The Best Fixer-Upper of All Time Isn’t on HGTV—It’s in “It’s a Wonderful Life”

published Nov 25, 2020
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Before there was Chip and Jo, there was George and Mary Bailey. 

Almost 50 years prior to the creation of HGTV in the 1990s, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” taught viewers about the magic of a cheap old home, among other things. Better than any modern farmhouse with shiplap walls and barn doors is the singular beauty of the Old Granville House. The turreted Victorian at 320 Sycamore is the unsung hero of the 1947 Christmas classic. It’s also, in my opinion, the best fixer-upper of all time.

The Old Granville House Is the Original Cheap Old Fixer-Upper

Restoring an older building to its former glory isn’t a new idea, of course. But the home from “It’s a Wonderful Life” shines in a way that house flippers today could stand to learn something from.

The film introduces the Old Granville House as young lovebirds Mary, played by Donna Reed, and George, Jimmy Stewart, take a moonlit stroll through the town of Bedford Falls. In the dreamy sequence, the couple sings their song, “Buffalo Gals,” George famously promises to give Mary the moon, and they stop to linger in front of the house. 

To the untrained eye (George’s eye, in this case), the place looks awful. It’s decrepit—the windows are broken, there are unruly vines growing all over, and it’s boarded up in spots. George suggests throwing a rock at the building, but Mary protests, explaining that she loves the house. The idea, George says, is that you throw a rock, make a wish, and try to break some glass.

“It’s full of romance, that old place,” Mary says. “I’d like to live in it.”

“That place? I wouldn’t live in it as a ghost,” George retorts.

Thankfully Mary sees the home’s potential. It’s one of the first ways we find out that Mary represents goodness. (What better way to show that a person is good than by writing her to love old houses?) She looks at its broken windows and sees openings to hang wreaths; she looks at the decaying house and sees the life she wants to live. 

At the end of the scene, Mary does decide to throw a rock at the house, and even breaks some glass. She refuses to tell George what she wished for, though it becomes clear soon enough.

Nobody Tackles First-Time Home Renovations Like Mary Bailey

Later, after George and Mary get married, the Great Depression throws a wrench in their honeymoon plans. Instead of traveling around the world, Mary finds a way to bring far-flung destinations to them—by buying the old house and sprucing it up to be the warmest, coziest getaway I’ve ever seen.

Though the viewer never finds out how Mary devised such a surprise, George is driven “home” to 320 Sycamore on a rainy night to discover the Old Granville House is now, in fact, his home. Inside, there’s a sign with “bridal suite” scrawled on it. Posters from faraway lands are hung in the windows. A fire is roaring in the home’s fireplace. A spinning record player has been tied to rotate a chicken on a spit over the fire. There’s a beautifully set table with candles and a dinner spread, as well as a warm, dry, furnished bedroom.

Even while rain is pouring through holes in the roof and George has to bat through some cobwebs in the foyer, the place has quite obviously been transformed. “Welcome home Mr. Bailey,” beams Mary, glowing in the way that leading ladies in old movies do. “Remember the night we broke the windows in this old house?” she asks him. “This is what I wished for.”

It’s the best possible outcome for a wish on an old house, if you ask me. There’s no footage of Mary ripping out the parts of the house she thinks are outdated. Instead of focusing on its clearly evident flaws, like the gaping holes in the roof, she loves the house for what it is—and tastefully plays up its strengths. 

Credit: RKO Pictures | Handout | Getty Images

Fixer-Uppers, Much Like Life, Are a Perpetual Work in Progress

While George continues to put in long hours at his family business, the Bailey Building and Loan, it’s Mary who does most of the work fixing up the house. She’s shown painting the window trim and smoothing out new wallpaper as the narrator coos, “Day after day, she worked at making the Old Granville House into a home.” There are shots of Mary on a ladder as she works, while damaged ceilings and walls remain visible in the frame.

Showing Mary tirelessly fixing up a house as a labor of love, rather than a sledgehammer-happy demolition montage, is such a delightful way to portray home improvement. It’s done with care—and there’s certainly no background talk of resale value. 

The transformation, meanwhile, is remarkable. The period woodwork and molding takes center stage. New wallpaper conceals any trace of the once-crumbling walls. The refurbished living room makes room for a piano, while custom art, like the famed “George Lassos the Moon” drawing hangs on the wall. And when Christmastime rolls around, the rooms are festooned with garland and a tree strewn with tinsel stands tall in the parlor. 

However, as the family grows and more kids are added to the Bailey household, the Old Granville House continues to need repairs. And while Mary renovates the home with love, that doesn’t mean there aren’t complaints. A loose knob on the staircase bothers George, and he muses aloud about the home’s drafty kitchen. When a large sum of money is misplaced and George feels he’s reached the end of his rope, he takes it out on his family—and his fixer-upper.

“It’s this old house,” he says. “I don’t know why we all don’t have pneumonia. Drafty old barn of a place. Might as well be living in a refrigerator. Why did we have to live here in the first place and stay around this measly, crummy old town?”

What homeowner in the midst of renovations hasn’t uttered something similar?

But after George’s life-changing journey with his guardian angel, he begins to understand the significance of his own existence. He gets the chance to see what life would be like without him, and when it’s over, he returns to his old home—and his family—with a new outlook.

“Look at this wonderful, old drafty house!” he exclaims, kissing the pesky knob on the staircase and hugging his children. 

While both his life and his home are admittedly imperfect, he sees they’re both something to be grateful for. Life, and fixer-uppers, it seems, will always be a wonderful work in progress. By the end of the movie, when all of George’s Bailey’s friends dump dollar bills into a big basket to help him out with his money troubles, I’m usually sobbing because it’s so pure

So, dear reader, are there any home improvement shows you watch that elicit that kind of response?