This Is What It Was Like to Film It’s a Wonderful Life
Frank Capra’s Christmas classic marks its 70th anniversary this year. Real Simple talked to Karolyn Grimes, who play Zuzu Bailey when she was six years old, and she shared her memories of filming, thoughts on the film’s meaning today, and her favorite scene. What’s yours?
What is your favorite scene?
When George is on the bridge. He says, “Clarence, Clarence, I want to live again.” And then he cups his face and says, “Please, God, I want to live again.” The minute he says the word God, it starts to snow, and you know he’s back. For me, he’s discovered everything important in life—faith and family and friends.
What do people tell you It’s a Wonderful Life means to them?
I have heard people tell me that they’ve been on the bridge. And they watched the film and realized that life is worth living, and that they do matter, and that everybody does make a difference.
People have told me it’s their favorite movie. One man said that he and his wife watched it every Christmas. After they had been married for many years, she had cancer. The last 15 days of her life, every day they sat in her room and watched the movie together. Every day for 15 days. After she had taken her journey, he went out and bought some bells. At the service, he gave everybody a bell and they all rang the bells.
It’s amazing how many people this movie has touched in such a positive way. It gives them hope. It rejuvenates them. And it makes them realize that you do count.
A lot of people have seen this movie over and over again. Is there some small special moment that they might have missed that they should look out for?
There’s a little needlepoint sampler in George’s office. When there’s a run on the bank, he looks up at his father’s portrait before he goes out to talk to the people, and under that the sampler says, “All you take with you is that which you have given away.”
This year is the 70th anniversary of It’s a Wonderful Life. Is there anything special planned to mark that?
The big celebration is going to happen in Seneca Falls [a town in New York that may have been the model for Bedford Falls in the movie]. We’re going to have a reunion of the three Bailey kids, Frank Capra’s granddaughter, and Donna Reed’s daughter. We’re going to have a dinner to simulate the opening-night dinner we had in L.A.—the menu is going to be exactly the same. We have tons of meet-and-greets; we show the film; we have brunches and receptions and a 5K run in the snow and a parade. There’s a little bit of everything, and it’s a great time. [December 9 to 11, therealbedfordfalls.com.]
Is this 70-year-old film still relevant, or do people love it more for the nostalgia of a simpler time?
I think there’s a little of both. Yes, it reminds you of yesterday, but it also gives you hope for tomorrow. Sometimes we get locked up in our own little world—so small that we don’t look outside of that. But there’s a wonderful world outside. You just have to look for it. In the end, by giving, you get back so very much.
Do you have any special memories of James Stewart?
I’ll never forget how tall he was. I was always in his arms, and I felt like I was up in the sky. He was a sweet man. If I messed up a line, he would say, “That’s all right, Karolyn. You’ll get it right the next time.” And I would. I think he made it a point to build a relationship between us, and he did a great job. I was totally into him throughout the film.
Memories of Frank Capra?
He was not a director who expected you to be verbatim in your lines. If you got the same message across using your own words, he thought that was fine. That was less stress. And I think that encourages people to act more naturally.
You were in another Christmas movie classic, The Bishop’s Wife. What was that experience like?
I love Cary Grant! He liked kids and would play with me, and we’d joke around. Looking back, I’d say there was a bit of ego problems on the set. They had started to do the movie totally differently, with David Niven as the angel and Cary Grant as my father. The studio head didn’t like what he saw. He fired the director and hired Henry Koster, who changed the characters. He made David Niven the comedic character, and Cary Grant was unhappy with that. He wanted to be the comedy guy. But it definitely worked. So there was a lot of tension. He didn’t really hang around with the adults very much, so he hung around with me.
You have a new book out this year.
Yes, it’s called Zuzu’s Petals: A Dream of It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s a children’s book, and it will be out in November.
Karolyn Grimes has written several books about It’s a Wonderful Life, and she makes many personal appearances throughout the year. You can find out more about her and buy her books at zuzu.net.