It’s a Wonderful Life has stood the test of time to become a perennial holiday classic for audiences of all ages. This year, Paramount unveiled a 4K UHD Steelbook copy of the film and to celebrate, ComingSoon.net sat down with two of the film’s stars, Jimmy Hawkins and Karolyn Grimes, who played Tommy and Zuzu Bailey, respectively, and discussed the impact and legacy Frank Capra’s film continues to have in pop culture nearly 75 years later.
It’s a Wonderful Life was released on December 20, 1946 and grossed a modest $3.3 million against a $3.18 million budget (RKO recorded a $525,000 loss). Critical reaction was mixed at the time and the film drifted out of the public psyche until networks began airing it on TV in the late 70s/early 80s. In 1990, the film was added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress and is now regarded as one of the finest films ever made.
Here’s the synopsis, via IMDB: An angel is sent from Heaven to help a desperately frustrated businessman by showing him what life would have been like if he had never existed.
It’s a Wonderful Life stars James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore and Henry Travers and was directed by Frank Capra from a screenplay by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett and Capra.
Jimmy Hawkins starred as little Tommy in the film when he was just four years old and later went on to appear in 68 films and TV shows, including The Donna Reed Show, Leave it to Beaver and Annie Oakley; and also serves as producer on films such as Evel Knievel (1971) and TV movies such as A Time for Miracles (1980) and Smart Cookies (2012).
ComingSoon.net: It’s a Wonderful Life is almost 75 years old. You were only four and a half at the time. But I’ve read interviews where you said that you have detailed memories of the filming. So what are your most vivid memories about the set?
Jimmy Hawkins: Well, just walking on the set every day. It took 12 days to shoot all the stuff with the Bailey kids in it. And so, I’d get up real early in the morning. It was dark outside and you’d take street cars and buses to Culver City. And then walk onto this beautiful stage 14. And when you walk into that living room, it’s all lit up and lighting for the first take of the day. The Christmas tree is there. And it’s just all the commotion going on and the front of the house, the facade for the outside of the house, too. And they had real snow outside, you know? And that was kind of interesting to see. It’s 90 degrees outside when we were shooting the film, the exteriors, but it was just terrific. I remember Frank Capra and how he improvised a lot. I would go over the script the night before with my mom, and that would always change the next morning when we got on the set because Frank Capra had business. He always had actors doing little business. And so, he would explain to me what he wanted me to do in the scene, sitting on this man’s lap and putting a pencil on his head. And then this lady over here will say something, and then when she finishes saying that, you say this line, you know that? I’d say, “Oh yes sir, I know that.”
And then, when we came out of the living room scene going into the kitchen, he had me do that, “Excuse me” line. And then I end up — well, he had me say it a few times on the way to the kitchen and he’d stop all the action and then he’d squat down and talk to me one-on-one face-to-face and tell me exactly when you get to this spot right here, say excuse me, keep pulling on this man’s tailcoat. Okay. Go there. And so, he was always doing stuff like that, improvising. And so, those are the kind of memories I have. And you know, I don’t remember anything at four and a half. Like you’d be surprised of how much you remember when it comes down to it. And then, all these things come past your mind and you go, “Ah, I remember doing that. Yeah, oh wow.” And I would chew bubblegum all the time. So he didn’t mind. You would just chew the gum in the picture. That’s all right. He didn’t care. That’s more natural, he said.
So, and then all the stories that you learn along the lines when I started writing books about it and talking to cast members and how their experience was with Capra; and Dimitri Tiompkin’s estate and talking to Mrs. Tiompkin and just all the different things that it took to make the picture — the set decorator, you know, [told] me what the town looked like. It’s just a great experience to talk to everybody and get us all back together again after so many years. And it’s been quite a thrill, and working with Paramount on their different projects. But what I like about it is they keep up to date with the movie, and you know how they have a Blu-ray 4K in special packaging, what they call the SteelBook. And I mean, when you see the movie like that, I mean, you feel like you’re right there. I mean, you just step into it. It’s so crisp and just like better than it ever was when it showed in theaters.
