The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ turns 75, Karolyn ‘Zuzu’ Grimes reflects on the film that belatedly changed her life

George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart, center), with daughter Zuzu (Karolyn Grimes) and wife Mary (Donna Reed) in “It's A Wonderful Life.” (Moviestore/Shutterstock)
Placeholder while article actions load

“It’s a Wonderful Life,” Frank Capra’s celebration of faith, family and community released 75 years ago this month, is one of those indelible film classics where it’s not a question of whether you’ve seen it, but how many times.

By her count, Karolyn Grimes, 81, has banked hundreds of viewings.

That’s not surprising: Grimes is one of about 10 surviving cast members of the film, and this time of year, she said, her dance card is “full, full, full” with appearances at screenings, holiday gift shows, movie memorabilia conventions and, most personally rewarding, the annual “It’s a Wonderful Life” festival in Seneca Falls, N.Y., which she has attended for almost two decades.

Her name may be unfamiliar, and having retired from acting when she was a teenager, she is not likely to be recognized when out in public. But when strangers find out who she portrays in the film, “their faces just light up,” she said.

Grimes played George Bailey’s youngest daughter, Zuzu, the “little ginger snap” with the petals, who in the film’s profoundly soul-stirring climax, says perhaps the film’s most-quoted line: “Look, Daddy, teacher says every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.”

“I had no clue whatsoever those words would be so special to so many people,” she said. “I’m thrilled I got to say them and that I got to be a part of that scene and that movie.”

That movie perennially ranks No. 1 on lists of the greatest Christmas films of all time, whether it’s the best 40 (Vulture), 60 (Esquire), 65 (Good Housekeeping) or 100 (IMDb). For those who haven’t seen it hundreds of times, Jimmy Stewart stars as George, a good man at the end of his rope whose guardian angel shows him a nightmarish vision of what life in the bucolic small town of Bedford Falls would have been had he never been born.

12 colorful holiday cookie recipes to illuminate the season

Grimes was 6 when she landed the role of Zuzu. It was not without drama. She was sitting in an office with other parents and their children when one of the mothers “accidentally” spilled coffee on Grimes’s dress just before she went in for her interview.

“It might have intimidated some little girls, but it gave me something to talk about,” she said. Capra, who “handpicked every single person in that film,” according to Grimes, hired her.

Though she had other notable credits in films such as “The Bishop’s Wife,” another Christmas classic, and the John Wayne western “Rio Grande,” she left Hollywood behind after her mother died when Grimes was 14. She lost her father a year later. A court ordered that she be sent to Osceola, Mo., to live with an uncle and his unstable wife, who, Grimes said, were fanatical about their new charge not watching movies, singing and dancing. Think of it as growing up with Mr. Potter, “Wonderful Life’s” villain, who is the bane of the Bailey family’s existence.

Grimes never talked about her Hollywood past. “The whole town knew my situation,” she said. “They liked me for who I was. I made some wonderful friends and am still close to them after all these years.” She eventually attended the University of Central Missouri and became a medical technologist.

Grimes’s seven children had an inkling their mother was a child actress — a picture of her on set was good for show-and-tell at school — but they didn’t know or appreciate “It’s a Wonderful Life” at the time.

“I didn’t raise them to think it was anything special,” she said. “They were involved in sports. I cooked all the time. I lived in the car, the laundry room and the kitchen. When I could finally find some time to wind down, I watched Johnny Carson on ‘The Tonight Show.’ ”

“It’s a Wonderful Life” was itself dimly remembered by the 1970s. The film had underperformed at the box office decades earlier and was shut out at the Academy Awards, where it was nominated for five Oscars including best picture and actor.

And then, in a miraculous reversal of fortune in keeping with the film itself, its copyright lapsed and suddenly, TV stations had a gift that kept on giving: a Capra film starring Stewart and Donna Reed that they could play free of charge. “It’s a Wonderful Life” found a new audience and belated iconic status. In 1990, it was inducted into the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry of “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” American films. It is now shown exclusively on NBC.

The 10 best Christmas-themed superhero movies and shows you can stream right now

“One day, a reporter knocked on my door and said, ‘Did you play the part of Zuzu?’ " Grimes recalled. “They asked for an interview and I said, ‘I guess so.’ The next week, the same thing happened, and it kept happening. Pretty soon, I started getting fan mail.”

Around the same time, Stewart began getting questions about whatever happened to the girl who portrayed Zuzu, and he dispatched his secretary to find her. “I thought, what in the world is happening?” Grimes said. “And I thought maybe I better sit down and watch this film.”

Grimes, nearly 40, had never seen the movie in its entirety (she fell asleep during the premiere). “It impacted me in a way I will never forget,” she said. “I was taken on an emotional roller coaster, and at the end, I realized what a wonderful message this film has for everyone. I knew then that this was going to be a part of my life, because I wanted it to be.”

She was sustained by the film’s uplifting message that everyone’s life has meaning. “I always try to look at the bright side,” she said. “There is something good, you just have to look for it.”

Grimes’s own tragedies made George Bailey’s travails seem like a cakewalk. Besides being orphaned as a teenager, her first husband, with whom she had two daughters, died in a hunting accident after their divorce. One of her sons died by suicide when he was 18. She later lost her second husband to cancer. (She now lives with her third husband in Seattle).

Like George, she dedicated herself to paying it forward. She assumed responsibility for sending to college her late son’s best friend — with whom her son spent the day before “he made his decision,” she said — because his family couldn’t afford it. He became an attorney.

Grimes’s connection to the film was further strengthened by her participation in the 1990s in Target’s “It’s a Wonderful Life”-themed marketing campaign. It reunited her with her former co-stars, including Jimmy Hawkins, who portrayed older brother Tommy, and with whom she continues to make joint appearances on behalf of the film.

Though she was restricted to appearances on Zoom last year during the coronavirus shutdown, Grimes is back on the road. Since Thanksgiving, she has traveled to events in Washington state, Indiana, Oregon, North Dakota, Colorado, Rochester, N.Y., and ultimately, Seneca Falls, which bills itself as the real-life inspiration for Bedford Falls.

“She’s been coming here since 2002,” said It’s a Wonderful Life Museum coordinator Anwei Law. “She’s always there for people. If they need a photograph, if an autograph session has ended, she stays. She values everybody. It’s the message of the movie and she carries it out.”

Grimes cherishes her role as a goodwill ambassador for the film. Her own favorite scene is when George emerges from his nightmare and begs God, “I want to live again.”

“The minute he says ‘God,' it starts to snow,” she said, “and he discovers what’s really important in life. For me, it’s faith, family and friends. I believe in the possibility of miracles.”

Loading...