Tag Archives: Frank Capra

Zuzu, Lost and Found

Karolyn Grimes was a six-year-old movie veteran when she was hand-picked by director Frank Capra for the part of Zuzu Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. Of all four of the Bailey children, Zuzu was the most significant: it is the discovery in his pocket of Zuzu’s petals (from a dying flower she had beside her bed) that makes George Bailey realise that he is back in the real world, to his ecstatic relief. And it is Zuzu who utters the immortal, penultimate line: “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.”

Grimes, now 81 has vivid memories of making the film. “I had a blast, ” she says. “There were other kids on the set – which made it fun, and the snow had a big impact on me too: I was born and raised in Hollywood so I had never seen snow and although this wasn’t real snow, it was close enough.”

During her short career, Grimes played alongside various leading men – John Wayne in Rio Grande, Cary Grant in The Bishop’s Wife (another Christmas classic), Bing Crosby in Blue Skies – but she had a particular affinity with James Stewart.

“He had a lot of patience with me,” she says, “and always helped me if I messed up a line.” Frank Capra also had a way with children. “He didn’t yell at us. Some directors were very fierce, but he’d get down on his knees and talk to us at eye level. He let us be natural. You didn’t have to stick to the script word for word and that gave us kids a feeling of relaxation. He and Jimmy Stewart had a special rapport and played a lot of practical jokes – there was a real family atmosphere on that set.”

Unfortunately, the rest of Grimes’s childhood was anything but wonderful. Her movie career ended abruptly in her teens when her parents died: her mother died of early-onset Alzheimer’s and her father was killed in a road accident just a year later.

“The court in Hollywood shipped me to a little town in the midwest to live with my uncle,” she explains. She trained as a medical technician and was raising her children when, one day, somebody knocked at her door and asked if she was Zuzu.

“It was a writer from a local newspaper, and they published an article about me. Then another one published something and pretty soon it was picked up by the wires. Then it was official – they had ‘found’ Zuzu.” This was the early 1980s, and It’s a Wonderful Life was about to undergo another boost – through its video release.

“I was aware of its increasing popularity, but I didn’t think much about it until I got my first fan mail. Then I got more and more – I was shocked. I had all the movie memorabilia in the basement and every time someone came to interview me, I’d drag it all up the stairs. Finally I thought, well it looks like this thing is here to stay. so I made a room and put the stuff on the walls, and in cabinets, and I now have a little museum!”

The other Bailey kids were duly tracked down too, and they were all reunited with one another by phone. Then, in 1993, they were brought together for a country-wide tour of personal appearances – 750,000 fans turned out to greet them on Sunset Boulevard.

These days, Grimes spends most of her time in the run-up to Christmas on such tours – her grandchildren call her Grandma Zuzu. “I’ve been on the road with It’s a Wonderful Life ever since. It’s really a second career.”

So why does she think it’s so well-loved? “Because there’s a message in it for everyone. We’ve all gone through adversity. I didn’t really watch it until 1990 when I lost my son. I was kinda compelled to watch it when I went to It’s a Wonderful Life parties, and that’s when I found the magic. Now I see it maybe 20 times a year. I enjoy watching it with people, and seeing their reactions, and I hear amazing stories about how this movie has affected their lives in such positive ways. I think that men especially love this film because they can identify with George in so many ways.

“For a lot of men, their dreams never come true. And I also think that one of the great fears that men havers that they won’t be able to support their families. They live with that almost continually, so they all identify with George.”

Perhaps the biggest thrill to come out of all of this for Grimes was the chance to be reunited with her screen father late in his life. “When people started looking for Zuzu, they would write to Jimmy Stewart and he would send them in my direction. We had a reunion in 1990, in New York. He and I spent the whole day together. There was a woman who had been his fan for 50-something years, and he had made it possible for her to come to New York. She met us at his hotel and she brought this huge scrapbook that she’d kept over the years of everything he’d ever sent her. We sat down and went thought he scrapbook and relived his life, page by page. It was really quite a wonderful experience. It’s a lovely memory to have of him.”

  • This interview was conducted in 2006

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It’s Still a Wonderful Life!