So you know, people, they want to see it best as it can and streaming never does that. Streaming can’t be — 4K, Blu-ray, nothing. It just is a nice, clean copy. But they want that film. They seem to want that disc they can play whenever they want to, and a lot of people, I see them, and they ask me, because I guess this SteelBook has caught on and people like to have that as part of their collection, whether they ever open it up and play it, they like this idea of having it. And they ask us, you know, the different appearances we’ve made in Seneca Falls at the “It’s a Wonderful Life” Museum. And they said, “Oh are they going to come out with SteelBook?” And I said, “Oh I didn’t even know if they do SteelBook.” But they know more than we do. It’s really something. They bring up stuff with the movie and [I’m like] oh really? No, it’s great talking to them and they bring their children to our appearances and explain that when they were that age, they watched the film with their parents, and they’re passing this movie onto their children. And the kids, they love the film. They don’t understand at 6 or 7 the whole Bailey Building and Loans and stuff like that, but they know they like the movie; and they don’t mind sitting and watching it with their parents.
So it’s a great experience to see the enthusiasm that the parents have and they’re passing it onto their kids. It’s been quite a thrill, the different places that It’s a Wonderful Life has taken us. I rang the bell at the Stock Exchange in New York. I showed it to the prisoners of Attica two years ago at Christmas, and Karolyn Grimes — Zuzu — and I went there for a two-hour Q&A. And these guys were incredible. It’s just an experience. This movie has taken us everywhere. It’s great to talk about it, getting the opportunity to talk to you about it, and like I said, you’re a part of the legacy now and you can carry on, write about it and tell other people about it. It just keeps growing and getting bigger and bigger. When it’s on NBC at Christmas time, that’s the most popular show on TV that night. It’s going to be 75 years old next year and it’s bigger and better than it ever was.
CS: Like you said, you were four years old at the time. And obviously, you probably weren’t aware of Jimmy Stewart, Frank Capra and Donna Reed, or at least the impact that they had in pop culture at the time. At what point did you start to realize: Wow! I was in a movie with Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed and Frank Capra?
Hawkins: Well, of course, I stayed in the business. I did over 400 TV shows and co-starred with Elvis in pictures. I was eight years on the Donna Reed Show, so I got to know her through all that time, and then we stayed friends after the show, had lunches. And I was with her right before she passed away and was at her house and brought her an ornament to put on the tree. But the first time I guess, what you’re asking, is when did I realize It’s a Wonderful Life was big, or that it was growing? Because when it went out [on it’s initial release], it was just a day — well, for us, 12 days working. And you went to another movie. And the same way in talking to all the other characters from the film, it was just another movie to do. The hope was to be good and be popular, but nobody ever expected it to be what it became. Nobody. It was just work and you were hoping Capra and Stewart after World War II would make a success of it and then continue on with their lives. But nobody thought it would ever do what it’s done now. So 1992 is when I first realized that everybody was watching it. They got to see it because it fell into public domain and people all over TV stations everywhere could show it for free. And they took advantage of that. And so, television made It’s a Wonderful Life what it is today. I talked to Sheldon Leonard about the film — he played Nick the Bartender — and asked him myself, what do you think, after all those years, it became popular? He said, remember one thing, Jimmy, the movie never changed, not a frame changed. The people changed. They needed that message more than ever. They didn’t need it in 1946. They were onto other things. But when the 70’s came in and it fell into public domain, it started showing up every Christmas getting bigger and bigger. And the audience needed that message. They needed to know that they’re all important, and each man’s life touches so many others. They are important. That’s when George Bailey got to see. He didn’t think anything he did was important. But everything. He went to work, helped somebody, did something, touched somebody’s life and went on to do this. And he got to see all that and he saw that sort of way life was the wrong thing to do because we can make a difference in everybody’s life. That’s what the audience found out. I’m important. I make a difference.
