Karolyn Grimes on the legacy of It’s A Wonderful Life, Jimmy Stewart, and Frank Capra

by W. Andrew Powell

It’s A Wonderful Life is one of the greatest feel-good Christmas movies of all time. Frank Capra’s iconic and powerful film is like no other, and it’s left an indelible mark on people over the last 74 years; literally generations of families.

Jimmy Stewart stars as George Bailey, and the story is really about his journey to see why he matters, but what I think really resonates all these years later is also how the film talks about kindness. At the heart of what George Bailey stands for is that kindness does so much for others, and in the end comes back to him.

Starring Donna Reed as Mary, Henry Travers as Clarence, and Lionel Barrymore as Mr. Potter, the film is beautiful and sad, with an ending that makes me absolutely feel light as air every year I watch it.

And then there’s Zuzu’s petals. To me, one of the most iconic idea in the whole film is how Zuzu’s petals root George in reality, and come to mean so much to him. Actress Karolyn Grimes played Zuzu Bailey in the film, and she has some truly wonderful moments with Stewart.

I chatted with Grimes recently, and she talked about working with Stewart, Capra, and what the film has come to mean to her all these years later.

It’s A Wonderful Life is available now on 4K Ultra Blu-ray Steelbook, and it’s been beautifully restored and remastered. Watch a clip from the restored version at the bottom of the story. The film looks absolutely amazing, and also includes a few special features, as well as the colourized version.

Karolyn Grimes

It’s A Wonderful Life is one of my all-time favourite films, and it’s amazing how well it stands up today…

“That says a lot about you.”

You did a number of other films over the years, so what do you think made It’s A Wonderful Life stand out for so many people over the years?

“Well, I think that people identify with George Bailey and what he goes through, because we all have those human feelings about how we are suffering and how our dreams didn’t come true like we wanted them to. We all feel this way and yet when we see it on the screen with George Bailey we realize it’s not so bad, that we have done many things that we don’t even realize. Maybe we just smiled at somebody and it made their day. You just don’t know, but you give of yourself and it comes back to you trifold. And I think that when we watch that movie, we realize that we do make a difference, and we really do matter.”

So many TV shows and movies have referenced the film over the years, and they’ve lovingly made fun of it too, and I think that says a lot about the impact and how well it has resonated for decades now.

“I think it’s part of our culture, and everyone kind of made fun of it at certain times, but it’s still a part of us, and it’s something we strive to watch every Christmas. Some people watch it throughout the year, just to get uplifted when they’re kind of down and in the dumps; they watch this film and it makes them feel better about themselves.”

“I have a lot of fans that tell me they use it–even psychologists–as a means of reaching people. They realize that their lives do matter and we all make a difference, and I think that’s what the movie says, and it reverberates kindness, and love, and we need those things now especially.”

I realize it was a number of years ago and you were very young, but what do you remember from making the film?

“Well, I was six years old, and there were other kids, so I loved that, because a lot of the movies that I made, there were no other kids, so I had no one to play with. But this was great, and I’d run around and play with the other kids–that’s something I remember very well.”

“But also, there was this atmosphere of happiness. I think the director sets the mood for whatever happens in the filming of a movie, and Frank Capra was a very kind and quiet man, and he just was a good person, and I think that carried through to the crew and everyone else. And when he’d ask me to do something, or how he wanted me to portray something, he’d get down on his knees and look at me eye-level, and say, ‘this is what I want you to do.'”

“So I think that kind of feeling went through the cast, the crew, and it was just a feeling that people had. No one was cranky or out of sorts, and I just remember that as being a real joy. Because sometimes, some of the movies I was in, people weren’t always happy.”

I bet! I was looking at some of the films you were in, and I’m sure not all of them were always that pleasant…

“Well, let’s talk John Ford [laughs]. There was a difference.”

I wasn’t going to ask, but I’m sure there was. The film has become such an iconic Christmas movie. Did you notice at some point that people started to see the film in that light?

“You know, it was never meant to be a Christmas movie. It was supposed to be released in March of 1947, but the Christmas movie wasn’t ready–it was supposed to be Sinbad The Sailor–so they rushed it up and had Frank Capra get it ready to be done, and it wasn’t released until December 20th at the Globe Theatre in New York, and that’s really too late for a Christmas film.”

“To me it is all about Christmas, but for some reason they didn’t see it as that at the time, but the stars intervened and made it happen.”

What have you heard from the fans over the years, because obviously generations of families have now watched it together.

“I was around in the early 70s, when it was first shown on TV, when the copyright ran out. That’s when they started showing it on TV, and it didn’t cost anything, so every station carried it. I’ve been around long enough that I saw families that watched it together that first time, then their kids grew up, and their kids watched it.”

“It’s gone from generation to generation, and it’s become such a family tradition that they view it every year at Christmas time. That’s huge. A movie that can do that–I think that is just amazing.”

“I have fans that write to me and tell me about how the movie has affected their lives and made a difference. Some people have been on the bridge, and this movie–they have to watch it, so that they can come back and decide they want to live and make a life.”

“I’m the most fortunate person to be able to hear these stories and to be a part of so many people’s lives.”

“There was one fellow that his wife was dying of cancer, and she was in the hospital, and for 15 days before she died, every day they watched It’s A Wonderful Life together. And then, when she passed, they had the memorial service, he bought a bunch of little bells and they rang the bells at the end of the service.”

“The movie touches people’s lives in so many different ways.”

Zuzu’s petals is such a big part of the movie, and it’s really such a key emotional moment. Did you realize what it would come to mean?

“Oh, no. No, you’re told ‘this is what I want you to do’ and you don’t have any idea about any storyline or anything that’s going on. You’re just acting and you do what you’re told. But I think Jimmy Stewart made an effort to bring a little bit of chemistry to that sequence. Because for some reason or another I started whispering, and then he put his hand over my face. I don’t know, but it all worked. I think that maybe Jimmy Stewart had a hand it that, but it was wonderful.”

Did you speak to Jimmy Stewart in the years after that?

“Oh, yes. He was so genuine and so sincere. He was the kindest person you would ever meet. He did so much for his fellow man that people would never know about, because he didn’t need the accolations, he didn’t need a big head. He just did kind things for people.”

“He had a fan–she had cancer in the last days of her life, and she’d never really travelled or done anything, but he made it possible for her to come to his rose garden in Beverly Hills, and he spent a few hours with her in that garden. That was in November, and in January, she died. He just was a man who had a heart as big as California. He was a good soul. And I attribute that to his upbringing in the little town of Indiana, Pennsylvania. His parents brought him up to really understand morals, and kindness, and in that way he grew. That’s what watered his garden, and he grew some beautiful blossoms.”

Thank-you very much for the time.


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