MSN Movies Blog

It Wasn't Always a Wonderful Life for Little Zuzu Bailey

The actress who played Jimmy Stewart's daughter in the classic film faced many challenges growing up

By DannyMiller Dec 5, 2011 6:00PM

Despite its mixed reviews when it first came out in 1946, Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” has become one of the most beloved classics in the history of the movies. It’s shown on TV every year at Christmas time and I remain incapable of switching the channel (or stopping the tears) if I happen to come upon Jimmy Stewart’s desperate George Bailey struggling to get through hard times and find a reason not to end it all. When a bumbling guardian angel named Clarence, trying to earn his wings, shows George all the lives he has touched without realizing it and how the people in his town would have fared if George had never been born, George is finally able to put his problems in perspective and return to his adoring wife Mary (Donna Reed) and their four children.


The youngest girl in the Bailey brood, little Zuzu, was played by six-year-old Karolyn Grimes. It was Zuzu who gets the last word, uttering one of the film's most memorable lines. Cradled in Jimmy Stewart’s arms next to the Baileys Christmas tree, surrounded by all the townspeople who had arrived in the nick of time to save the family from financial ruin, Zuzu hears a bell and remarks, “Teacher says every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings!”


Sadly for Karolyn Grimes, after completing “It’s a Wonderful Life,” she did not experience the loving community that surrounded her movie family. As reported in The Washington Post, Grimes’ life seemed more like something out of scary Potterville (what the Baileys’ town of Bedford Falls would have become had George never been born). The little girl’s ill mother died when she was 14 and her father died in a car crash the following year. A court ruling sent her from Los Angeles to Osceola, Missouri, to live with an aunt and uncle she later described as “nutso religious fanatics.” Grimes’ new caregivers were mean, dour people who had zero interest in supporting her acting career.


Bad luck seemed to follow Karolyn. Although she married and had seven children of her own, her first husband died in a hunting accident and one of her sons committed suicide when he was 18. After her second husband died of cancer, Grimes found herself in as bad a shape financially as her movie father had been in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” It was only then that she fully understood the message of the film.


Although she never even saw “It’s a Wonderful Life” until she was in her 30s (her relatives told her it would be too “prideful” to watch her own films!), these days Grimes travels the country to introduce it at screenings, sign autographs, and meet with fans.  She thinks the film is just as relevant now as it’s ever been. “Think of all the people out of work, losing their homes, hungry kids worried about their parents,” she said earlier this week.


To honor the film’s 65th anniversary, the Los Angeles City Council officially declared December 3 “It’s a Wonderful Life” Day. Tom LaBonge, the sponsoring city council member noted how the evil banker in the film, Mr. Potter, is a fitting metaphor for our times. “Look, we’ve got ‘Occupy Wall Street’ demonstrators right here in front of city hall,” LaBonge said, “we need more George Baileys in our world!”


The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will present a newly struck print of the film at its Linwood Dunn Theater in Hollywood on December 9 and three days later at its Academy Theater at Lighthouse International in New York City. Karolyn Grimes will be present at that screening, along with the Oscar winning visual effects supervisor and sound designer, Craig Barron and Ben Burtt. In Seneca Falls, NY, the small town on which Capra based the fictional Bedford Falls, there will be an “It’s a Wonderful Life” festival from December 9-11.


After those celebrations, Grimes will fly to London to promote the film. Karolyn will talk about her career as a child actress. In all, she made 16 films including “The Bishop’s Wife” with Loretta Young, Cary Grant, and David Niven, and “Rio Grande” with John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara. The money she earned at the studios was important to her family. Her father didn’t earn much as a manager at Safeway and her mom suffered from early-onset Alzheimer’s. After she was sent to live in Missouri, she was cut off from all her friends and movie acquaintances.


“My life has never been wonderful,” she noted. “And maybe that’s what makes the film so important for me and a lot of other people. Jimmy Stewart’s 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.’ Gosh, it makes me cry.”


The film continues to inspire new generations. Let’s take another look at Zuzu’s big moment.

Dec 5, 2011 8:54PM
First time I saw it was when Ted Turner had the rights to it and played it 24 hours straight on TNT like they do 'Christmas Story' now. I watched it over and over, couldn't get enough of it. I think NBC has the rights to it now. My alltime favorite movie. If people today only had the kind of compassion showed at the end of that movie. You all have a Merry Christmas.
Dec 5, 2011 6:28PM
i've had the privilege of meeting and talking with Carolyn in Puyallup at the victorian country christmas, i've bought two of her books, a dvd, just so she could sign it for me and an ornament for my aunt who is now deceased.  She is a delightful woman and very interesting to talk with.  Would love to go to her reading of twas a night before Christmas up at snoqualmie, but it's too close to christmas for me, but if you have a chance go and meet with her, you won't be disappointed.
Dec 5, 2011 8:59PM

That is one of my favorite movies. Material things are nice and in an instant they can all be gone. God, family and being helpful to others are what I value. Gods will be done.

