Karolyn Grimes, 80, was a six-year-old child star when she uttered her famous line ‘Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings’ while staring opposite Jimmy Stewart’s character George Bailey.
Having lost both her parents by the time she was fifteen years old; her first husband in a hunting accident; her second husband to cancer; and a child to suicide, Grimes said that rediscovering the movie she starred in later in life was ‘a gift’.
Grimes called herself one of the ‘most fortunate women in the world’ as she could ‘share the messages of this film’, describing her meetings with people who were touched by its story, some of whom had themselves contemplated suicide.
She told the Beaver County Times that she hopes Americans watching the story of Bailey’s struggle this year will remember how to ‘give and help our fellow man’ despite 2020 being ‘challenging at best.’
Karolyn Grimes played Zuzu, the daughter of Jimmy Stewart’s character George Bailey
Karolyn Grimes, 80, was a six-year-old child star when she appeared in the Christmas classic ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’. She is pictured above in 2010
The 1946 Christmas classic is based on the ‘The Greatest Gift’ by Philip Van Doren Stern and tells the story of George Bailey, who continuously sets aside his own dreams to give back to his community.
Yet when a financial crisis pushes him to the brink, an angel named Clarence is forced to intervene to show him how the lives of those he loved would have been changed for the worse if it wasn’t for the kind gestures through which he lived his life.
‘George Bailey just gave and gave and gave of himself,’ Grimes told the Beaver County Times.
‘He gave up all of his dreams so he could help other people, and I think in this particular year we’ve kind of lost sight of all of that,’ she added of 2020.
‘And I think maybe this will revive those feelings when we watch it, and maybe we’ll be able to look into ourselves and give and help our fellow man. I think that’s what the movie really is about.’
Grimes gave up acting once her parents died and she moved to live with family in Missouri after appearing in a dozen movies and TV shows.
Having raised seven children, she said that ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ reentered her life when she most needed it.
Grimes revealed that despite her memorable role in the movie playing George Bailey’s daughter Zuzu, she did not watch it again until she was 40, when she realized that she wished to share its message further.
Grimes as Zuzu pictured with actor Jimmy Stewart in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’
Since then, she has dedicated much of her life to preserving the movie’s memory – traveling around the country to speak to fans, gathering stories from those who knew Stewart, and acting as an adviser for the museum honoring the film in Seneca Falls, New York, which opened in 2010.
‘It was a gift,’ Grimes said. ‘There is no two ways about it. Because I didn’t watch it until I was 40, and once I watched the film, I realized what a fabulous opportunity that it was for me to share the messages of this film.
‘So, for 10 years I raised a family and did a few appearances here and there and did a lot of research on the making of the film and that sort of thing,’ she added.
‘But in 1993 the Target company got the Bailey kids together as a reunion and we toured the whole United States.
‘They came in droves. They stood in lines to share their moments of how the movie affects their lives, what has gone (on) in their lives, how they’ve faced suicide, how they’ve been on the bridge and this movie had helped them deal with all these things.
‘I just was overwhelmed. I couldn’t believe it,’ Grimes said of the experience.
‘And it struck me that I was probably one of the most fortunate women in the world to have been that little girl, Zuzu, because I’d been given a gift, and I’ve been on the road ever since, talking to people and listening to people and sharing (stories from) their lives about how this movie has affected them.
Karolyn Grimes has traveled the country for decades meeting with fans of the movie
She described how George Bailey’s story, played by Jimmy Stewart pictured above, had helped so many people who faced suicide or the same struggles as his character
‘And I couldn’t be any happier for that. I just feel like I’m blessed,’ she continued.
‘I’ve been blessed, that’s all I can say, because it’s a great joy to be a part of this film and to be on the road for it and to meet people and to take them into my life as I have.’
While she only appeared in a few scenes in the movie alongside Stewart, Grimes praised him as a star who was very much like the kind Bailey character he was playing.
Grimes, pictured here in 1946, said she did not watch the movie again until she was 40
‘He (Stewart) was just a man who cared about his fellow man, and it comes through as George Bailey,’ she told the Beaver County Times.
‘He comes through in the same way. His own personality is in George Bailey. He cares about his fellow man. He helps him in every way he can, and Jimmy Stewart had the ability to help people in a lot of ways and he really did. He just did.’
Grimes also described him as ‘such a great person to work with’ as he ‘had a way of making you feel important and making you feel like you’re actually the star of that scene’.
The former child star added that her hope for Americans this Christmas is that they will return to the movie and use it to bring their families together.
‘I’m hoping that (viewers) will take away from the film that there is some normalcy in life right now because “It’s a Wonderful Life” and Christmas is a tradition in so many homes across America,’ she said.
‘And maybe families can’t get together, but maybe they can watch the film at the same time and communicate by phone. The movie brings families together. It’s a tradition and it’s something that people do on a regular basis every year and they feel lost if they don’t get the time to do it.
‘So, I’m hoping that this year … people (will) take the time to watch the film and enjoy the messages of hope that the film gives you. … We’re in a world of Potters and a world of weird right now, and I think this is going to put our feet on the ground, to watch that movie.’