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'It was a gift': The actress who plays Zuzu on why we need 'It's a Wonderful Life' more than ever

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 11/22/2020 Alex Biese, Asbury Park Press

We’re all in this together.

Certain truths only become clearer over time, and the importance of community, family, friends and neighbors joining forces in trying times is chief among them as we wind down the lamentable year that was 2020.

That thought kept returning to the forefront of my mind as I watched Frank Capra’s classic 1946 Christmas fantasy drama “It’s a Wonderful Life” for the first time this month.

I don’t know how I’d never seen it before. I guess I was simply waiting for the right year. And seeing as 2020 has all of us approaching the ends of our ropes like so many George Baileys, the time finally arrived for me to make my first trip to Bedford Falls.

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If you too have yet to see Capra’s film, it is nothing more or less than the grand survey of one American life – namely, that of George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, who runs the family building and loan business in the small town of Bedford Falls.

a person holding a stuffed animal: Karolyn Grimes, left, and Jimmy Stewart in a scene from Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life." © Courtesy of Paramount Karolyn Grimes, left, and Jimmy Stewart in a scene from Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life."

George sets aside his own dreams and aspirations in favor of a life spent selflessly helping those in his community who find themselves at the mercy of predatory banker Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore).

A financial crisis pushes George to his emotional breaking point, necessitating the intervention of Clarence (Henry Thomas), an angel, and George's friends, family and neighbors marshalled by his wife Mary (Donna Reed).

Working from "The Greatest Gift," a story by Philip Van Doren Stern, Capra vividly combines the cosmic, the sacred and the mundane and drives a timeless point home: in our darkest times, getting through the day is a victory – and we can’t do it alone.

That's a message that Karolyn Grimes, who played George and Mary's daughter Zuzu, hopes we all take to heart in 2020, a year she described as "challenging at best."

“George Bailey just gave and gave and gave of himself," Grimes says. "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. 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.”

"It's a Wonderful Life" has returned for 2020, now available in a 4K Ultra HD edition featuring the original black-and-white version of the film in 4K high definition and the colorized version on Blu-ray.

Grimes, now 80, started acting at age 4 and was 6 when she appeared in "It's a Wonderful Life," delivering the iconic line "Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings."

While she and the actors who played her Bailey siblings were only in a handful of scenes, the connection between Grimes and Stewart is undeniable all these decades later.

"I attribute all of that to him because it’s the star that can make the chemistry happen and to work it and to make it work. That’s his responsibility or her responsibility with a child in the scene – that’s the way it works," says Grimes. "And he was able to do that so easily and we all respected him, but (he) also had a way of making you feel important and making you feel like you’re actually the star of that scene. He just had a way of doing that. He was just such a great person to work with.”

Grimes has dedicated much of her life in recent decades to preserving the legacy of "It's a Wonderful Life." She's an adviser for the museum honoring the film in Seneca Falls, New York, which was launched in 2010 with items from her personal collection.

She's traveled the country speaking with fans of the film and gathering stories from those connected to Stewart, including longtime friends and those who served with him in World War II.

“He was just a man who cared about his fellow man, and it comes through as George Bailey," says Grimes. "Jimmy Stewart had the ability to help people in a lot of ways and he really did. He just did.”

a person holding a pair of people posing for the camera: Karolyn Grimes, who played Zuzu Bailey in "It's a Wonderful Life," during a news conference at Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls, New York, in 2016. © CARLOS ORTIZ/@CFORTIZ_DANDC/STAFF Karolyn Grimes, who played Zuzu Bailey in "It's a Wonderful Life," during a news conference at Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls, New York, in 2016.

As detailed on Grimes' website,, her post-"Wonderful Life" years had more than their share of loss. She'd appeared in more than a dozen films and television productions between 1945 to 1954, but by age 15 both of her parents had died, and she was sent to live with family in Missouri, ending her acting career. 

Grimes raised seven children. Her first husband was killed in a hunting accident after their divorce, and she lost her second husband to lung cancer and one child to suicide.

But the story of George Bailey re-entered her life at a time when she needed it.

“It was a gift," Grimes says. "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. But in 1993 the Target company got the Bailey kids together as a reunion and we toured the whole United States."

It was then, Grimes says, that she got to meet the people whose lives had been touched by Capra's film.

"They came in droves. They stood in lines to share their moments of how the movie affects 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," she says. "I just was overwhelmed. I couldn’t believe it.

"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. And I couldn’t be any happier for that. I just feel like I’m blessed, 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.”

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The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic means folks can't celebrate the holidays as they usually do. Even the Seneca Falls "It's a Wonderful Life" Museum canceled its in-person festivities for 2020. But Grimes is hopeful that watching the film can still bring people comfort.

“I’m hoping that (viewers) will take away 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 says. "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.

"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.”

This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: 'It was a gift': The actress who plays Zuzu on why we need 'It's a Wonderful Life' more than ever



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