Dec 5, 2011 8:42PM

This film makes us count our blessings. For many of us have been, or are now going through rough times. Without the help of donations from good people in the community, the holidays would be sad indeed. I hope everyone has a Merry Christmas!!

Dec 5, 2011 6:32PM
This is a good story. I hope the actress is doing well now. Life is something for sure. One never ever knows what is going to happen next.
Dec 5, 2011 8:38PM
Fantastic movie. Watch every year on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. I've seen this movie many times and there are STILL several scenes that bring a tear to my eyes because of the the emotion's involved in the story. They don't make them like this anymore!
Dec 5, 2011 6:52PM

This movie has been my all time favorite Christmas Movie.  I always have love Jimmy Stewart.  I live within 45 minutes of where he was born and I think it is fantastic what Karolyn is doing and I take my hat off too her.  Good Luck and I hope and pray that good fortune comes to you the rest of your life. 


Dec 5, 2011 6:59PM
i live near seneca falls, n.y. & have always wanted to go & see her. obviously this movie is always ranked one of the top movies ever made. too bad all you cold hearted people don't get it, obviously you come from a  'privileged' family. if you never experience hard times you'll never understand what art & music is all about. you really don't have to believe in angels or the after life either. this movie has so many messages for all facets of ones life. i'll keep on believing & hope & pray karolyn grimes lives a very peaceful rest of her life...... :) !!   
Dec 5, 2011 6:50PM
I love "It's A Wonderful Life" when my life is good. And when Christmas comes and my life isn't so great, I love it all the more. When I see it I always think of something I've done, even if it's really small, that did matter to someone else. So I thank God for the chance to make a difference and I feel better.
Dec 5, 2011 8:12PM
Jimmy Stewart couldn't have made a bad movie if he'd tried. Wonderful movies like this aren't possible in today's world. Firstly there aren't the actors and actresses of their caliber around anymore. Secondly, today's movies have to be all sex and violence.
Dec 5, 2011 7:14PM
The bottom line is when we are brought to our knees and everyone abondons us, at these darkest times we realize God is there and that because of this we are never alone in our struggles.
Dec 5, 2011 6:53PM
It would be to prideful to watch her own films ? What kind of a statement is that to a child of fourteen. This lady has known sorrow most of her life.Most people who has went thru what she has would not look at the world so kindly. Then they cut her ties off completely from the people she knows and would not even support her in her dreams when she needed them to most definitely sounds a little fanatic to me. I wish her the best going forward and may the future be kinder then the past.
Dec 5, 2011 7:16PM
the negitive people that posted on this must be bankers or stock brokers this is a great movie everyone should watch MERRY CHRISTMAS
Dec 5, 2011 9:20PM

It's a wonderful life is one of my favorite movies!  My real name is James Stewart.  I wanted  to give my first son the name of George Bailey but my first wife didnt go for it!  I instead have a golden lab named "George Bailey"  I have a black lab named (Clairence"  This movie really hits home and makes people think of what truely is important in life!


Dec 5, 2011 7:12PM
We love you Zu-Zu! Merry Christmas. You've earned YOUR wings.
PLEASE don't EVEN compare the character of George Bailey to Occupy Wall Street protesters.

George Bailey was a man not afraid of HARD work. Where circumstance directed his fate, he was consistent in his philosophy to help the working poor. NOT to be confused with students that want their college loans excused, free this and free that.

Dec 5, 2011 6:48PM
If she described her relatives as "nutso religious fanatics," then I'm sure thats what they were. "Be Patient," you don't know what it was like living with people like that. She's not the type of person to say something like that for the heck of it. Sometimes its worse when you loose your family and have to go to Missouri to live with people who instill fear and judgement instead of love and understanding.
Dec 5, 2011 6:49PM
This is my all time favorite movie. Christmas just is never the same unless we see it. Sad how life turns out for child stars. I hope Karolyn can find the gratitude she seeks for this wonderful movie and the warmness and appreciation we all have for it. It always makes me think about how fortunate we are with what we have.
Dec 5, 2011 6:44PM
How interesting!  I was just watching this movie over the weekend (I remember seeing it first when I was a little girl on my 13" b&w tv) and actually was thinking "I wonder what happened to all of those children in real life?"  Now I know.  It's sad to think about all of the horrible events in her life, but she is proof that one can rise above it.  Kudos to her. Would LOVE to meet her!!
Dec 5, 2011 7:31PM
This is my all-time favorite Christmas movie, and perhaps my all-time movie, period! I can't get enough of it...and my Christmas certainly would not be complete without seeing it at least 5 times. Karolyn, I am so sorry you have not always had a wonderful life, but I am SO glad to know that you appreciate the message of the movie now more than ever. I pray for all the best for you in your life from now on, and I hope you find happiness, peace, and everything you need and want. I also hope you find the true meaning of Christmas -- Christ Himself -- if you haven't already! Blessings to you, Zuzu!
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