By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
It’s been 70 years since Frank Capra’s life-affirming “It’s a Wonderful Life” first arrived in theaters. Starring James Stewart as a man named George Bailey, who becomes despondent one Christmas Eve and decides to end it all only to discover (thanks to sweet old Angel Second Class named Clarence) how rich and full his seemingly dull life has been despite what he thought were setbacks, the post-World War II drama has become a holiday classic thanks to repeated airings on television over the decades as well as the advent of home video. The Liberty Films (later acquired by Paramount Pictures) release, was initially a flop in theaters, though it has in recent decades has become one of the most beloved and watched films ever, enjoyed by generations of fans.
Though Stewart and most of the adult stars of the film (including co-star Donna Reed as the love of George’s life Mary Bailey) are long gone, three cast members who played the Bailey children were recently in attendance at a special screening at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences: Karolyn Grimes (Zuzu), Carol Coombs (Janie) and Jimmy Hawkins (Tommy).
Now in their 70s and 80s, the former child actors recalled working with Stewart, Reed and Capra. Hawkins, who played the youngest of the Bailey children, remembered that Stewart nicknamed him “Rip” because he could fall asleep almost anywhere (like the fictional Rip Van Winkle). Grimes fondly recalled the scene she shared with Stewart in Zuzu’s bedroom, her character suffering from a cold because she didn’t want to crush the flower she had received at school, as well as delivering her now iconic “Teacher says, ‘Every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings,’” in the film’s emotional final scene. Coombs says she was fortunate to have had piano lessons prior to landing the part of Janie, who practices playing “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” over and over on Christmas Eve until George, who has just had the worst day at his family-run Building & Loan, blows his fuse and shouts at her to stop. As children, the young actors had the same talent agent, who made it possible for them to audition for Capra. They recall they were paid different amounts for their two weeks of work on the film—each earning progressively more the older they were. Hawkins joked they were paid “by the pound.”
The audience at the special screening event, which included relatives of the cast and crew, also was treated to one crew member’s never-before-seen home movies of the “It’s a Wonderful Life” cast party picnic that showed Stewart, along with fellow actors and crew members enjoying a relaxing family day at a Southern California ranch after the movie wrapped. (Though set in fictional Bedford Falls, N.Y., the film was shot on a Culver City, Calif studio backlot.)
To commemorate “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Paramount has released a special 70th Anniversary Platinum Edition. Starring Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell and Henry Travers, along with James Stewart, this holiday classic has made an indelible impact on popular culture and continues to be a cherished part of many family get-togethers.
The Platinum Edition includes the original black and white version of the film as well as a
beautifully colorized version, a “making of” documentary hosted by Tom Bosley (“Happy Days”) and the original trailer. Plus, some of the Blu-ray and DVD sets include collectible, limited edition art cards featuring images of the original ads and lobby cards.
If you happen to be in or near Seneca Falls, N.Y., Dec. 9-11, the “Bailey Kids” and other special guests are scheduled to be on hand for an It’s a Wonderful Life Festival. For more information, go to: http://therealbedfordfalls.com.
Front Row Features is giving away one copy of “It’s a Wonderful Life” 70th Anniversary Platinum Edition to one lucky reader. Simply Like us on Facebook and email your name and mailing address to: firstname.lastname@example.org. We will pick a winner on Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2016. Good luck!