(Clockwise from top) James Stewart, Donna Reed, Carol Coombs, Jimmy Hawkins, Larry Simms and Karolyn Grimes in 'It's a Wonderful Life.'Corbis via Getty Images
It’s hard to imagine the holidays without It’s a Wonderful Life. Director Frank Capra’s 1946 film has become a quintessential watch with generation after generation discovering and embracing it.
While many grow up with the Oscar-nominated gem, others come to it later in life. Among them, surprisingly, two of the film’s cast.
“I never watched It’s a Wonderful Life until 1980. I was 40 years old before I ever saw it in its entirety,” exclaimed Karolyn Grimes, who played Zuzu. “I saw bits and pieces over the years, on commercials and so forth, but I had never sat down and watched it. When I did, that’s when I realized the magic. That’s when I started getting fan mail and thought, ‘Well, I’d better watch this film and see what this is all about.’ I hadn’t been in Hollywood for 100 years, and here I am getting fan mail, people are knocking on my door wanting interviews, and I’m like, ‘What is going on?’ From then on, it has grown and grown.”
“Why hadn’t I watched it? Well, I had a whole new life. I had a lot to do. I was in middle America, worked in the medical industry, and had many personal things going on. I married a guy, and we had two kids. He got killed while deer hunting. Then I married another guy, and he had three kids, then two more came along, so before I knew it, I was raising seven kids. I didn’t have time to watch TV. I’d be done around 10 pm, and I’d watch Johnny Carson. When I saw the movie, I loved it. It just took over my life. It was so impressive, I felt it in my heart, and right away, I realized what it meant to people.”
“Honestly, I probably only really realized the importance of It’s A Wonderful Life in the early 90s,” added Jimmy Hawkins, who played Tommy. “I was doing a lot of work with the Donna Reed Foundation. Paul Peterson, from The Donna Reed Show, and I were involved in establishing a festival in her hometown, and we wanted to do something that could help raise money for the charity. I remember saying to Paul, ‘Oh, boy! People think they know everything about this movie. It’s growing bigger and bigger and bigger. Why don’t we write a trivia book?’ so we did, and it did exceptionally well. That’s when it hit us that it was so much bigger than a movie. Television made that a hit.”
Hawkins was right. When It’s a Wonderful Life hit theaters, it received a mediocre response from critics, and the movie only grossed $3.3 million against a $3.18 million budget. The film, which is being re-released as a collectible 4K Ultra HD set, needed to gross $6.3 million to break even.
“That disappointed Frank Capra a great deal,” Hawkins recalled. “He felt he had lost his touch for making movies, but it turned out he hadn’t. He produced, directed, and co-wrote one of the greatest movies ever made, but it took me almost 50 years to understand what that meant.”
“The great thing about the picture, it never changed, but people change. The people made the difference, and they needed that message more than ever. When they found it, because somebody at the studio dropped the copyright and so TV stations all over the United States could show it for free, they took advantage of that. That’s why it became this iconic and essential movie, and it just grew and grew. That was the message of the movie that each man’s life touches so many others. If we weren’t around, we’d leave an awful hole. It made people feel they’re important and that they mean something. It turned out they needed that message, but they apparently didn’t need that message right after World War II. It’s grown to be the most inspirational movie of all time.”
He added, “I appreciate the film, what Capra went through, and how nervous he was. It’s a Wonderful Life was the first time he had looked through a camera in years, and he didn’t know if he still had it. Capra was beside himself and had to go with his instincts. After everything he had seen during the war, Jimmy Stewart knew that acting didn’t seem so important, but the actor and director Lionel Barrymore told him, ‘No, you have a wonderful gift. You can talk to people in the dark for two hours. You owe that to people. You have an important job in life, and you have to stick with acting.’ Jimmy thought it was frivolous, and he wanted to go back to his hometown of Indiana, Pennsylvania, and work with his Dad in the family store. This picture touched a lot of lives, just in the making of the movie. If it had been a hit then, it would possibly never have the recognition that it has now. The journey it took made it what it is.”
Actors James Stewart as George Bailey, and Donna Reed as Mary Hatch Bailey in a promotional still from Frank Capra's 'It's A Wonderful Life.'Getty Images
Is It’s a Wonderful Life part of Grimes’ holiday tradition?
“I’m afraid it’s not because I didn’t watch it raising my children. Because I didn’t watch the movie, I didn’t embrace it,” she explained. “I actually had them watch another movie I did called The Bishop’s Wife. In the last 25 years or so, I have been on the road until Christmas Eve, so it’s hard just to come home and watch a movie after you’ve watched it 30 times over the last three months. I mean, I don’t mind because I love it and watching it with different people is so exciting. Everybody shares in it to see the emotions shift through the room, the joy, and the tears and laughter. It’s an experience that you can’t copy in any other film. When I come home, I’m kinda ready to be by myself.”