CS: You talked about working with Donna Reed and the relationship that you had with her. Did you ever bump into Capra Stewart again?
Hawkins: Oh no, no. I would bump into Capra at the Academy. I’m a member of the Motion Picture Academy and they were having a director’s choice. And great directors would come and show what they thought was their best movie. Well, he was there, and so, I talked to him while we were out in the foyer, ready to go on. And learned more about him. And Jimmy Stewart, I did Winchester ’73 with him. But I’d met him at parties, and then they brought me in to play his son in law in a TV series that they were putting together at Warner Brothers and NBC or one of the networks. And they brought me in and they tested me to play his son in law in the series. And I was producing movies then. I was doing a picture called Evel Knievel that I raised the money towards and was a producer on with George Hamilton. And I came back from Butte, Montana, where we were shooting up a day earlier to do this test. And they were testing this guy, that guy, and I always thought my career — whatever I did, always thought of Jimmy Stewart when I did things. And because I was just a guy in a situation, always looked at, how would you say that line if he were in that movie? And I wasn’t a great actor, but I was great at doing that. And it never stopped. It never stopped, whether it was the Annie Oakley series or The Ruggles back in 1949; and then I did Petticoat Junction for three or four years, Ozzie and Harriet for three or four years, and just kept working — Leave it to Beaver — just all this stuff. And I never, ever stopped. But you got Evel Knievel, and I said, I like this and I enjoy this. So, very lucky. A great career. I really have a wonderful life.
CS: You stopped acting around about the mid-70’s. How had Hollywood changed by that point?
Hawkins: Well, it really had changed. Especially now, I’m producing a film now on the life of Mary Edwards Walker. She’s the only woman to ever win the Congressional Medal of Honor. And she was a surgeon in the Civil War. A great story. I’d like to do stories that are uplifting, positive. Ones that make you go: If that woman went through that and came out like she did, well maybe my life actually may get better. And I did the Satchel Paige Story with Lou Gossett … and I’ve done a lot of uplifting movies because I like that theme. I like that people see something and then they can do something like that. If that person did something, they could overcome their obstacles. It was a great time. But it’s not like that anymore. Too much greed and I don’t like it anymore. It’s just not fun. It’s different, just different.
I’d have been lucky to be in that Golden era, no doubt about it. I worked with every major star in the 40’s. And then, when it came to television, whether it’s Fred McMurray or Donna Reed or you name them all, I got a chance to work with them as more of an adult, and it was very rewarding. The people were as nice as you saw them on the screen. 90 percent of the time, they were just real nice people. Frederick Burns, very nice person. I’m just very lucky to be with nice people doing nice shows.
Karolyn Grimes starred in It’s a Wonderful Life as Zuzu, who delivered the film’s most memorable line, “Every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings.” Grimes worked as an actress until 1954, starring in films such as The Bishop’s Wife and Rio Grande.
ComingSoon.net: I read a story a while ago where you recalled seeing It’s a Wonderful Life for the first time in 1980 and suddenly remembering that you were in the film Can you tell us more about that moment? Is that something that really happened?
Karolyn Grimes: What happened was, I started getting people knocking on my door wanting interviews. And they asked me if I was in that movie and I said, well, yeah. And so, they said, “Could we have an interview?” And I said, “Well, sure.” So I dragged all my stuff up from the basement and showed them my memorabilia and over the years the same thing kept happening, and I was pretty shocked. I thought, my goodness, what’s going on here? And then, I started getting fan mail. And so, I thought, well, I better watch this movie. So I sat down and I watched the movie. I was 40, but you know, my life has been very busy. And I was raising seven kids. I lived in the car, in the laundry room and kitchen and all of that. I didn’t have time to really watch the movie, so I never did. I had seen bits and pieces of my part in the movie, but I never really sat down and got the whole content — and oh, what a joy! I mean, it was an experience I’ll never forget my whole life. I cried and cried and cried. And it just touched my life so much that I realized that I had to be a part of the message from this film. So that’s what I made up my mind to do back in 1980. And I was still raising kids, so I didn’t do too much until 1993. The Target Company reunited the Bailey kids and sent us on a tour around the United States. And that’s when I kind of hooked on the road because I really met the people. And they tell me stories of how this movie had affected their lives in such a positive way. Well, I just got hooked. And so, I’ve been on the road ever since.
