‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ Turns 70: Karolyn Grimes Reflects on Making the Film

Karolyn Grimes has seen “It’s a Wonderful Life” countless times, but it still makes her emotional.

The actress, who played Zuzu in the Christmas classic, told ABC News that even though she attends 20-30 showings each holiday season, the end of the movie still gives her “that tickle in my throat.”

It’s touching, she added, seeing others feel the movie’s impact, too.

“It’s an emotional rollercoaster,” she noted. “It’s quite exciting because I know it affects people. It’s wonderful when fans say how this movie has touched their lives. It’s a thrill.”

Seventy years ago, the Frank Capra-directed film hit theaters. The plot centers on George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), a husband and father who has always made great sacrifices to help others. When he’s down on his luck, he decides everyone in his life would be better without him, and he decides to commit suicide. However, his guardian angel, Clarence (Henry Travers), intervenes and, in an effort to save him, shows him what life in his hometown of Bedford Falls would be like if he’d never been born.

Though the movie takes place at Christmastime and its release date coincided with the holiday season, “It’s a Wonderful Life” underperformed at the box office. However, it was nominated for five Academy Awards, including a best director nod for Capra, a best actor nomination for Stewart, and best picture.

Grimes recalled her time on the “It’s a Wonderful Life” set with great fondness and shared her personal stories with ABC News.

1. Jimmy Stewart a father-figure on set: According to Grimes, Stewart, who played her father in the film, was as nice in real life as his character was in the movie. “He had a lot of patience and he was just a great guy to work with,” she said. In one scene, he ran down the stairs with 6-year-old Grimes clinging to him, and the actress recalled how much fun that shoot was. “I was always so scared I was going to fall off — I was hanging on for dear life!” she said. “But I loved being on Jimmy Stewart’s back.” Though they did not stay in touch immediately after filming, Grimes said they reconnected in 1980. “He was a really wonderful friend,” she said.

2. The child actors stayed friendly, too: In the movie, Grimes played the youngest of the Baileys’ four children, and off-screen, she developed a friendship with Jimmy Hawkins, who played her older brother Tommy. The two are still close today. “One of the things I remember so vividly is [Hawkins’] mother was knitting a dress and it was just a fascinating thing to watch,” she said. “Jimmy found that dress and sent it to the ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ museum in Seneca Falls.”

3. Yes, there’s an “It’s a Wonderful Life” museum: Located in Seneca Falls, New York, the “It’s a Wonderful Life” museum features memorabilia from the film. “It’s a thrill for me to know that the museum started with 200 pieces from my collection,” Grimes said. Today, the museum houses personal letters from Stewart and Capra, costumes from the film, and photographs.

4. Frank Capra was a gentleman: Grimes noted that Capra, whom she described as “really quiet,” would kneel down to make eye contact with the children when he spoke to them. Even when the kids would forget their lines, “he never lost his temper,” she said. “He was just so kind, and I learned that it was OK to make mistakes.”

5. Frank Capra had to convince Jimmy Stewart to make the film: “It’s a Wonderful Life” was the first movie that Stewart made after World War II, and it took some convincing for him to do sign on. According to Grimes, Capra “talked him into doing it.” “[Stewart] was just kind of testing the waters to see if [acting] was something he still wanted to do,” she said. “When he started doing it, he loved it.”

6. She didn’t have to audition: Grimes said that in those days, children didn’t audition for parts the way they do today. Instead, her agent, Lola Moore, who repped “a huge stable of little kids,” would take her in for job interviews with casting departments. “She always gave me a prize if I got the part,” Grimes said.

7. Bedford Falls was meant to be every town: Though clues in the film that imply that Bedford Falls is in New York state, Grimes said it was meant to represent any small town. “Frank Capra wanted everyone to associate it with their own hometown, with their own community,” she said.

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