Zuzu’s Wonderful Memories of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’
The 75th anniversary of It’s a Wonderful Life on Dec. 20 brings back memories of a wonderful conversation with Karolyn Grimes, the film’s darling little Zuzu.
“Look, Daddy! Teacher says, ‘Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.’” It’s one of the most memorable lines in any Christmas movie. Who can forget that observation from little 6-year-old Zuzu Bailey in the last scene of It’s a Wonderful Life?
As a bell rings on the Baileys’ Christmas tree, Zuzu gives her father George this perfect reminder since George has just learned from the angel Clarence that despite what he thought for years about his missed opportunities, he does indeed have a wonderful life.
As Dec. 20 marks the 75th anniversary of It’s a Wonderful Life, I’m reminded of the conversation I had a few years ago with Karolyn Grimes, who at the age of 6 played Zuzu. She still travels far and wide, as the film’s unofficial ambassador, to venues where people are eager to meet and speak with her. As the movie seems to grow in popularity each year, more and more people have gotten to know Zuzu, the darling daughter of George and Mary Bailey.
In It’s a Wonderful Life, she shares the last frame in the film, happy as can be, with her screen parents as daddy George Bailey holds her high in his arms. And who can forget how earlier the sick child Zuzu shows her daddy the petals that fell off her flower?
And how after his encounter with the angel, George gets home, embraces the children, and races down the stairs with Zuzu clinging to him with her arms around his neck. By their tall Christmas tree he put her down gingerly, then moments later again lifts her in his arms for the rest of the story.
“He was a gentle person, and he let me down so gently and so considerately,” Grimes said, referring to Stewart as she shared her memories about the film. “He really was tall, six feet four inches tall. And he was kind.”
She herself is good and kind to the countless fans of this unforgettable film. She explained, “I celebrate this movie year round, and I love to share it with the people.” She continues to “get fan mail from all of over the world now, from email to snail mail as well. All kinds of countries are being introduced to the movie.” She mentioned surprising places like Belgrade in Serbia and areas like Asia. She even has a website, Zuzu.net.
When she does appear in person or on the radio, she always gets request for her famous “angel” line. “Everybody wants me to say it,” she said cheerfully.
Of course, she had 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. But 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,” she still said with fond remembrance.
In fact, just a year later in 1947 she got to have a snowball fight in another classic Christmas movie, The Bishop’s Wife, with Bobby Anderson, who had played young George Bailey.
Grimes had fond memories of Cary Grant, who played Dudley the Angel in that film. “I loved working with Cary Grant,” she said. “He was such a nice man and he loved kids.”
In a major scene, Dudley 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,” Grimes said. “That’s carried me through a lot.”
Indeed, it has.
After 16 films acting with the best, including John Wayne, Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye, her childhood acting career ended in 1952 with Hans Christian Anderson. Her mother became ill when Grimes was 8 and died when she was 14. A year later her dad died. She was sent to her father’s brother and family in Missouri, where she grew up.
She became a Catholic convert when she married a Catholic gentleman. They had seven children and were married 25 years before he died. One son died tragically when he was a teen.
Her faith 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 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, then traveling to speak about the film. During appearances, she would share her personal story with people. The message from the movie meant much to her.
Compassion for Others
Grimes is a great listener as she hears story after story from fans of the film who share how much It’s a Wonderful Life has also 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 share with her the “George Bailey” moments they’ve had in their own lives and come to realize that theirs, too, is truly a wonderful life despite what they sometimes think. Some are recalled in one of her books, Celebrating It's a Wonderful Life: How the Movie’s Message of Hope Lives On.
On a lighthearted note, one woman told Grimes she named her daughter Zuzu Rose and opened a bakery she called Zuzu’s Wonderful Life.
Of course, there is always the solid foundation of what director Frank Capra wants to get across in the film. He tells people their lives mean something. 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.
Grimes pointed out to people that George “pauses a moment and looks up at the portrait of his father. Underneath there’s a needlepoint saying: All that you can take with you is what you have given away.”
She brought 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.”
Just like the last scene in It’s a Wonderful Life, one of the most memorable in all of movies, Grimes added this for everyone: “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 sometime. You have to make the effort to look, and prayer is the best way to get there.”