Page last updated at 09:10 GMT, Friday, 19 December 2008

Child star Grimes' Wonderful Life

Karolyn Grimes was the child star of classic Christmas tear-jerker It's A Wonderful Life.

It's A Wonderful Life
George Bailey (Stewart) is very close to his little girl Zuzu (Grimes)

In Frank Capra's movie, the selfless George Bailey - played by James Stewart - is saved from suicide by an angel who shows him just how much worse off the world would have been if he had never existed.

Grimes was Bailey's six-year-old daughter Zuzu and uttered the now immortal closing line: "Teacher says every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings."

Her Hollywood career was brought to an end in her early teens with the death of her parents, which led to her being sent away to live with her "mean" aunt.

She became a medical technician but experienced more tragedy with the death of several close family members, including the suicide of her son.

But since being "rediscovered" by a journalist in the 1980s, she has travelled the world as an unofficial ambassador for It's A Wonderful Life - a film, she has since discovered, that has brought comfort to many a person, including herself.

What drives you to keep talking about and promoting the film?

I never get tired of it. The people I see, the reaction they have to me and this film is so heart-warming. They love it and have embraced it in their lives and family traditions. So when they meet me, it's like Santa Claus in a way because there are very few of us left who were in the film. I celebrate Christmas with so many people every year in their homes.

The film acts as a tonic to lots of people who need their spirits lifting, doesn't it?

Yes and I've heard lots of stories from people saying just that. This is why I feel it is sort of my mission. People talk to me about how this movie has made a difference to their lives in a positive way.

Karolyn Grimes
Karolyn Grimes has her own It's A Wonderful Life museum

You have had more than your fair share of tragedy too haven't you?

Yes, but everyone does. I am not alone. But the fact that I have had that makes people feel more comfortable talking to me about their own lives. I was at a show recently and met a woman whose husband had, just four weeks before, taken his life. Her daughter made her come to see me. She was literally shaken up and finding it hard to deal with the guilt and what ifs. But it's helpful to know someone has been in your shoes and you can take comfort from that.

Can you think of another film that has had such an impact?

Not at all. It was voted the most inspirational film of all time by the American Film Institute. People watch it all the year round, not just at Christmas, and that reflects the power the movie has. It's a privilege for me to have been part of that.

Are fans of all different ages?

Yes, there are lots of children who are fans and they grow up with it and watch it in the family. Then there are kids who are exposed to it in college in their drama class and they are hardcore fans from then on. It touches all ages. It's just part of the Christmas celebration.

The film was not that successful when it came out. Why do you think that was?

It was marketed as a romantic comedy and if you had gone there to get a lot of laughs that wouldn't have happened. Also, it was not supposed to be a Christmas movie but for release in March 1947. Sinbad the Sailor was to be the studio's Christmas movie but wasn't ready. But It's a Wonderful Life came out on 20 December and that was too late.

It's a Wonderful Life
James Stewart was 'just the nicest man'

It was the first movie Capra and James Stewart did together after World War II and that year the mindset of the people was completely different. Yes, they wanted to be entertained but not to have to think. The movie that won the Oscar that year was The Best Years of Our Lives, about soldiers coming home and readjusting to civilian life.

Then, in the 70s, somebody didn't renew the copyright so the movie became public domain so started to be shown all over TV. People were exposed to it and found this wonderful treasure.

What are your stand-out memories of making the film?

It's not profound because I was a little kid, but what instantly comes to mind is the huge Christmas tree because in my house where I was an only child we had a tree that was only two feet tall and stood on a table.

And then there was the snow. Even though it wasn't real I thought it was the best stuff ever because in Hollywood I had never experienced it. And I loved being with the other children on the set.

Was there any envy because you were the most important of the film's children?

No, because at the time nobody knew my famous line would become so memorable and significant. Their names were Petey, Tommy, Janie, normal names and then there was Zuzu. It came from a product that was made in the early 1900s and was a kind of ginger snap. In real life I was named after Caro syrup - so I am one sweet thing!

What was James Stewart like?

He was just the nicest man and very natural. He just acted himself and he really worked on a chemistry between us and it really worked. He was gentle, kind and patient.

In about 1980, someone looked for me and others were asking him what had happened to that little girl. He got in touch and started sending people my way and we rekindled our friendship.

Now I am on the advisory board for his museum in Indiana, Pennsylvania and I feel privileged as he was wonderful man.

It touches all ages. It's just part of the Christmas celebration
Karolyn Grimes on the power of It's A Wonderful Life

And how was Frank Capra?

He was very meticulous but he was always very kind and he always got down on his knees and looked into our eyes as children so that we would know exactly what he wanted us to do. And being natural was what he wanted. If we messed up a line it didn't matter, we didn't have to do the script verbatim as other directors required and I think it really flowed well for that.

Were there any funny incidents making the film?

For the wrap party we had a picnic and it was the best. They took a picture of us with one of those panoramic cameras because there were so many of us. But Capra and Stewart ran round all the others and so ended up in both ends of the picture. I still have it.

Did you miss Hollywood after you left?

For the first year I thought I would die because it was such a culture shock but in the end the people in this town where I went were lovely to me because they knew I was living in a horrible situation. I had true friendships. I decided not to go back to Hollywood to that artificial environment.

Do you have a lot of memorabilia?

I have original lobby and insert cards and stills. I have an angel but I am not supposed to as mother said I would get into trouble. I have a private museum separate from my house with lots of stuff in it including an original Zuzu doll from the advertising.

How are you spending Christmas?

I always do It's A Wonderful Life things right up until Christmas. My family don't like that much. It used to be all about Christmas here at home but I don't do that now. It's more like Christmas with the world. I love it.

Karolyn Grimes was talking to BBC entertainment reporter Rebecca Thomas. It's A Wonderful Life: Collector's Edition is out now on DVD.

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