‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ Star Karolyn Grimes on Striving for a Wonderful Life in the Face of Adversity
The oldest surviving cast member of the timeless Christmas movie recalls stories of being on-set with Jimmy Stewart and how her faith has carried her through the struggles of her own life.
The Christmas movie classic It's a Wonderful Life is beloved by generations of fans who never tire of seeing it yet one more time. The 1946 drama defines the Christmas spirit in the story of Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey, who, on the verge of committing suicide, is visited by an angel who reveals how loved he is by his community. George’s kindness to each of them through the years returns tenfold when he himself desperately needs it.
The beloved film actually bombed at the box office when it was released in December 1946, shortly after the end of World War II. Audiences did not take to it, so it sat on a shelf forgotten. The copyright was not renewed in 1974, so that put it in the public domain. At that point, the movie was aired on TV and was reborn to a new generation of fans.
Actress Karolyn Grimes, who played the youngest Bailey, 6-year-old Zuzu, is the only surviving member of the cast. Her childhood film career spanned 16 movies, but she is best remembered for her role in It’s a Wonderful Life, delivering the ending line, “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.”
Grimes, who is a convert to Catholicism, spoke with the Register about the film and how her faith got her through times when her own life was not so wonderful.
What do you remember about acting in It’s a Wonderful Life?
I remember that it was fun. There was snow on the set, and I had never seen snow before. Of course it was artificial, but I thought it was the greatest stuff ever. I remember that Jimmy Stewart was so tall and kind and held me in his arms.
You worked with film legends John Wayne, Cary Grant, Bing Crosby, Loretta Young, Fred MacMurray, Betty Grable, Danny Kaye and, of course, Jimmy Stewart. Tell me about your life as a child actor.
My mother took me to see an agent when I was 4, and that got me started. I lit. Every movie was different. I might be out on a western ranch with cowboys and Indians, and next time there was snow. It was always something different.
I was an only child, and my dad was a manager at a Safeway store. My mother took me to every kind of lesson: violin and piano, dancing, singing. ... She took me to everything. I had a blast.
What do you remember about Jimmy Stewart?
He was way tall — 6-foot-4 and skinny as a rail. He was very gentle and kind and a really, really good person. In later years, he contacted me, and we stayed in touch. He had been a Presbyterian all his life and was a very religious man. I visited his home church in Indiana, Pennsylvania.
When he went to California, I don’t think his father was too thrilled. He had gone to Princeton for an architecture degree. He was in plays and loved it. He came to California and shared an apartment with Henry Fonda.
His dad came out to visit and asked, “What church have you decided to go to?” Jimmy answered, “I haven’t quite done that yet.”
His dad showed up with two deacons later that afternoon and told them, “Here’s my son. He’s going to help you with your church.” He and his wife were married in that church.
What is your faith background?
I was raised a Baptist but became Catholic when I married in 1969. He was Catholic. I dated him for two years before we married. I took classes, and when I became Catholic, it was from the heart. I felt a man and wife should embrace the same religion, especially when raising kids. I had been married before and had two kids, and he was married before and had three. Then we had two more, so I raised seven kids.
Why did you stop acting?
My mother got sick when I was 8 and was sick for many years. To have a career acting, I needed a stage mom. She died at the age of 44, when I was 14, of early-onset Alzheimer’s. Back then they called it cerebral atrophy.
When I was 15, Dad died in a car accident. My life as I knew it was over. I was sent to live with my father’s brother and his mentally ill wife in Osceola, Missouri.
How did you handle so much adversity?
I took one day at a time. My mother and dad gave me a good religious foundation and enough self-confidence that I could handle whatever came my way. I would have songs going through my mind when I was down that gave me strength — songs like In the Garden and The Old Rugged Cross.
What was your life like in Missouri?
I went from L.A. High with 900 kids in my class to a little farm town in Missouri with only 30 kids. And my uncle’s wife was one mean woman. That first year, I thought, “This is hell!”
But after a year, the people in that little town knew I was having a daily battle. Those people supported me and showed me love. They gave me comfort and hope.
I taught Bible school and believed God was right behind me, making me strong to build my character, to be good and not bad. I prayed never to hurt people like that. The other thing I did was to visualize myself happy in the future, and that gave me strength. God does not give you glory and goodness all your life; you have to grow and learn.
I left home after high school and became a medical technologist for 20 years.
You experienced more tragedy later in life, when your youngest son committed suicide as a teenager. How did you get through it?
I had been active in his school, a Catholic boys’ school. I had a hard time accepting his death. In the end, an old priest who was a mentor helped me through.
I needed time, and the key to healing is to give of yourself in whatever way you can — help your neighbor; volunteer at the hospital or nursing home. When you give of yourself, it comes back tenfold and is healing.
How did the movie It’s a Wonderful Life come back into your life?
At the opening, when I was 6, I fell asleep, so I never saw it. Once it was in the public domain and getting shown all over, I started getting fan mail and being asked for interviews. I decided I had better see it. I was blown away. I cried and cried. It evoked all the emotions it does in everyone,
It became a big part of my life. I was getting calls and spoke at events in Kansas City, where I was living In 1993, the Target store got the Bailey kids together for a reunion and sent us all around the U.S. I loved it. People lined up to tell us how the movie affected their lives. People would hug me and tell me they named their kids after me; it really touched people’s lives.
Grime’s husband died of cancer in 1994. She remarried in 1997, lives in Northern California and has six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. It’s a Wonderful Life continues to be a big part of her life as she participates in Christmas and charity events. She often shares stories from her own life about facing uncertainty and asking God to show the way when things get hard.
Watch this interview with Karolyn Grimes:
Part 1 (10 min.) https://fb.watch/2p-9zVPT2N/
Part 2 https://fb.watch/2q04hJ00uS/
- oldest surviving cast member
- christmas movies
- jimmy stewart
- it's a wonderful life
- karolyn grimes