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.
It’s a Wonderful Life
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.