Submitted by Matthew Sheehan on Wed, 01/08/2014
There are certain staples of the Christmas season. Family and friends gathering for joyful parties, feasts with food o' plenty and films that touch, warm and brighten the holidays. We've seen many movies with ranging tones--from "White Christmas" to "The Ref"--bring smiles to the masses. But before Ted Turner gave the world 24 hours of back-to-back "A Christmas Story," there was one film that still thrives today, on constant rotation leading up to and through December 25 every year: "It's A Wonderful Life."
Known for it's distinctively American twist on Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," singular director Frank Capra didn't get to see his film become as wildly popular as it has become. Upon it's initial release, a wide berth of critics dismissed it, saying that Capra had lost his touch with the audience. What also hurt was stiff box office competition couldn't even allow the film to barely break even, earning enough money to place 26th in box office earnings out of over 400 releases for that year, just ahead of another soon-to-be Christmas treasure--"Miracle on 34th Street."
However, as the film collected dust somewhere on a shelf, people slowly began to discover and truly appreciate the message Capra and his cast wanted to express, and critics began to back it as well. The AFI has recognized it on several of their themed 'Best of...' lists (11th on 100 Greatest American Films of All-Time, 3rd Fantasy Film and the characters of George Bailey and Mr. Potter each placed as the no. 9 hero and no. 6 villain, respectively), and, in 1990, joined the preserved films of the National Film Registry by the US Library of Congress as it had been deemed culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."
Through the highs and lows the film has gone through--ironic given the film's plotline that adds the 'What if?' element had the film been a beloved success from the start--"It's A Wonderful Life" has thrived on the famous line, "Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings." While the angel known as Clarence first says it, it is George Bailey's daughter Zuzu and her delivery that is most used, referenced and remembered. The young child actress held by her film father Jimmy Stewart is Karolyn Grimes, who now goes across the country--and even has her own fan club--to present the film at various theaters with Q&As, signed merchandise and photo ops. Just last month, Grimes made her annual holiday season appearance at Hollywood Blvd. Theater in Woodridge, Ill. She was gracious enough to sit down with Hollywood Snitch after Matt rewatched it fresh to discuss "It's A Wonderful Life" and it's impact both on society, pop culture and her own life
It had been a while since I'd seen this, probably a good 3-4 years. Since then, I've gotten married, and this is the first time the ending has left me choked up. Maybe the fact that there's more family and children somewhere down the road it why I felt a little teary-eyed.
Yes! You're beginning to identify with it.
I did want to get a question about the bell ringing and angels getting their wings. Even though you're not the only one to say it, Zuzu's take is the one most referred to and used. Has that come to define or affect your life?
Absolutely! Everyone remembers this weird name Zuzu and this line. So in 1980, when I was asked "Are you that girl Zuzu?" In the following weeks, I started getting fanmail. I started thinking, "This is something really special." So I watched the movie, and it was special. I saw what they were doing. It's a wonderful story that is uplifting and inspirational. It touches everybody's lives because who doesn't goes through life without bumps in the road, so to speak. Plus, whose dreams really ever do come true? It doesn't happen, most of the time. You get a chance to look at your own life and realize you've touched lives. What you are is really good. You've got family, you've got love, you've got friends. You realize how wonderful your life really is. The movie does that. We all have flaws, and everyone matters.
You spoke of the tiny, hidden bits in the film during the introduction to the film I was at. And speaking of subliminal messages, I read that Frank Capra was quite a conservative Republican who campaigned against Franklin D. Roosevelt, and I noticed something on my own while watching it this time. On the wall of the office of Bailey Bros. Building and Loan, there is a photograph of Herbert Hoover, a Democrat whose presidency was mired by Americans forced out of their homes and into shacks during the start of the Great Depression, with one such gathering of shacks was dubbed Hooverville. Plus, Mr. Potter is in a wheelchair with very much an FDR look to him.
I didn't notice that! Just like Pottersville [in the film]. That is very interesting! The president of my fan club will love to hear that.
There's also a line Mr. Potter says, "Ideals with common sense can ruin this town." That is something else I picked up on. Is there something new that you pick up on each time you watch it?
Sometimes. For instance, when George and Mary are giving wine and bread to the Martini's who are moving into a new home, the Wainwrights stop by and ask Mary and George to go with them. Mary then rubs her tummy and looks up at George. That night is when she tells George of her being pregnant. There are tiny, little things [Capra] put in that movie throughout. It's amazing. He was such a perfectionist.
As a child on the set of "it's A Wonderful Life," are there any memories that stand out of Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed or Frank Capra?
I take away from what I saw as a little kid was that it was fun. Frank Capra was a guy who was very gentle. The stars were very nice. It was a very comfortable set and stress-free. Capra was very much a family man. He was a genius with a heart of gold.
There are many movies for Christmastime that carry special meanings for many different people. What does "It's A Wonderful Life" mean to you?
Well, it's my livelihood. It's my favorite time of the year. Christmas has always been my favorite time of the year, but what makes it so special to me is the people. I love people who love this movie. Their eyes fill with tears because they love the movie so much. It's such a part of their lives and so much in their hearts. Who couldn't flourish under that for [the holidays]? It has touched their lives.
Top photo courtesy of NBC Universal. Bottom photo courtesy of Matt Sheehan