This week marks the 75th anniversary of the most cherished Christmas movie of all time – It’s a Wonderful Life. Frank Capra’s life-affirming fable of a suicidal everyman whose guardian angel shows him that the world would have been a poorer place without him is now regarded as the most uplifting of all feel-good films. For its legions of fans, it is as essential a part of the festive season as carols, cards and carving the turkey. These days, most people have heard of the film, even if they haven’t seen it, and many cinemas and TV channels screen the movie year-in, year-out as a Christmas tradition. Yet, at one point, this classic was in serious danger of sinking into obscurity.

When It’s a Wonderful Life premiered in New York on December 21, 1946, it was a major event heralded by big spreads in newspapers and magazines. The movie was the first film made by both its director, Frank Capra, and its charismatic star, James Stewart, since they had returned from serving in the Second World War, and many of the reviews were glowing. One reviewer wrote that it “melted the barnacles off my heart and left me feeling young and full of ideals again.”

Capra, who had felt that the story was a gem from the outset, was entitled to be disappointed, then, when the film failed to live up to expectations at the box office. Although movie lore has it that It’s a Wonderful Life was a flop when it first came out, it actually performed quite respectably – just not as well as anyone had hoped. Telegrams flooded in to Capra congratulating him on the film. Joan Crawford wrote: “Just saw It’s a Wonderful Life. It was magnificent. Bless you.” And William Holden’s said: “Thanks for making us stop to think that it is wonderful.” Nevertheless, at the box office the takings were unspectacular and its failure to win any of the Oscars for which it was nominated stuck in Capra’s craw.

Perhaps audiences just weren’t ready for the film. Released just two months after the end of the Nuremberg trials and with the horrors of the war still fresh in most minds, It’s a Wonderful Life – for all that it is often dismissed as sentimental “Capra-corn” – was, in its darkest moments, considerably darker than the usual Hollywood fare. James Stewart’s character, George Bailey, is literally on the brink of suicide (he’s poised to jump into the river) because he feels he has let his family and friends down. In 1946, movies didn’t entertain the notion of suicide, let alone show the hero attempting it, on Christmas Eve of all days.

Just as shocking, from the 1946 point of view, was the scene in which Bailey gets drunk and, sobbing into his double bourbon, begs God for help. Movie-goers had seen James Stewart playing a champagne-burping drunk in The Philadelphia Story, but here he was playing a man driven to drink by gut-wrenching, raw despair.

In the run-up to the film’s release, Capra said: “People are numb after the catastrophic events of the past ten to 15 years. I would not attempt to reach them mentally through a picture, only emotionally.” And he certainly put his audience on an emotional rollercoaster with this one: the plunges into the pits of despair are more than balanced out (if not, like the horrors of childbirth, blotted out) by the ecstatic climax of the film – the wild jubilation of the hero as he realises the value of his life, the overwhelming outpouring of support and love, and the final message of “No man is a failure who has friends”.

The story behind the film echoes the “second chances” theme of the movie itself. Ironically, it was television which, in the early 1950s was blamed for wiping out cinemas audiences, which gradually came to be the film’s guardian angel. TV kept the film in circulation and introduced successive generations to its delights. It developed a cult following, and, by the late 1970s, converts in America – where it was shown much more often than here – were holding It’s a Wonderful Life parties. Watching it became an event; it was one to watch in company and preferably during the festive season.

The film’s second life was also the result of the copyright lapsing in 1973. It was such a neglected movie, and had been passed around among so many different companies, that it was allowed to slip into the public domain. This meant that not only could TV stations show it for nothing, but that clips from it could be pinched by filmmakers and used in their movies by way of homage – or to boost the feel-good factor of their own films. These tantalising snippets helped to pique the interest of viewers who were starting to hear about this quirky festive film. It was only in the mid-1980s, as the video took off that It’s a Wonderful Life took its place as a mainstream classic.

