Christmas card. When Capra read it, he said that he “had been looking for (it) all (his) life.”. It had been twelve years earlier, with the release of “It Happened One Night”, that Alistair Cooke observed that Capra was “starting to make movies about themes instead of people.”.
In “Wonderful Life”, James Stewart played the role of George Bailey, and said in later life that of all the film parts he had played in his long career, this was his favourite. In a climactic, redemptive scene, the despairing George comes to realise that his life, like that of his fellows, has the capacity to touch the lives of many others for good.
Stewart later described his performance in terms of the purest improvisation. In the scene set in Martini’s Bar, he followed the script, pleading: “dear Father in heaven….I’m at the end of my rope. Show me the way.” As he said this, he reported, he “felt the loneliness of people who had nowhere to turn”, and his “eyes filled with tears. I broke down sobbing. This was not planned at all…” Film critics have observed that Jimmy Stewart’s pre-war “aw gee” style of acting evolved once he had returned from active service into something more profound and nuanced.
The Bedford Falls in which the film is set is based partly on the town of Bedford, New York. It was founded on 23 December, 1680, when twenty-two Puritans from Stamford, Connecticut, purchased a tract of land three miles square from Chief Katonah and several other Native Americans.
Today I am in the Bedford which is the county town of Bedfordshire. It was first granted borough status in 1165. In 1941, the BBC’s Music and Religion Departments, having already been evacuated to Bristol, were looking for a safer place of residence, and chose Bedford as their new secret location. It was identified on air only as “somewhere in England “.
John Bunyan, writer and Puritan preacher, was born at Elstow, near Bedford, in 1628. He spent three years in the Parliamentary army during the first stage of the English Civil War, and two years later married a pious young woman who brought two books into marriage with her, one of them being “Plain Man’s Pathway to Heaven “.
After years of spiritual conflict, Bunyan began preaching within a nonconformist congregation and beyond. Following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, however, Bunyan was arrested under the Conventicle Act of 1593 and sentenced to imprisonment. While in Bedford Gaol, he started work on “The Pilgrim’s Progress”, which is presented as a dream sequence – “and as I slept, I dreamed a Dream.” – told by an omniscient narrator. It was published in 1678, and has never been out of print since.
Before the closing of the First Part, the pilgrims of the story are captured by Giant Despair and his wife Diffidence and taken to their home in Doubting Castle. The couple urge the pilgrims to end their own lives, but they endure their ordeal until Christian realises that Promise, the key in his possession, will open any door or gate in the castle.
British History Online tells us that in August 1672 there happened at Bedford “an Horrible and unheard of Tempest”. In the course of half an hour it “threw the Swan Inn gates off the Hinges into the Street….The Rose Inn Gates it threw off the Hinges into the middle of the Street. The Maidenhead Inn Gates it served in like manner.”
Some of the names in “Wonderful Life” suggest a fable. For instance, Potter’s Field is a slum development whose landlord, Henry Potter, is paid overpriced rents. The name used to attach to a city’s burial place for people who die alone and penniless. The Gospel of Matthew records that, after Judas Iscariot had hanged himself, he was buried outside Jerusalem, in the Potter’s Field.
And Bailey? It used to mean the outer wall of a castle.
John Bunyan wrote, following Psalm 56: “There hath not one tear dropped from thy tender eye….but as it is now in the bottle of God.”.