CS: Do you remember how you first got involved with the production?
Grimes: Well, I had an agent. I had already done four movies before I did that one. I started when I was four years old. And I was just one of those little starlets in Hollywood. And it was just another interview. It wasn’t any big deal. And I actually had an experience that wasn’t too cool because when I was waiting to be interviewed — there were five of us little girls — a mother accidentally spilled some coffee on my dress — accidentally, we’re not sure. [Laughs] Anyway, it didn’t bother me one bit. I walked in there with a soiled dress and talked to Frank Capra because it was a one-on-one thing. He handpicked every single person in that movie, even the extras. He handpicked them all. He was that particular. He was a perfectionist. And so, I mean, I just acted like myself and I got the part.
CS: Were you aware that you were in a movie with greats like Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, directed by Frank Capra?
Grimes: I never knew a thing like that. I had worked with Bing Crosby, Randolph Scott. I mean, all these movie stars. And fortunately, my parents never really let me think that I was special in any way and that these weren’t real movie stars. [Laughs.] I didn’t even think I knew what a movie star was. These were just my friends and I was raised like that. So yeah, I never really knew that these were special people and that they were real stars. I had no clue. And Jimmy Stewart contacted me in 1980, actually, and that was another reason I watched the film, because a lot of people had been asking him whatever happened to that little girl? And he had his secretary call me in the middle of Kansas, and there I was. And so, he called me out of the blue. It was really kind of incredible. And so, we kind of developed a friendship after that and it was really good.
CS: That’s a cool story. That could make its own movie right there.
Grimes: Well, it could.
CS: And speaking of Jimmy Stewart, you share some of the film’s most iconic scenes with him — do you recall filming those scenes? Did you have to do numerous takes?
Grimes: Well, yes, we had to do numerous takes. Sometimes we’d spend days just on doing a segment. But it was the fourth, fifth movie I had done. And it was just normal, everyday stuff. But being up tall in his arms and kind of towering over everything, I remember all of the people in the last scene. I remember so many things about that movie that I had so many wonderful experiences on, because, for one thing, there were kids, other kids, and I could play with other kids. You worked for three minutes and then you sit for an hour. And then you work for three minutes and you sit for an hour. And for a kid that’s six years old, that’s tough. So to me, having other kids there to play with and to interact with, it was pretty great. So that, I remember very well, just having other kids, Jimmy Hawkins and Carol [Coombs]. And it was great just to have kids around. So I do remember a lot of things about the film.
CS: When was it that you really knew that you had been a part of something truly special?
Grimes: I didn’t know until 1980. When I started getting fan mail, it blew me away. I mean, this was for a life 40 years — 35 years ago, you know, and all of a sudden I’m getting fan mail for playing this little girl in the movie? I was blown away. I had no idea that the movie was so like, well received and that people loved it and it was an American tradition and in their homes every year at Christmas. I didn’t know. So I mean, it was a great, big shock to me. And that’s when I really found out what a wonderful film it was. And after I sat down and watched it, I vowed that I would definitely promote that film and I would try to be a part of it from now on. And once I started meeting the people, the fans did my appearances, I mean, they share with me stories of how this movie has affected their lives. It’s incredible.
I mean, everyone — happiness, sadness, maybe a gal’s mother had started her watching the movie years and years ago, when she was a child, and the mother is now gone, but she would never miss out on watching that movie every year at Christmas because it brought her back to that time when she was with her mom. You know, those kind of things you can’t buy, the memories in your heart. And It’s a Wonderful Life just gives you those over and over again.
