It's A Wonderful Life became a life-saving guardian angel for star Karolyn Grimes
Karolyn Grimes was a child star in Hollywood before a series of tragedies set her down a more difficult path. But she found purpose and hope in the wonderful legacy of It's A Wonderful Life, she tells The Big Issue.
Little Zuzu Bailey hangs onto her father's back at the climax of the film. Clockwise from top: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Carol Coombs, Jimmy Hawkins, Larry Simms and Karolyn Grimes. Photo by Herbert Dorfman/Corbis via Getty Images
“Every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings.” Ringing in the emotional climax to the most moving, poignant and timeless film is little Zuzu Bailey.
It’s Zuzu’s petals, rediscovered in George Bailey’s pocket, which makes him realise he has his life back, and that it is actually wonderful.
The child actor who played Zuzu, Karolyn Grimes, is now 81. Calling from Mount Shasta, in northern California, she sounds half that age. “I’m very fortunate, I am,” she says. “I just have a love for life, I think that keeps me young. And between you and me… my husband is 15 years younger.”
It’s a Wonderful Life premiered 75 years ago, on December 20, 1946 at the Globe Theatre in New York. Grimes says in a post-pandemic world, it’s more relevant than ever. “A lot of people feel like there’s nowhere to turn,” she says. “People need to hear the message of It’s a Wonderful Life because they need to know that there is hope.”
“It was so unusual for me to be home the whole Christmas season,” Grimes says. “I’ve got an It’s A Wonderful Life room filled with memorabilia and gifts from fans and it was hard for me to go in there. I thought it was over. At that time, you didn’t know if the world was going to ever be the same.”
She even took a year off from watching the film. The Bishop’s Wife was the choice at Christmas instead, another classic she starred in, opposite Cary Grant and David Niven.
Growing up in the Hollywood spotlight was a wonderful start to life. Before Grimes had reached double figures she’d shared the screen with Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Gary Cooper and John Wayne, who spent $300 on fireworks to celebrate her 10th birthday. Then things became less wonderful. Her mother suffered from early onset Alzheimer’s and died when Grimes was 14. The following year her father died in a car accident. She was sent to relatives in rural Missouri and had a “hideous” time.
“It was farmland, farmers and good old boys. It was different. And so I lost that childhood in a lot of ways. Because I had no parents to talk to or tell me anything about it.”
All she had were some publicity stills from her films. “When they finally started showing them on TV, I could see myself as a little girl and it was a blessing.”
Grimes had never seen It’s A Wonderful Life until she started receiving fan mail in the 1970s. She explains that its eventual success came after copyright had lapsed so TV stations started playing it to save money. The film that had flopped on release fast became a festive favourite. “People got absolutely inundated with It’s A Wonderful Life. That’s how the tonic got drank!” she laughs.
As a six-year-old, It’s A Wonderful Life was “just a job”.
“As a bit player, which is all we kids were, you get your daily script and you have no idea what the story is about. The director says, ‘Look happy, look sad’, whatever!”
And real life didn’t give time to reflect on her long-lost film career.
“I was a somewhat rebellious teenager and I went through a couple of husbands and a couple of those died. Raising children… a lot of children. At one point, I was raising seven kids. I lived in the kitchen or the laundry room, I didn’t have time for TV so I had never seen it. After I started getting fan mail I thought I better sit down and watch this film. So I finally did, and the tears came.”
If the film is about what the world would be like if George Bailey hadn’t existed, what would her world be like without the film? “Oh I think my life… I think I’d probably be dead by now. Because I wouldn’t have the belief that I had, and I probably would have gone down the wrong path.”
The film was essential for Grimes after her 18-year-old son died by suicide. “For a parent to lose a child in that way… it’s much worse than a car accident or any other kind of death because there’s so much guilt that goes with it. Your child was in so much pain they didn’t want to live any more.”
Now hundreds of fans around the world get in touch with her to share how the film has helped them. “I believe now that God – or someone – has given me this gift,” Grimes says. “This movie has guided me through life in the last few years. There’s no doubt about it. I have embraced the film and truly made it my life.”
So even though it doesn’t always seem like it, how can we remember that it is a wonderful life in the darkest times? “I think we have to train ourselves to look for the positives whatever happens. Nobody has a perfect life. But there is this movie that gives you the impetus to choose to look for the positive, to help you find it. It is there.
“When I was a teenager I would go to bed every night and I would think of what I wanted for myself and how I could contribute to the world. When I found It’s A Wonderful Life, I realised that I had gotten my foundation through that film.
“And I followed that path. And I still am following that path.”