“It’s a Wonderful Life,” Frank Capra’s story about redemption and a life fulfilled, bombed at the box office when it was released in early 1947.
The Christmas movie that year that became the classic of its time? “Miracle on 34th Street.”
For decades, “It’s a Wonderful Life” was largely forgotten until 1974 when Republic Pictures failed to renew its copyright protection. The film lapsed into the public domain, meaning anyone could show the film without obtaining permission or paying royalties. Its ubiquity on broadcast TV over the next two decades fueled its popularity and gave the film a second life.
Since 1994, NBC has had exclusive broadcast rights to the film after Republic Pictures proved it owned the original story and the music. “It’s a Wonderful Life” will air on Dec. 4 and 24, both at 8 p.m. ET.
Now it’s hard to imagine American life without the film. It was ranked No. 20 of the 100 greatest films in 2007 by the American Film Institute. Capra and stars Donna Reed and Jimmy Stewart in interviews said it was their favorite film they ever worked on.
It’s also a treasure that keeps on giving for living cast members of that film Jimmy Hawkins, who played 4-year-old Tommy Bailey, and Karolyn Grimes, the 6-year-old Zuzu Bailey, who uttered the famous line, “Look, Daddy. Teacher says, ‘Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.’”
The movie, though, was just a footnote in their lives until the late 1970s.
“I started hearing more about it then,” said Hawkins in a recent Zoom interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution to promote the 75th anniversary Blu-Ray DVD release, which came out Nov. 16. “People were holding trivia parties. I thought, ‘Wow! This suddenly got big!’” He remained an actor in the 1950s and 1960s and worked with Reed on “The Donna Reed Show” from 1958 to 1966.
Grimes got out of show business in her teens after her mother died from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease and her father was killed in a car accident. Her life was suffused with tragedy. Her first husband died in a hunting accident. One of her children committed suicide. And her second husband died of cancer. She didn’t even see “It’s a Wonderful Life” until she was 40 years old.
“I was enthralled with the messages from that movie when I first saw it,” Grimes said. “I knew then why it was very special and I could understand why I started getting fan mail and people wanted to have interviews with me.”
Back in 1980, she had no idea how journalists even tracked her down because her name had changed and there was no Google back in the day. But the publicity enabled her to reunite with Stewart and Reed, and Grimes became the unofficial ambassador of the movie.
Over the past four decades, she has attended countless screenings, benefits and conventions. She helped create a museum for the film and returns each December to Seneca Falls, New York, the model for the movie’s small-town Bedford Falls, for the “It’s a Wonderful Life” Festival.
For Grimes, the film’s message is timeless: “How each person’s life touches another and we’re given an opportunity to make a difference. That’s so important.”
She even likes the colorized version, which is available on the DVD.
“You can see so much more in the background you can’t see in the black-and-white version,” she said. “Paramount makes it really crisp and beautiful.”
“Some people don’t like black-and-white so whatever it takes to get the message out, that’s fine,” Hawkins added.
Hawkins said people have come up to both of them and said watching the film kept them from killing themselves. And even at age 79, he said he feels like he’s four all over again when he thinks about the movie.
“When people ask us questions about being on the set, you click back into it,” Hawkins said. “It’s so vivid. It seems like a million years ago or just yesterday.”
He said when he joined “The Donna Reed Show,” Reed told him crew members on the set of “It’s a Wonderful Life” had a nickname for him: Rip Van Winkle.
“With all this commotion going on, lights, cameras, I’d fall asleep,” he said. “When it was time to shoot, they’d wake me up and I’d be all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed!”
Hawkins also bragged years later that he had won the watermelon eating contest at the wrap party. His secret? Swallowing the watermelon seeds whole. “Spitting out seeds takes time,” Hawkins said. “I just kept going!” The evidence was captured on film and shown years later.
The movie itself is pretty dark on multiple levels and Grimes thinks people, coming out of World War II, weren’t quite ready for it yet. Stewart himself wasn’t sure he wanted to even act again after flying naval planes over Germany but, as Hawkins said, actor Lionel Barrymore, who plays the miserly Mr. Potter in the film, convinced Stewart to do it.
“The film is like the cream in the coffee,” Hawkins said. “It just rises to the top.”