By Joanna Cresswell
The house is there in the opening scenes — a large Victorian mansion with a turreted frontage and wraparound balconies blanketed in snow. It’s in a montage of the town where the story takes place and it’s clearly the grandest property there. The camera lingers on it before the narrator — an angel in the form of a star in the night sky — starts talking.
I am, of course, talking about the old Granville house at 320 Sycamore, in Frank Capra’s 1946 classic film, It’s a Wonderful Life — the place that makes me want to buy some rundown, unloved, forgotten old place and fix it up. Whether or not I’d actually have the skills to do so is beside the point. This is a fantasy home after all.
It’s a Wonderful Life follows the story of George Bailey (James Stewart), a depressed businessman who, on the day before Christmas, is considering ending his life. In heaven, Clarence is assigned to be George’s guardian angel and show him the difference his life has made. Clarence is given a briefing and we are shown episodes from George's life: George growing up in the town, saving his brother’s life; falling in love with his childhood sweetheart, Mary (Donna Reed); and taking over his father’s small community bank after he dies suddenly.
At first, the Granville house is seen dilapidated and abandoned; when George walks Mary home after his brother's graduation party, they stop outside and throw stones at its darkened windows — something George says will bring them luck. “It’s full of romance, that old place. I’d like to live in it,” says Mary, staring up wistfully. “In that place? I wouldn’t live in it as a ghost!” George replies. I like to imagine Mary is already dreaming of what she’d do to breathe life back into its bones. I like to think she’s been planning it in her head since she was little, as people often do with abandoned houses.
The couple buy the house on their wedding day and Mary sets about renovating it. We don’t see much of the work in the film — the leaking roof is miraculously fixed, for instance, and new windows are installed — but seeing it brought to life always stirs a longing to renovate somewhere myself.
I’ve long thought that having a house like that, even just for the festive season, would be a dream. Imagine the nativity scene you could stage on the balcony, the lights you could string up across its magnificent frontage, or the stunning installation of foliage and flowers you could dress the staircase with. Imagine gathering everyone you love together in that glorious living room.
In many ways, the house at 320 Sycamore is like another character in It’s a Wonderful Life, present for all the most important and transformative moments of its inhabitants' lives while also having its own history too. And that, for me, is a real fantasy home — somewhere that becomes a part of your story, just as you become a part of its.
Photography: Landmark Media/Alamy; Allstar Picture Library/Alamy