It was just another kid job actor Karolyn Grimes. He was 6 years old and had already made four movies in the summer of 1946 when filming began on “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The only thing she remembers from the biggest movie of her career was being delighted to play in the snow on set.
That one job would be very memorable for many other people. “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which marks its 75th anniversary this year, is now a much-loved Christmas tradition around the world.
“It is an annual stimulus to humanity in America and the world,” Grimes told The Associated Press. “It’s a good push to really keep us in a positive direction.”
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“It’s a Wonderful Life” was released in late 1946, produced and directed by Frank Capra and starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed. It takes place on Christmas Eve in a small town.
The film focuses on the character of George Bailey, played by Stewart, who considers suicide until his Guardian Angel steps in and shows him all the people whose lives he has touched and the difference he has made in the community.
One memorable character is Zuzu, played by Grimes. She can say: “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings.” And the petals of Zuzu’s rose, tucked into a trouser pocket by Stewart’s Bailey while comforting his sickly daughter, become a symbol of life.
If Grimes is somewhat confusing in the details of the filming, Jimmy Hawkins, another former child actor who played Tommy in the film, is the complete opposite. Remember when he was 4 years old he would get up when it was dark and take buses and streetcars to Culver City to film his scenes.
“I have vivid memories of making that movie,” he says. “On set, Capra would squat, face to face, tell me what he wanted me to do and if he understood. I said, ‘Oh yes sir.’
Grimes and Hawkins are the last surviving members of the cast and have chosen to represent the film’s legacy and spread its lesson in doing good.
“We feel lucky to have played those roles and carried Frank Capra’s message. He’s not around to do it, and he gave us a great role and a lot of wonderful memories, so naturally we do,” says Hawkins.
“We want to carry that message, either to the Attica inmates or to ring the bell at the Stock Exchange. We are talking to everyone to keep it going.”
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Paramount Home Entertainment has released a limited edition two-disc Blu-ray disc featuring a colorized version of the film in high definition, as well as the original black and white film digitally remastered in high definition. The set includes more than 45 minutes of bonus content.
The film was nominated for five Oscars and has been recognized by the American Film Institute as one of the 100 best American films ever made. The film also won first place for Most Inspirational American Film of All Time by the AFI.
“It gives us such an optimistic view of what our lives can be. And we have the power to do that. We can make a difference and we can make things happen,” Grimes said.
Hawkins remembers Capra with a strong vision for the film: faith, hope, and renewed life. The movie he made might be sentimental, but on set, the director wasn’t sentimental at all.
“It was his movie,” he says. “People fell by the wayside because it was their vision. If you didn’t have their vision, you weren’t making their move. It was very precise, very nice to everyone on set. But now it’s a job.”
Initially, the film, which is now closely related to Christmas, was not intended to be released during the holidays. But RKO’s Christmas movie scheduled for 1946, “Sinbad the Sailor,” wasn’t ready, so the studio asked Capra to speed up production on “It’s a Wonderful Life.” It premiered on December 20 at the Globe Theater in New York, a bit late for a traditional Christmas release.
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“They did a beautiful job getting it out and then it kind of bombed it. It wasn’t a success,” says Grimes. “But then in the early ’70s it became public domain and was on every channel every year.”
Grimes still receives letters from around the world and from generations of viewers. “I get a lot of fan letters from Britain and even the Middle East and all kinds of places,” he says. “It’s reaching a lot of people and I think people will want to make a difference.”