Of course, the main reasons for the film’s longevity and popularity are there for all to see in the two hours of screen time. It’s an inspired and daring blend of comedy, fantasy and tragedy. It appeals to children and adults alike. It boasts a tour-de-force performance by James Stewart and a supporting cast of such unforgettable, beautifully nailed, characters as his hapless guardian angel, Clarence Oddbody (Henry Travers), his loving wife, Mary (Donna Reed), his hapless uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell), his Scrooge-like nemesis, Mr Potter (Lionel Barrymore), and the kind old pharmacist, Mr Gower (HB Warner). It offers hope and it restores or reinforces our faith in our fellow man. Now in its eighth decade, and better loved than ever, It’s a Wonderful Life is proof positive that second chances are always worth taking. Attaboy Capra!

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Christmas Crackers, Hollywood-style

Strangely for something with as much sentimental potential as Christmas, there is only a handful of really classic Christmas movies. Yet, every year, this buff draws up a list of Christmas movies to watch in the run-up to the big day – and every year she fails miserably to get through them all.

The viewing itinerary usually kicks off with a little-known 1945 comedy called The Cheaters, which is getting a rare screening on Channel 4 this weekend. With a screwball cast that includes the elephantine Eugene Pallette and the twittery Billie Burke (best remembered as Glinda from The Wizard of Oz), it’s about a family of hard-up socialites who – in order to impress their daughter’s rich suitor – take in the down-and-out Joseph Schildkraut over Christmas, and learn a thing or two about dignity from him.

The Cheaters makes a nice double bill with Christmas in Connecticut (pictured), another rarely shown 1945 comedy, this time about a sophisticated magazine columnist (Barbara Stanwyck) forced to live up to her phoney reputation as a Nigella-style domestic goddess when her editor decides to spend the holidays at her country cottage.

Continuing the unwelcome guest theme, The Man Who Came to Dinner (1941) is one I always manage to squeeze in to the viewing schedule. A gloriously funny comedy, it stars Monty Woolley as the obnoxious “idol of the airwaves” Sheridan Whiteside (a character based on the humorist Alexander Woollcott) who, during a lecture tour, breaks his leg and has to spend his recovery – and Christmas – at the home of the unlucky mid-west family outside whose house he slipped.

“Christmas may be postponed this year,” says one gossip column reporting the accident which has left the Stanley family confined to the upstairs quarters of their own home. The snazzy script, packed with one-liners, is a joy and the performances – by Billie Burke (again), Bette Davis, chic glamourpuss Ann Sheridan (my Christmas style icon), the wonderful character actress Mary Wickes and Jimmy Durante (playing a character based on Harpo Marx) – are as sparkling as a glass of Christmas bubbly.

Versions – live and animated – of A Christmas Carol abound, but the most atmospheric and haunting of all is the 1951 British classic, Scrooge, with the peerless Scots actor Alastair Sim gloriously dour as the miser who claims that “Christmas is a humbug” until he is visited by three spirits on Christmas Eve and realises that friendship and love are worth more than money.

Wash that one down with the gentler The Bishop’s Wife (1947), a grown-up romantic fantasy in which Cary Grant stars as a particularly debonair and charming angel named Dudley, who answers the prayers of a stressed-out clergyman (David Niven)and his neglected wife (Loretta Young) at Christmas-time, and leaves a trail of swooning ladies in his wake.

Or settle down with family favourite Miracle on 34th Street (1947 – a vintage year for Christmas movies) in which department store Santa Edmund Gwenn has to prove that he’s the real McCoy to a non-believing seven-year-old (Natalie Wood).

Heartwarming Christmas scenes feature in plenty of movies, but the ones worth digging out in the run-up to midnight are Little Women (any of the three versions will do, as long as you have your hankies handy) and Meet Me In St Louis (1944).

Although it covers a whole year in the lives of the characters it depicts, Meet Me In St Louis easily qualifies as a festive film: not only does it embody all the sentiments of the season, but it also features Judy Garland introducing the beautiful song Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas which is guaranteed to jerk a few buckets’ worth of tears.

The hours spanning Christmas Eve and Christmas morning should be spent in the company of Clarence the Angel, Zuzu, George, Uncle Billy and everyone else in Frank Capra’s evergreen It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) – the definitive Christmas movie.

