#36. ‘It's a Wonderful Life’ (1946)

Jimmy Stewart role as George Bailey in "It's a Wonderful Life" offers a prime example of a character who ultimately chooses to take the high road in a difficult situation. Columnist Greg Asimakoupoulos likens the character's behavior to singing Christmas carols while everyone else is complaining of the heat.

Seventy-five years ago this month Hollywood director Frank Capra was filming “It’s a Wonderful Life” in Bedford Falls. Did you know an increasing number of movie buffs believe that Bedford Falls, the fictional town Capra created for his timeless Christmas classic, was based on Seneca Falls in Upstate New York?

After numerous visits to the town that also boasts the birthplace of the Women’s Rights Movement, I am among those who believe Seneca Falls is the real Bedford Falls. Even though some aren’t sure, the evidence seems to lead to that logical conclusion.

There is no doubt, however, as to where the Bedford Falls created for the movie was constructed. Frank Capra used the RKO ranch in Encino, California, for the charming town in which George and Mary Bailey raised their four children and where they fended off the evil influence of Old Man Potter.

The massive outdoor set covered four acres with the main street stretching 300 yards (the equivalent of three city blocks). The imaginary town included 75 stores and buildings, as well as a residential neighborhood. And it wasn’t just the buildings that looked realistic. Because the climax of the movie took place on Christmas Eve, Capra went to great lengths to find a new form of artificial snow that wouldn’t look fake. The result was a product called foamite.

While researching the backstory to “It’s a Wonderful Life,” I was struck by the irony of filming a Christmas movie in the middle of summer. I discovered a major heat wave crippled Southern California in the midst of the final weeks of production during July of 1946. At one-point Frank Capra actually shut down production to allow the cast and crew to recover from heat exhaustion.

The unbearable heat explains why Jimmy Stewart appears to be perspiring in that pivotal scene on the Bedford Falls Bridge when he is contemplating suicide. Well, who wouldn’t sweat while wearing a heavy wool overcoat on a 100-degree day? All the same, the unintentional perspiration on the protagonist’s face made the poignant close-up all the more believable.

Contemplating the making a Christmas movie in the middle of summer has got me thinking. Even though I’ve never sat in a director’s chair on a Hollywood movie set, I’ve had to “think winter” when it’s not. Like you, I’ve had the opportunity on more than once occasion to live out the storyline of my faith when the circumstances around me seemed counter-intuitive.

In other words, there are times in our lives when we are called upon to choose to act in accordance with our belief system even when we don’t feel like following the script. When tempted to cave to what is convenient, it is easy to let outside conditions threaten our inner values. What’s at stake is nothing less than our integrity.

In “It’s a Wonderful Life,” there is a scene that reminds me of Jesus’ temptation by Satan in the wilderness following His baptism. You know the one I mean. Mr. Potter offers George Bailey a job with a lucrative salary in exchange for walking away from his family’s building and loan business.

In the heat of a financial crisis, Jimmy Stewart’s character is tempted to sell his soul. Fortunately, he realizes his personal wealth is worth more than the benefits Mr. Potter is offering. In the heat of the moment, George keeps his cool.

What we do and say on the stage of life is a dress rehearsal for what’s to come. We are called to study our lines and take the director’s cues to heart in anticipation of a time when our faith will become sight. Our choices and actions are made against the backdrop of a reality that is yet to be fully realized.

That’s what people of faith are called to. We sing lyrics of hymns that celebrate the premier of love, justice and peace that is still in production. We look at present-day circumstances through the lens of a promised future. We start with the end in mind in order to keep from making ill-advised choices. We sing Christmas carols while those around us are complaining of the heat.

Greg Asimakoupoulos is a Wenatchee native living on Mercer Island, where he is the Faith/Values columnist for the Mercer Island Reporter.