Is there even a more classic Christmas film than It's A Wonderful Life? The historic film from the golden age of Hollywood perfectly captures the meaning of the season and teaches us about what's really important in life. Frank Capra's timeless holiday classic tells the story of George Bailey (James Stewart) as he learns what he means to those around him after the angel Clarence comes down from heaven to stop his suicide attempt. One of the most memorable characters in the film is George's young daughter, Zuzu Bailey, played by Karolyn Grimes. She's the adorable little girl best remembered for the iconic line "Every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings."
Though the Christmas film airs on television every holiday season like clockwork, there was a time before it was so mainstream. It was initially not a huge success and Grimes herself didn't even see the film until over 30 years after she appeared in it. She explained to the Washington Post that her mother had advised her not to watch any of her performances from her days as a child actress.
"I never saw movies I was in because my mom told me that would be prideful, being stuck on yourself," she said.
But decades later she was struck by the story of It's A Wonderful Life and how relatable the story of George Bailey to and his wife Mary (Donna Reed) still is today.
"Oh, it was fresh and dark, about as relevant today as it was when it was made," said Grimes. "Think of all the people out of work, losing their homes, hungry kids worried about their parents. What's so different about today and 60 years ago?"
As a child actor, Grimes appeared in various films. She played Debby Brougham in The Bishop's Wife, another classic Christmas movie starring Cary Grant, and made appearances in the Bing Crosby film Blue Skies and the John Wayne western, Rio Grande. But playing Zuzu is what Grimes is best known for. Unfortunately, after Grimes' mother and father passed away, she was sent to live with an aunt and uncle in Missouri and her film days were over.
From the age of 15 on, things were tough for the young girl. Her aunt and uncle were religious fanatics who didn't make it easy for her. She had a string of children through various relationships, lost multiple partners and ex-partners, and even lost an 18-year-old son after he committed suicide. By the time she was 39 years old, she was doing her best to raise her seven children while somehow working full time.
"My life has never been wonderful," Grimes explained. "Maybe when I was a child, but not after age 15."
"And maybe that's what makes the film so important for me and a lot of other people. The Jimmy Stewart George is suffering terribly in the movie -- you can just see it. He's in Martini's café and saying to himself, 'God, I'm not a praying man, but please show me the way.' "
"It's not a Christmas movie, not a movie about Jesus or Bethlehem or anything religious like that," she insisted. "It's about how we have to face life with a lot of uncertainty, and even though nobody hears it, most of us ask God to show us the way when things get really hard.
"That was part of Capra's genius," she said. "Everybody has some sorrow, worry, and everybody asks God for help. One way or the other, we all do, and it can be in Martini's, not a church on Christmas."
Karolyn Grimes managed to turn things around for herself and has taken full advantage of It's A Wonderful Life being an important part of Christmas for families all over the world. She regularly appears at the annual It's A Wonderful Life event held in Seneca Falls, New York, the town that inspired Bedford Falls in the film. Grimes' fan mail requested her to appear at showings of the film. Since 1994, she has made a full-on career out of memories from playing Zuzu so many years ago. At public appearances and during interviews, she will share memories from the set and behind the scenes facts for fans. She has even released a cookbook inspired by the film and Zuzu memorabilia. The real-life Zuzu is every bit as inspiring as the holiday film she starred in back in 1946.