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Treasures of the Valley » Mike lawler

Posted by on Dec 22nd, 2011 and filed under Viewpoints. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

“It’s A Wonderful Life” – Filmed in La Cañada

Mike Lawler is the president of the Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley. Reach him at lawlerdad@yahoo.com.

The classic 1946 Frank Capra film “It’s A Wonderful Life” consistently ranks as one of America’s favorite Christmas movies and is on many lists of the best movies of all time.

In the film, the Bedford Falls’ hometown hero George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart) tries to help his fellow man but is frustrated in his efforts by the greedy Mr. Potter. When a despairing Bailey considers suicide, an angel is sent from heaven to show him what life would be like if he had never existed. The angel convinces Bailey that he has indeed had “a wonderful life,” a life worth living. It’s a film that resonates with the themes of generosity, faith and family.

The film was shot in 90 days in the RKO Studios in Culver City and on an elaborate set on the RKO Ranch in Encino. The fictional town of Bedford Falls was created on a mammoth three-acre site, including three blocks of Main Street, 75 buildings and 20 mature trees. Other location shots included the Beverly Hills High School gym (still in existence), a train station (rumored to be in Pasadena) and a real housing development under construction. That housing tract was located in La Cañada, which Frank Capra later said in an interview “was out in the middle of nowhere.”

In the film, altruistic George Bailey creates Bailey Park, a small housing development, and helps the Italian immigrant family, the Martinis, move into their new home. There’s a great scene at the front door of the house in which Mary Bailey presents the Martini family with bread so “that this house will never know hunger,” salt so “that life will always have flavor,” and wine so “that joy and prosperity may reign forever.”

There is a good amount of film time spent following the moving truck in, panning around the neighborhood, and detailing the Martini House itself, giving movie-location sleuths ample evidence to pin down the camera’s location. Locals will instantly recognize the San Rafael Hills and San Gabriel Mountains in the background. Although the location of the Martini house has been known for years to “Wonderful Life” aficionados (the house number is shown on screen), the advent of the Internet has made that exact address available to all.

The housing tract used in the movie was developed right after WWII on a lower plateau at the edge of the Arroyo Seco, just to the north of where La Cañada High School is today. The street the filming took place on is Viro Road, which travels north from its intersection with Foothill Boulevard near Oak Grove Drive. In the opening shots of this scene, a wooden sign proclaiming “Welcome to Bailey Park” is shown hanging from an oak tree that would have been in the front yard of a house on the southwest corner of Viro and Lamour Drive (the tree is no longer there). From there the action takes us to the Martini house itself, about three-quarters of the way up the first block of Viro on the left side. The Martini house is a bit of an anomaly in La Cañada in that it has not changed a bit since the movie was filmed there in 1946, and in fact, other than the now mature trees, the houses around it are recognizable as well.

Because the site is well known now, Viro Road hosts a steady stream of Wonderful Life fans looking for the Martini house. And I’m quite sure that some, once they find it, are rude enough to bother the occupants of the house. The owners were aware of what they were buying into, as the house was advertised as “The Martini House” when up for sale a few years ago. But I trust that my readers will not be jerks, and will respect the owner’s privacy.

Many films have been shot in La Cañada, but none as famous as “It’s A Wonderful Life.” Treat yourself to a viewing of the movie and enjoy a 1940s view of Bailey Park, better known to us as La Cañada.

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