Indiana podcaster revisits the many layers of ‘It‘s a Wonderful Life’

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Wonderful Life
“It’s a Wonderful Life” arrived in theaters in 1946. (Paramount Pictures photo)

Selected by the American Film Institute as the most inspiring film of all time, “It’s a Wonderful Life” made an underdog’s journey to the hearts of viewers.

The movie starring James Stewart was far from a blockbuster hit when released in 1946 and caught blame as the reason director Frank Capra shut down his independent studio, Liberty Films.

Themes of affordable housing and suicide prevention supplied “It’s a Wonderful Life” with grit, but the fantasy-based tale of distraught George Bailey, guardian angel Clarence and villainous Henry F. Potter didn’t add up to feel-good holiday fare.

In a new 10-episode podcast titled “George Bailey was Never Born,” Bloomington-based documentarian Ray Nowosielski examines subsequent decades when few people cared about “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the movie’s rise in popularity during the past 50 years and how the story resonates with modern times.

All episodes of “George Bailey” will be released Tuesday, Nov. 21.

With series co-creator Kurt Engfehr, a producer of 2002 Michael Moore film “Bowling for Columbine,” Nowosielski checks up on Seneca Falls, New York, a community of fewer than 10,000 residents that has been characterized as the inspiration for the fictional town of Bedford Falls in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

“A theme of one of our episodes is that as a manufacturing base has left so many small towns, tourism is the last thing keeping them alive until they can figure out a new economy,” Nowosielski said. “Everybody needs their tourism hook.”

Nowosielski is headed back to Seneca Falls in December for an annual festival that celebrates the film.

One episode of “George Bailey was Never Born” focuses on the Seneca County Habitat for Humanity Bailey Park, where modern-day banker Menzo Case works to bring affordable housing to the community. Double Asterisk, the investigative media company co-founded by Nowosielski and Chicago-based activist John Duffy, is donating a portion of the podcast’s proceeds to Bailey Park.

The series is a co-production of iHeartMedia and Double Asterisk in association with True Stories, a nonfiction media collaborative launched by Nowosielski and his wife, Ruth Vaca.

Another episode of the podcast is titled “Henry F. Potter, American AntiHero.” As a USA Today opinion piece published in 2014 framed “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the film is an affirmation of the American dream to some and an indictment to others.

Nowosielski said fictional leading bad guys such as Tony Soprano, Walter White and Don Draper have blurred the lines of an audience’s affections.

“It becomes a question of heroes and anti-heroes and why you can’t find traditional heroes with traditional ethics anymore,” he said. “We’re all sort of wired to root for the anti-hero now.”

Bloomington-based actor Roy Sillings narrates “George Bailey was Never Born” with a vocal performance inspired by guardian angel Clarence.

Cardinal Ritter High School alum Nowosielski received a 2022 NAACP Image Award nomination in the category of outstanding podcast for Double Asterisk production “After The Uprising: The Death Of Danye Dion Jones.” Nowosielski said the series based on the son of an activist in Ferguson, Missouri, will have a sequel in 2024.

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