By Stuart Mitchner
Actually, the town I had in mind was Califon, N.J.
—Philip Van Doren Stern
The first sentence of the screenplay for Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life calls for a night sequence showing various streets and buildings in “the town of Bedford Falls, somewhere in New York State.”
Above the first sentence of the film’s primary source, Philip Van Doren Stern’s Christmas story, “The Greatest Gift,” there’s a drawing of a despondent looking man leaning on a bridge railing. The “little town” described, “bright with colored Christmas lights,” has no name. In a 1946 interview, the author, a Rutgers graduate who grew up in Jersey City, makes it clear that the place he had in mind was Califon, in Hunterdon County, 37 miles northwest of Princeton. As noted in Wikipedia, the center of town is “the historic iron bridge spanning the South Branch of the Raritan River, which divides the borough.”
On the Bridge
I’m beginning in Califon because it’s the original setting of It’s a Wonderful Life, not Seneca Falls, New York, the town that has declared itself the model for Bedford Falls by holding an annual festival; it even named a hotel after Clarence, the whimsical angel who appears on the bridge in time to save George Bailey from ending his life. Clarence accomplishes his mission by jumping into the icy waters himself, knowing that George’s instinct to help others is so fundamental that he’ll take the plunge to save a life.
But look what just happened. Even as I’m trying to explain the motive for my online trip to Califon and its historic bridge, I’m still riding the emotional rollercoaster of the film’s final half hour as Clarence shows George the nightmare of Pottersville, a vision of the fate that would befall the community had he never been born and had the town been left to the mercy of Henry Potter, the unredeemed and unpunished banker from hell who makes Scrooge look like a sucker.
In fact, the actual town of Califon is located a mere six miles west of a town called Pottersville, which lies the same distance from the Trump National Golf Club at Bedminster, a domain known as Camp David North or the Summer White House. more