“I never saw the movie before,” said Karolyn Grimes, 71, remembering living near Kansas City, Mo., in December 1979 and catching out of the corner of her eye flickering images on the television of familiar faces and places from long ago.
Working full time and raising seven children, the 39-year-old Grimes had no time to spare, much less to sit around watching television. But something tugged at her as she saw snatches of snow-clogged streets of small-town America and people she thought she knew.
“Then it hit me,” said Grimes. “I was in that movie. I was Zuzu.”
The film, of course, is the holiday classic “It’s A Wonderful Life,” which premiered at the Globe Theater in New York Dec. 20, 1946. Though she had never seen it before 1979, her kids and everyone else seemed to be familiar with the sentimental chestnut from filmmaker Frank Capra. When the copyright lapsed in 1974, television stations worldwide began looping the movie into their schedules. It was free programming, a cash gusher with no royalties paid to its creators, and the widespread exposure informed the imagination of generations of families huddled around the television over the holidays.
“I never saw movies I was in because my mom told me that would be prideful, being stuck on yourself,” said Grimes.
Watching it for the first time, 33 years after she appeared in the film, however, Grimes said she was swept away by the story she had never heard before.
It was about Clarence the angel (played by Henry Travers) coming down from heaven on Christmas Eve to save financially ruined George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart) from killing himself so his life insurance would support his wife Mary (played by Donna Reed), and their four children — 6-year-old Zuzu, her big sister Janie (played by Carol Coombs), and big brother Pete (Larry Simms) and baby Tommy (Jimmy Hawkins).
“Oh, it was fresh and dark, about as relevant today as it was when it was made,” said Grimes, quieting a moment. “Think of all the people out of work, losing their homes, hungry kids worried about their parents. What’s so different about today and 60 years ago?”
Whatever its social relevance, the film remains popular. For the 65th anniversary, there is a pileup of festivities, with Los Angeles for the first time designating a day in honor of a film, Dec. 3. “Look, we’ve got ‘Occupy Wall Street’ demonstrators right here in front of city hall,” said the sponsoring city council member, Tom LaBonge (D), in a telephone interview. “We need more George Baileys in our world.”
Meanwhile, NBC will offer viewers a jazzed-up colorized version of the black-and-white original, and Paramount Studios has released Blu-ray color and black and white copies. And in Seneca Falls, N.Y., the small town Capra is said to have used as a template for Bedford Falls, the town laid out its 10th annual IAWL festival Dec. 9-11, with Grimes and Coombs on hand.
After hitting the Los Angeles and Seneca Falls celebrations, Grimes will fly to London to promote the film. In Los Angeles, Jimmy Hawkins released a third IAWL-related book, this one a coloring book.
“Actually, we didn’t think it was a big deal doing films back then,” said Grimes, who confessed that her childhood nickname was Kay, not Zuzu. “It was just a job. All the kids in my neighborhood went over to the studios, Jimmy and Larry, and Carol and me. We walked over or were taken over by our moms, trying for crowd scenes or other work to make a little money.”
The money was important to her family, though, because her dad worked as a grocery store manager for Safeway and her stay-at-home mom was succumbing to early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. In all, Grimes appeared in 16 movies as a child, and she remembers being paid $75 a week — about $830 in today’s money — or nearly $10,000 over the 12-week shoot of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Before her film career ended, Grimes appeared in gems such as “The Bishop’s Wife,” starring Cary Grant, David Niven and Loretta Young, and John Ford’s “Rio Grande,” with John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara.
But after her film work ended, she grew up fast. “My mother died when I was 12, and right after my dad died in a car crash. I was 15 and had no family. The court sent me to live with my uncle and aunt in Missouri,” she said.
“They were kind of nutso religious fanatics who didn’t believe in movies, dancing, singing, that kind of thing,” she remembered. “I don’t think they believed in laughing, either.”
Her aunt cut all connections she had with friends and studio contacts, said Grimes. “So with a lot of help from my high school teachers, I went to college and became a medical tech at a clinic outside Kansas City.”
Soon she was married with two daughters, then divorced, and the girls’ father died in a hunting accident. Remarried, she had a son and daughter and helped raise her second husband’s three children from a previous marriage. Then her 18-year-old son committed suicide, and her husband died of cancer. She retired to take care of her teenage daughters, two of whom became single parents.
“My life has never been wonderful,” she offered quietly. “Maybe when I was a child, but not after age 15.”
“And maybe that’s what makes the film so important for me and a lot of other people,” she continued. “The Jimmy Stewart George is suffering terribly in the movie — you can just see it. He’s in Martini’s café and saying to himself, ‘God, I’m not a praying man, but please show me the way.’ ”
“Gosh, it makes me cry,” she said.
“It’s not a Christmas movie, not a movie about Jesus or Bethlehem or anything religious like that,” she insisted. “It’s about how we have to face life with a lot of uncertainty, and even though nobody hears it, most of us ask God to show us the way when things get really hard.
“That was part of Capra’s genius,” she said. “Everybody has some sorrow, worry, and everybody asks God for help. One way or the other, we all do, and it can be in Martini’s, not a church on Christmas.”
Francis Caraccilo, a preservationist in Seneca Falls and an organizer of the annual “It’s a Wonderful Life” celebration, believes Capra’s film addresses other important issues. “For a lot of historians and people who just watch the film closely, the movie’s relevance includes the fact that it addresses anti-immigrant sentiments and religious bigotry,” pointing to the scene where the evil banker Potter complains that George Bailey is helping “garlic eaters” buy homes.
“Italian Americans appear throughout the film,” said Caraccilo, himself an Italian American. “When Capra came through this town, it was clear that anti-immigrant and not-too-subtle hostility toward Catholics was part of the American social landscape in 1946.”
“There’s a generous heart in this movie,” he said. “Think about that for a moment in 2011.”
More pressing, perhaps for Grimes, was financial help as fan mail turned into a stream of invitations to appear at showings of the film. She has been on the road since 1994 making a livelihood from appearance fees, knocking out a “Wonderful Life” cookbook and selling memorabilia.
After “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Hawkins, whose father was an original Keystone Kop in the old Mack Sennett silent movie series, built a life in show business as Tagg, Annie Oakley’s kid brother in the popular 1950s television series, and had prominent roles in “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” “Petticoat Junction,” “The Ruggles” and other long-gone television series. He even played in two Elvis musicals, “Girl Happy” and “Spinout.”
Coombs, who declined several interview requests, is a mother and retired schoolteacher, Grimes said, and Simms grew up to became an aeronautical engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.
Once, “Carol and Jimmy and I were in Portland visiting Target stores and we learned that Larry was living at his brother’s place in the country,” said Grimes. “We got a limo and some pretty ‘Target girls’ and drove way out in the sticks.
“Larry was living in a camper in his brother’s barn,” she recalled. “He didn’t want to have anything to do with promoting the movie but was happy to see all of us ‘kids.’ ”
“That’s the last we saw of him. I think he’s living in Thailand, but he doesn’t want to be bothered again.
“That’s okay,” said Grimes. “We’re just artifacts, leftovers from a great movie that will probably live forever. In a few years, when we’re gone, all you’ll have is the film.”
Raymond M. Lane is a freelance writer.
Will be screened Dec. 16-22 at the American Film Institute, along with 1951’s “A Christmas Carol,” with Alastair Sim. AFI Silver Theatre, 8633 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring. 301-495-6720. www.afi.com/silver/new. $11.
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