It’s three minutes to eleven on a dark and silent October night in Copenhagen. No sound of cars can be heard from the street below, just the hiss of the wind by my window. I’m about to dial a direct line to American child actress Karolyn ’Zuzu’ Grimes, who famously played George Bailey’s daughter Zuzu in Frank Capra’s 1946 masterpiece, It’s A Wonderful Life.
This – the ultimate yuletide film – is the father of all Christmas flicks, beaten only to the core by the first Lethal Weapon movie. Just kiddin’…or was I?
For those of you unaware, it’s the movie that Dylan McKay (Beverly Hills, 90210) watches, when he is all alone on Christmas Eve. It’s the movie that the McCallisters watch in Paris and Miami, while Kevin is Home Alone or living the dream in NYC. The Griswold kids too, watch it in their room, while taking a break from the family stride, and their much too Christmas obsessed dad, Clark Griswold (National Lampoon’s Vacation).
Literally speaking, it’s the Christmas film, within Christmas films.
Today, as some sort of Christmas ambassador for the movie, Karolyn sets out on one pilgrimage after another, all over the world, year after year, to show her love and support for the people to whom the film has meant so much, and still does. The movie that still gathers families around the flatscreen every year, and will continue to do so, for many more generations to come.
Therefore, delighted – if not a little starstruck – and with trembling voice, I utter my first humble words to the woman we’ve all come to know and love as Zuzu Bailey, and thank her for doing the interview:
I’m very happy to do it, I’m just glad that the people in Denmark enjoy the film.
We sure do. It’s shown here every year on TV, and in some cinemas as well.
Oh, my gosh.
You must come over for a screening sometime.
Well, that would be a blast.
It is quite an honor to speak to you on the phone. So happy you agreed to do this.
Thank you very much, I’m very pleased to be able to do it. I’ve been to your country, and it is beautiful and I love it. I visited Legoland.
Ever been to Copenhagen?
Yes I have, I was in the movie Hans Christian Andersen (1952), so I had to go to Copenhagen.
Apart from It’s A Wonderful Life, which one is your all time favorite Christmas film?
I’d have to say The Bishop’s Wife. I love it.
Aaah, and you’re in that one as well (so is Cary Grant).
I am, it’s a beautiful story.
When did you last watch it?
I watch it every year on Christmas Eve.
If I say, Cary Grant vs James Stewart?
Well, charisma, elegance, those thing would go to Cary Grant. But I think being a real George Bailey, the real down to earth man, a man that really touched life, I would have to say James Stewart, because he really did. A war hero, who did wonderful things and was very humble, he loved a persons soul, and he was that way.
Must be amazing to have been in movies with those people?
Oh it was, and another thing… when years later, after the movie was shown so much and got more exposure, in 1980 Jimmy Stewart had one of his secretaries look me up, because people had been asking him about what happened to the little girl, Zuzu. So he sent her out to find me, and she found me in the middle of America, and we reunited our friendship, Jimmy Stewart and I.
Must have been quite a friendship?
Yes, it was.
What is your most vivid memory of him?
Oh, how tall he was, six feet four.
He sure looks tall on the screen.
He was way up there, and I’m always on his back and on his arm. When we were in the movie we always ran up and down the stairs and I would hang on, and I’d like to say that he was very gentle and patient.
Has there been any offers of getting back into acting?
I get about a script a month.
Have you ever considered doing any of them?
If they do a sequel to, It’s A Wonderful Life, I might do it. Also there has been a few inderpendent movies I’d like to see happen. A person that I would love to play is Zuzu, because that’s me, and I like to play me. I am Zuzu, and I come back as an angel, and I straighten things out.
It makes me think of that very famous line of yours. “Look, Daddy. Teacher says, every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings.” Which begs the question, do you believe in angels, Karolyn?
Absolutely, ABSOLUTELY! 100%
Next year, It’s A Wonderful Life will be celebrating its seventieth anniversary. Anything big cooking?
We have a festival every year in Seneca Falls, New York.
(It’s has been speculated that director Frank Capra got his inspiration for the movie’s fictional town, Bedford Falls, from here.)
I’m very excited about the anniversary.
Wow! I need to come over for that.
You should, it’s gonna be big.
I can imagine. You mentioned the movie, Hans Christian Andersen from 1952 (starring Danny Kaye). Would you mind telling us a bit about that?
I play the match girl… she says, before singing, ’matches, come and buy matches.’
Do you like H.C Andersen? Have you got a favorite fairytale of his?
Well, that’d really have to be The Match Girl, she laughs.
He was quite brilliant.
He didn’t have a very happy life, fell in love with the wrong person. I’ve been to his childhood house.
Oh yeah, in Odense.
Yep, been over there.
After that he moved to Copenhagen trying to find work as an actor… but failed.
Yeah, he really didn’t have a happy life.
The conversation moves from H.C to John Wayne, and Karolyn admits that her favourite movies to make were the westerns, having played alongside Wayne in Rio Grande.
Whereabouts will you be spending Christmas holidays this year?
I get home on the 21st, I think, and I’ll be at my home in Seattle, with my family.
Have you got a favorite Christmas song?
‘White Christmas’ by Bing Crosby. I was in a movie with him as well (Blue Skies, 1946), he played my father, I have had a lot of famous dads.
You sure have… alright, that was my final question for you Zuzu, er, I mean Karolyn.
Oh, that’s ok. I don’t mind being called Zuzu.
It just flew out of my mouth…
I know, most people do. I’m not very tall, I’m still kinda short, so people just call me Zuzu.
If I make to NYC for next year’s festival, I’ll call you by the name Zuzu then.
There you go.
Again, thank you so much for your time.
My pleasure, I always enjoy talking about It’s A Wonderful Life because its touched so many lives and has made such a difference, and it has become a tradition all over the world to watch it every Christmas. It’s a special movie because it applies to yesterday, today and tomorrow, and I think it’s my honor and privilege to have been a part of that.
It makes people feel that they all make a difference, we all do… and you know, it makes us know that we matter. Each one of us matters. There is so many messages in the film, Frank Capra was a perfectionist, he did everything a certain way.
Karolyn rounds off the interview with a quote from the movie.
“All you can take with you is that which you’ve given away.”
Beautifully said, Karolyn, and nice talking to you, hopefully I’l see you in Copenhagen sometime.
I sure hope so, it’s time for me to visit Tivoli again.
I’ll be your guide.
That would be great.
Words: Anders Knudsen