However, what the film has given Grimes is something she never expected.
“I have another family,” she gushed. “I’m an only child, and I was orphaned at the age of 15. However, for the last 30 years, I’ve had a brother and sister and a family because of this movie. It’s pretty special to be granted that in the later years of your life. It feels like a family. I also feel that the people who watch the movie want to be a part of that family. They want to be a Bailey. I get so much wonderful mail about how that movie has affected people’s lives, and it’s just so heartwarming to know that this kind of vehicle can make such a difference. I think Frank Capra was a genius, I really do.”
“All of his movies had that kind of a feeling of the future and what could be. This particular movie hit at a certain time in civilization when World War II had just ended, so they weren’t ready for it at all. It sat on a shelf for 20 years after it was released. When it came out again in the early 70s, they were ready for it, and it appealed to them in ways that no other movie ever has.”
The feeling that the film was ahead of its time was seconded by Hawkins, who has written five books about It’s a Wonderful Life.
“In doing the research, I found out that there was only one thing he would have changed in the movie if he could do it over again, and that was the Donna Reed character, Mary. He wouldn’t have had her be a meek, little librarian at the end,” he explained. “A woman who had that tenacity to go after George Bailey, and we see her as a little girl in the dollar drugstore whispering in his ear, ‘George Bailey, I’ll love you ’til the day I die’ and she did everything she could to win his heart. A woman who had that much tenacity to go after George Bailey would have never have settled. She would have been some woman who would be moving and getting into real estate or something women were getting into after the war. They were around. But the movie was Capra’s vision all the way, and out of the whole film, that’s the one thing he would have done differently.”
James Stewart as George Bailey, hugs actor Karolyn Grimes, who plays Zuzu his daughter, in a still from director Frank Capra's Christmas classic film, 'It's a Wonderful Life.'Getty Images
Grimes believes that this holiday season, the film’s 74th anniversary, It’s a Wonderful Life’s message will resonate even more.
“It gives people hope again. It’s a rejuvenation process. Every year, we need that because we usually feel a bit beaten down, but in 2020, even more so. I think a lot of people will be watching It’s a Wonderful Life this year,” she mused. “People identify with this movie. They see themselves as George Bailey going through all that he had to go through, and then they come out at the end, and they realize life is worth living. Everybody has problems, and they go through life trying to deal with them. In It’s a Wonderful Life, George’s world crashes down, but the magic of that Angel makes him look at his life again, so maybe when we sit down and watch that movie, we reflect on our own lives and realize that ‘Well, it’s not so bad after all.’ We all have different kinds of successes, and it’s just such a good feeling to know that we are all in this together. Each man’s life touches another, and we forget that. It’s become a family tradition, and it brings our feet back down on Earth.”
She added, “We need to be united, we need to come together. We need it right now because we’re scared, and we need to make a force field against COVID and all the bad things out there. It’s a Wonderful Life renews your spirit, gives you hope, and it makes you feel like you matter. George Bailey had morals, he had values, and he thought about other people, no matter what. I think maybe that’s what we’re missing in our lives. When we do think of other people, we do get rewards in the end. It’s a satisfying thing to do things for others and to enjoy that.”
“I lost a son to suicide, and I volunteered at his high school before he died. I didn’t want to go back there ever again, but this old priest talked me into going back there, and I did. It was the most wonderful thing I could ever do. I gave myself to this school to volunteer, and it helped me heal. There are so many things you could learn from that movie about giving of yourself.”
It’s a Wonderful Life continues to give for Hawkins too.
“Two years ago, we went to Attica prison and showed the movie to all the prisoners there, and then Karolyn and I talked to them for two hours afterward. It was an incredible experience talking to these men during the holidays, hearing how well versed they were on the movie and all the notes, they had to ask us about it,” he reminisced. “Those are the things that make a difference. We can touch lives too by the choices we get to make and who we get to talk to. All these fans come around wherever we are and share stories with us. I have done almost 500 movies and TV shows in my career, but It’s a Wonderful Life is the one that rose to the top.”
Hawkins concluded, “The remaining cast members, myself and my two siblings from the film, we realized that we’re just messengers for the film. We don’t take any extra special credit for being in it. Capra chose us, and we believe in his work and the movie’s message, so we show up wherever we’re needed and wanted. It’s a blessing and an honor, and because of that, it really is a wonderful life.”
It’s a Wonderful Life arrives in a collectible 4K Ultra HD Combo Steelbook on Tuesday, November 17, 2020, from Paramount Home Entertainment.
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