It’s a Wonderful Life: Karolyn Grimes


Karolyn Grimes has fond memories of playing with the other child actors on the set of It’s a Wonderful Life. “The stage was a big building where they filmed, ” says Grimes, who played Zuzu Bailey in the film. ” The settings were not really brightly lit. The fun part was just hanging around with the kids.  It was dark except for when they were filming, and so it was really fun [to play]. We would go on interviews together and were kind of a little clique, because we all had the same agent, so she sent the same people out all the time. It was fun.”

The Beginning

The holiday classic is based on a short story by Philip Van Doren Stern, who was compelled to write the tale after having a dream similar to Dicken’s A Christmas Carol. Although film producer David Hempstead bought the film rights in 1944, he was unsuccessful in his attempts to turn the story into a screenplay.  Frank Capra’s company bought the rights for $10,000, and Capra changed the name of the story (then called The Greatest Gift) to It’s a Wonderful Life.

Karolyn Grimes tells Big Purple Marble that she believes Capra’s inspiration for Bedford Falls comes from the town of Seneca Falls, New York. “The reason I say that is because he had an aunt real close by, and he visited her.  He came to Seneca Falls to get a haircut, and Seneca Falls has a canal that runs right by Main Street. One side – during the time that [Capra] would have been there – was the Italian section, and on the other side, there was the [white] section, and they were very much separated,” says Grimes.

The old barber told Grimes that he remembered cutting Frank Capra’s hair. “He said the reason he remembered it was because the barber’s name was Tony Bellissimo, which means ‘beautiful.’ Capra in Italian means ‘goat,’ so he remembers cutting ‘the goat’s’ hair. A few weeks later he saw in the paper where this fellow was going to make a movie, so he realized whose hair he cut. ”

Bridging Two Worlds

In the film, George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, decides to kill himself by jumping off the bridge in the middle of Bedford Falls. The scene resembles the bridge in Seneca Falls. The old  barber told her  that Capra would have seen a plaque on the city’s bridge. The plaque was dedicated to a young man named Antonio Varacalli. In 1917, a young woman jumped into the barge canal, perhaps in a suicide attempt. But she cried out for help, and Varacalli heard her. Although he could not swim, he jumped in to help the young woman, and managed to get her to safety. But he lost in his own life, drowning in the frigid waters of the canal.

“It made the town come together,” says Grimes. ” [The city] paid for this fellow’s entire family to come over to the country, and then the whole town from that time forward began to mix. It was a huge pivotal part in the history of Seneca Falls, and [Capra] would have seen that on the bridge. He would have seen that plaque and learned the story.”

Karolyn Grimes, It's a Wonderful Life, Big Purple Marble,
Donna Reed, Jimmy Stewart, and Karolyn Grimes (photo Telefilm Associates, public domain)

Acting Zuzu

Grimes had played several film roles as a child before her memorable role as Zuzu Bailey. But she remembers that Capra was a director who who encouraged her to act naturally. “A lot of the directors I’ve worked with wanted it just bing, bing, bing, you know? They were like little dictators. He wasn’t that way, and I really liked him for that. He never made us stick verbatim to the script, which I always appreciated. Some of the lines were not comfortable to say as a little kid. Frank Capra let you kind of express things yourself. That  took a lot of pressure off.”

The film’s cast included Stewart, Lionel Barrymore, Donna Reed, Ward Bond, and Henry Travis.  “I was totally focused on Jimmy Stewart throughout the film.  I just remember how tall he was, and how I loved to hear him speak.  He would make me feel good, and he just really made an effort for us to build sort of a bond.  A time or two I messed up a line, and he’d go, ‘That’s all right. You’ll do it right next time,’ and I did,” says Grimes. “My parents never let me know that these were movie stars and what a movie star was,” she says. ” I grew up with these people and they were just normal, ordinary folks.  I didn’t know what famous was, really.”

Award-winning Author

Karolyn Grimes published several books since her appearance in It’s a Wonderful Life.  Her cookbook, Zuzu’s Recipe for It’s a Wonderful Life Cookbook was published by Citadel in the year 2000. She includes some of her  own and her late mother’s recipes, and incorporates information about the Capra film.  Her latest, Zuzu’s Petals, a Dream of It’s a Wonderful Life (2016), is a children’s book  illustrated by Karen Deming.

The book won the 2017 Royal Dragonfly Book Award for “Best Holiday Book” and “Best Illustrations.” In the book, Zuzu Bailey falls asleep and dreams of finding her father. Her rose begins to wilt, and it loses petals whenever she encounters another person. In the end, she discovers that caring for others is the greatest gift of all.

Wonderful Life at the Museum

Grimes also continues to promote the film, It’s a Wonderful Life, and bring attention to its message. “I just want to continue doing what I’m doing  with It’s A Wonderful Life,  and promote the It’s A Wonderful Life Museum in Seneca Falls, New York. I want there to be a physical footprint of that film that people can go look at, talk about, and enjoy and benefit from.  It’s important to me that it survives.”

It’s a Wonderful Life Museum in Seneca Falls, New York celebrates the 71st anniversary of the film on December 8 – 10, 2017. You can learn more by visiting the Museum’s website here. 

 Fun Fact:

In the film, Uncle Billy (played by Thomas Mitchell) had a pet bird. Animal actor “Jimmy the raven” (owned and handled by trainer Curly Twilford) appeared in many films from the 1930s to the 1950s.  Capra also hired Jimmy for the 1938 film You Can’t Take It With You.  Jimmy the raven also appeared in the film, The Wizard of Oz (1939). He played the role of the crow that lands on the shoulder of The Scarecrow – played by Ray Bolger –  after he is discovered by Dorothy.  

Feature photo courtesy GabboT of Wikimedia Commons.

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