And, if by December 27, I feel that I’ve overdosed on the old Christmas spirit, Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960) will provide just the right amount of cynicism to prepare me for the horrors of Hogmanay…

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Hallowe’en Movies

It may not have inspired nearly as many movies as those cheerier, more wholesome, festivities that take place in December, but Hallowe’en rears its ugly, pumpkin, head in a rich mix of classic films – from family fantasies, such as ET, to such serious dramas as Kramer Vs Kramer.

It pops up in musicals, romantic comedies, thrillers and chillers. Just as there are certain movies which are perfect for getting us into a Christmassy mood, so there is a less well-documented collection of films which are ideal for conjuring up the spirit of Hallowe’en. Here’s my guide to essential Hallowe’en viewing.

HALLOWE’EN MUST-SEES
1. Arsenic and Old Lace (1941)
“Insanity runs in my family,” says Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) in this madcap black comedy. “In fact, it practically gallops.” And it’s all unleashed on one wild Hallowe’en night when he discovers a body stashed in the window seat of the quaint Brooklyn home shared by his beloved spinster aunts. Turns out they have a penchant for bumping off lonely old gentlemen. It’s not just Aunt Martha and Aunt Abi who are nuts; Mortimer’s brother Teddy thinks he’s Theodore Roosevelt, and his other sibling, Jonathan, is a maniac who flies into a murderous rage when anyone comments on his obvious resemblance to Boris Karloff…
This timeless classic blends high octane comedy – Cary Grant was never as hysterical as when he was playing the increasingly hysterical Mortimer – with black humour and the genuine chills provided by torture-loving Jonathan Brewster and his slimy, plastic surgeon, sidekick Dr Einstein (the ever-creepy Peter Lorre). It’s a great one to watch in the dark in the middle of the night .. Director Frank Capra followed this Hallowe’en-themed film with the greatest Christmas movie of them all – It’s a Wonderful Life.
2. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Two festive seasons for the price of one in this cult animation from the eccentric mind of Tim Burton, a magician of the macabre whose every film hints of Hallowe’en-style horrors. This musical, which was clearly inspired by Burton’s heroes, the illustrators Charles Addams and Edward Gorey, tells the story of Pumpkin Jack, the main man in Hallowe’en Town, and what happens when he tires of the Hallowe’en routine and tries his hand at being Santa instead..
TRICKS AND TREATS
3. Meet Me in St Louis (1944)
Is there anyone who has seen this heart-warming Judy Garland musical and doesn’t remember the traumatic trick-or-treating scene in which little Tootie (Margaret O’Brien) rises to the terrible challenge of approaching the front door of the scariest man in the street – and throwing flour in his face. Director Vincente Minnelli brilliantly captures the menacing mood as Tootie tentatively knocks on the door… and her jubilation as she realises that she is “the bravest of them all and the most horrible” after she has completed the task that none of the other kids would take on..
4. Everyone Says I Love You (1996)
Woody Allen’s joyful musical – in which stars ranging from Drew Barrymore to Alan Alda bravely sang old standards (regardless of how well – or not, in the case of Julia Roberts – they could sing) – follows a year in the life of a wacky Park Avenue family. One of the highlights is the Hallowe’en sequence when the children from the building come to the door to trick or treat. This being the wealthiest part of New York, you don’t just get a kid in a supermarket outfit singing a pop song; you get full, MGM-style, production numbers. And the one that the family falls for is a girl dressed as a banana, singing Carmen Miranda’s Chiquita Banana song, accompanied by two maracas-shaking boys in Mexican costume.
OF MICE AND BOGEY MEN
5. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
It’s not a horror movie, but this peerless film of Harper Lee’s wonderful book has an unforgettable scene, set at Hallowe’en, which is utterly terrifying. Our young heroine, Scout, through whose eyes the story is told, is set upon by an assailant in the dark as she and her brother Jem are returning home from a Hallowe’en pageant at their school. Scout is still in her ham costume and is knocked to the ground as the attacker lays into Jem. Her unwieldy, solid costume prevents her from seeing what’s happening and who her attacker is and stops her from being able to get to her feet. All of which adds to the suspense, which is brilliantly heightened by Elmer Bernstein’s magnificent music. The scene is not only extremely scary but also a pivotal point in the plot – as it leads to our first glimpse of the mysterious Boo Radley..
