Law in Popular Culture

In Real 'Wonderful Life,' James Stewart Might Have Gotten 2 to 7 Years

Considered classic holiday fare with an uplifting message, the schmaltzy It’s a Wonderful Life actually remains well worth seeing because of the gritty reality it portrays to those with a cynical mindset, a New York Times critic writes.

The 1946 Frank Capra movie accurately points out, for instance, the perils of trusting bankers, which has led to an upswing of interest in the current financial crisis, not to mention the fun to be had on the bad side of town, writes Wendell Jamieson.

However, it failed to focus on the real-life legal consequences of a missing $8,000 bank deposit, he writes: Even though friends of George Bailey, who is played by James Stewart, refund the money taken by another character in the film, in actuality George could well have faced a larceny charge over the theft.

Checking with District Attorney Frank Clark in Erie County, N.Y., where the fictional Bedford Falls might well have be deemed to have been located, Jamieson confirmed Stewart’s legal peril.

“If you steal over $3,000, it’s a D felony; 2½ to 7 years is the maximum term for that. The least you can get is probation,” Clark told him. “You know Jimmy Stewart, though, he had that hangdog face. He’d be a tough guy to send to jail.”

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