CS: You were in a number of projects after It’s a Wonderful Life, including The Bishop’s Wife and Rio Grande. Why did you ultimately decide to step away from acting?
Grimes: My mother started getting sick when I was eight, and she died when I was 14. And then my father got killed in a car wreck a year later when I was 15. So I was orphaned and the court in Hollywood decided that my best interest was to send me to live with my father’s brother and his mean wife in Missouri. So that’s what happened. I got out of Hollywood. That was the end. You know, I was all alone. I never went back. I went to college and lived like a normal person.
CS: Oh wow! And then suddenly you’re thrust back into this world you left behind …
Grimes: It was unlocking great memories I had in the past. I had been so busy that I never relived those moments. But once I started to relive those wonderful times as a child, it became such a huge part of my life because I meet people and they tell me these wonderful stories about how that movie’s affected their lives. So it became kind of a champion for me. And I wanted to be part of that. I wanted to be able to touch people’s lives and then to be able to share with them how much the movie meant to me as well, because I had just discovered it. So, I don’t know. It’s a wonderful opportunity for people to come together and share values and share love. And see, that’s what I think the movie gives to people. And I think it’s so great that Paramount brings out a new DVD every year to celebrate that. I just think it’s wonderful because it gets better and better. It’s sharper and it’s just great. It’s so wonderful, it’s like, right there. You feel like you’re a part of that film.
CS: There was talk of a sequel that was set to release back in 2015 that would’ve ultimately focused on your character. What ultimately happened to that project?
Grimes: Well, I don’t know. It was a great project and I think it would’ve been a great story. It was a follow-up — a rest of the story sort of thing. And I thought that was great. I thought it was well done. But you know, legal things and all kinds of things tied things up, so some things never happen. But there’s still hope. They’re still hoping that it will happen. You never know.
CS: When you watch It’s a Wonderful Life, what is the one thing that that film does that resonates with you personally?
Grimes: Well, I tend to get all caught up in the world and daily activities and the traumas and everything that happens in life. And I need to refocus and I know that. And It’s a Wonderful Life brings my feet back and kind of brings all that scattered energy that’s all around. It’s the one force that makes me feel more positive and gives me more energy to face whatever we have to face as human beings right now. It’s a wonderful medication for that because it heals the spirit. It heals the soul and it gives us hope. And I definitely recommend that as medicine for 2020.
CS: We need this movie more than ever. That’s for sure.
Grimes: Yes, we do.
CS: You talked about having a friendship with Jimmy Stewart. What was he like off-screen?
Grimes: He was George Bailey in real life. He was a man who did things for his fellow men, and he didn’t need to be patted on the back. He didn’t need to have publicity for that. He was a gentle soul. He had morals. He had values. And you know, he didn’t get married until he was 38 and he stayed with Gloria and he loved her to the very end. He was a man … I had a fan — you got a minute? — who I met in New York at a fun thing we were doing with Jimmy, and he had made it possible for her to come to New York from upper New York. And she was kind of blue collared. She came down to New York City and she was so excited to meet him for the first time in her whole life. And she had been a fan of his since before he was famous. And he had done some things for her. Over the years, her husband was dying of Parkinson’s disease and they were getting ready to lose their home. And she called Jimmy and told him about it. The next day, the veteran’s hospital took him in so they didn’t have to lose their home. She knows that he was a part of that happening. And she ended up getting breast cancer. And so, she went to visit her daughter in San Francisco. This was after I had met her and she wrote me letters afterwards. And he arranged for her to come down to his house to see his rose garden. So he was in his rose garden with her. I mean, she was a devout fan. She just worshiped him. And she was in his rose garden with him. And that was in November. And in January, she got her wings. So he gave her a wonderful gift, but no one ever knows things like that. No one knew then what he did for people and how he helped them personally. He just was a great guy. And I have to say, he grew up in Indiana, Pennsylvania, this little town, and his father owned a hardware store there. And his father taught him a lot of wonderful things about morals. And I just think he was a great guy.