“Look, Daddy. Teacher says, ‘Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.’”
Who can forget that observation from 6-year-old Zuzu Bailey in the last scene of the classic Christmas movie It’s a Wonderful Life?
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Frank Capra classic, the film chosen No. 1 on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 most inspiring films of all time.
Today, Karolyn Grimes, who played Zuzu, travels far and wide as the film’s unofficial ambassador. This December, she was an honored guest at the 70th anniversary celebration of the “It’s a Wonderful Life Festival” in Seneca Falls, New York, the town that inspired the beloved movie’s setting.
Grimes, 76, appeared in another Christmas classic movie — The Bishop’s Wife — with another cinematic angel (Cary Grant), where she played Debby, the daughter of Bishop Henry (David Niven) and Julia (Loretta Young).
But audiences best remember her from the last frame of It’s a Wonderful Life, as George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) holds her high in his arms.
She spoke with Register staff writer Joseph Pronechen in early December — ahead of the Dec. 20 anniversary — about the impact the film has made on her life and the lives of so many others.
“He was a gentle person, and he let me down so gently and so considerately,” Grimes told the Register, referring to Stewart, as she shared her memories about the film. “He really was tall — 6 feet 4 inches tall. And he was kind.”
Reminiscing about Stewart, Grimes added, “He recognized the fact the fans put him where he was, and he was good to his fans.”
She herself is good to the countless fans of this unforgettable film. As Grimes explained, “I celebrate this movie year-round, and I love to share it with the people. I’m getting fan mail from all over the world now, from email to snail mail, as well. All kinds of countries are being introduced to the movie” — like Serbia and areas in Asia. She even has a website, Zuzu.net.
When she does appear in person or on the radio, she always gets requests for her famous “angel” line. “Everybody wants me to say it,” she cheerily told the Register.
Of course, she has much more to share about this heartwarming film, from personal memories and influences to later observations.
“I was an only child, and my Christmas tree [at home] was set on a table,” Grimes recalled. So, while working on It’s a Wonderful Life, “I was very mesmerized by the giant tree on the set. It was really exciting to see this big, beautiful tree. I was fascinated with the snow, too. It doesn’t snow in Hollywood. It wasn’t real, but it was snow to me.”
Grimes has fond memories of Cary Grant from filming The Bishop’s Wife, too. “I loved working with Cary Grant,” she said. “He was such a nice man, and he loved kids. There really was an ice-skating rink on the stage [for the film]. He would get me at lunch time and pull me along on a sled as he practiced. He did that a lot. It was such fun.”
In a major scene, Dudley the angel tells Grimes as 7-year-old Debby exactly how King David came to write the 23rd Psalm — the Psalm of the Good Shepherd.
“I love the 23rd Psalm,” said Grimes. “That’s carried me through a lot.” Indeed, it has.
Her childhood acting career ended after 16 films, with Hans Christian Andersen, in 1952.
And her offscreen life was difficult.
Her mother became ill when Grimes was only 8 years old and died when she was 14. A year later, her father died in a car accident. She was sent to her father’s brother and family in Missouri. After high school, Grimes became a medical technologist in that state.
Grimes later converted to Catholicism when she married a Catholic gentleman. They were married 25 years before he died; they had seven children. One son died tragically when he was a teenager.
Her faith has proved a major help in her life. As she explained, “I had a wonderful teacher — an old priest who was very dear to my heart. I did a lot of volunteer work with him. He influenced me more than anyone else in the whole world. He showed me how to have faith and showed me I mattered when I felt I didn’t.”
It’s almost as if the film and her faith meshed.
Around the time there was a resurgence of popularity in It’s a Wonderful Life, Grimes moved from Missouri to the Seattle area. She started speaking there, and then traveling to speak about the film. During appearances, she would share her personal story with people, too.
It was during a personal speaking engagement that she met the man to whom she is married today, Chris Brunell, who is a clinical psychologist and the supervisor of Benedict House, part of the Archdiocese of Seattle’s Catholic Community Services of Western Washington.
Grimes described how this home is much different than a homeless shelter, in that 25 men can stay there for up to a year. “It gives them an opportunity to change their lives, address their addiction or other issues and whatever else is involved, helps them [in many ways], and gives them a second chance for a new life.”
It’s a reminder of the second chance George Bailey received so long ago.
Compassion for Others
In much the same way, Grimes hears story after story from fans of the film who share how much the time-honored movie has influenced their lives.
“I think I was put on a path to experience a lot of things myself to learn about compassion,” she said, “so I could help other people going through the same thing over the years.”
Many fans share with her the “George Bailey” moments they’ve had in their own lives, noting how they have come to realize that theirs, too, is truly a wonderful life, despite hardships and trials.
Grimes recalled the “fellow who said his wife had terminal cancer. It’s a Wonderful Life was her favorite movie. So for the last 15 days of her life, every day, they watched that movie together. For the memorial service, he handed out little silver bells to everyone, and they rang the bells.”
Grimes fondly remembers the time one woman told her she named her daughter Zuzu Rose and opened a bakery called Zuzu’s Wonderful Life.
Other stories are recalled in one of the books she has written, Celebrating It’s a Wonderful Life: How the Movie's Message of Hope Lives On — which is what director and fellow Catholic Frank Capra wanted to get across in the film.
His film tells people their lives mean something, Grimes emphasizes. Even in small, almost unnoticeable moments, the spiritual dimension of the message comes through. One such scene happens in the Bailey Savings and Loan when George is about to talk to Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell).
Grimes points out to people that George “pauses a moment and looks up at the portrait of his father. Underneath there’s a needlepoint with the saying: All that you can take with you is what you have given away.”
She also brings out Capra’s message that “No man is a failure who has friends,” she said. “I also tell people that George had no idea how many he had influenced, the lives he had touched, and how he had made such a difference. When we watch that movie, we all realize we have the power to make a difference.”
Grimes added: “I would share that no matter how dark life seems to be, there is always something bright. There’s always something positive. You just have to look for it sometimes. You have to make the effort to look, and prayer is the best way to get there.”