6. Hallowe’en (1978)
The low-budget chiller that spawned several sequels and a series of spoofs (the Scary Movies etc), this creepy horror flick takes place on October 31 when a psychotic killer, who has been mistakenly released from an institution, returns to his family home to pick up where he left off 15 years earlier. Jamie Lee Curtis followed in her mother Janet “Psycho” Leigh’s filmic footsteps by being something of a magnet for the murderer..
SAUCY SORCERESSES
7. I Married a Witch (1942)
Veronica Lake – she of the peekaboo fringe, petite figure and impish face – was brilliantly cast as Jennifer, the mischievous minx of a witch, who, having been burned at the stake in the 17th century, plots revenge on the modern-day ancestor of the puritan responsible for her fate. She seduces him, wrecks his marriage plans and his political campaign and, of course, ends up falling in love with him in this downright magic romantic comedy which undoubtedly inspired the hit 1960s TV show, Bewitched, but is ten times funnier..
8. Bell, Book and Candle (1958)
As sexy sorceresses go, they don’t come more sultry and spellbinding (or chic) than the beatnik witch Gillian Holroyd in this stylish romantic fantasy/comedy which reunited Vertigo stars Kim Novak and James Stewart. Gillian takes a fancy to her new neighbour and uses her magic powers to make him fall in love with her and out of love with the bully who made her life hell at school. Needless to say that she doesn’t expect to fall hook, line and sinker herself …
This dreamy, Manhattan-set romance also stars Elsa “The Bride of Frankenstein” Lanchester as Gillian’s mad old aunt Queenie, while Jack Lemmon is great fun as Gillian’s brother, a wizard with a regular gig playing the bongos at the local witches’ hangout, the Zodiac Club, in Greenwich Village.
9. The Witches of Eastwick (1987)
Three witches for the price of one in this fantastical comedy: Cher, Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer discover they have magic powers when a devilish stranger (Jack Nicholson) blows into town in answer to their prayers. He wreaks so much havoc that they ultimately have to draw on their powers to get rid of him too…
WICKED WITCHES
10. The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Why The Wizard of Oz has become a staple of the Christmas TV schedule beats me: it should surely be reserved for Hallowe’en viewing. After all, you don’t get very many witches who are uglier than the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton) with her hatchet features, snotter-coloured complexion, scrawny frame and stripy stockings. And that voice that saws right through one’s head as it cackles “Surrender Dorothy!”. Her entourage of flying monkeys in military costume aside, the Wicked Witch is a creature of convention with all the accessories that are considered de rigueur for a witch at Hallowe’en: broomstick, cauldron, pointy black hat….
11. The Witches (1990)
Considerably more evil than the Wicked Witch of the West – just watch how she gleefully pushes a baby in its pram down the steep slope to a cliff edge – is the Grand High Witch, played by Anjelica Huston in Nicolas Roeg’s movie of Roald Dahl’s book The Witches. With her Hitler-like oratory and her desire to wipe out a section of the population (ie: children), the Grand High Witch is one of the scariest sorceresses ever portrayed on film. And far too terrifying for young audiences.
On a lighter note, she is also one of the most striking-looking of all movie witches: you’ve got to admit that, in her slinky black satin, purple trimmed, dress, her long black gloves, Cleopatra-style hair and blood-red lips, she cuts quite a dash. At least, that is, until she peels off her human skin to reveal her real, hideous, witch face.
12. Sleeping Beauty (1959)
Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the most magnificent villain of them all? Not the Queen from Snow White, though she is a contender, but the elegant, beautiful and utterly evil Maleficent, the bad witch from Disney’s wonderful interpretation of Sleeping Beauty. Left off the guest list for the christening of Princess Aurora, this horned witch casts a terrifying spell on the infant: that when she turns 18, she will prick her finger on a spindle and die…
Like Anjelica Huston’s Grand High Witch, Maleficent is a vision in swathes of black and purple (clearly the only colours for any self-respecting sorceress to sport), and a supermodel of the supernatural world (by way of total contrast with her arch enemies – the three dumpy, frumpy good fairies). And forget your black cats and brooms; Maleficent has a crow as her assistant and can transform herself into whatever she likes – most memorably, a monstrous, fire-breathing dragon.

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