This blog entry covers my experience with "It's a Wonderful Life," and my visit with Karolyn "Zuzu" Grimes-Wilkerson on Nov. 29, 1997.
My interest in "It's a Wonderful Life" began sometime in the 1980s. My uncle Tod told his wife, my aunt Lora, about an old film called "It's a Wonderful Life." She loves old movies, so she watched it one year and liked it, so she told my mom about it.
My mom is a Christmas junkie. She buys books of Christmas stories she will never read and decorates for the holidays like a real pro. Additionally, she likes old Christmas movies, and if it has anything to do with angels, she has it. In fact, she has an angel Christmas tree ornament that she had as a child that she insists must be hung on the very front of the tree at eye level. That is okay except for one minor detail. The angel is stark naked!
Since the movie is so old, and she likes angels, she fell in love with the movie. Clarence reminded her of my Grandfather, who later died in 1995 of cancer. Clarence did, in fact, remind me a lot of Grandpa in both looks and actions. When he died, we put a guardian angel near his headstone and named it Chloe, a combination, I guess of Clarence and Cloyce, my Grandpa's name. Grandpa is my Clarence.
Since my mom is a sentimentalist, she made her family sit down and watch it on television with her. My father likes it a little. My brother, who hates movies, likes it enough to tolerate it, but I fell in love with it. When the film was in public domain, my mom and I would sit and watch it over and over, scanning the channels when one was over for a new one that still had the most remaining to watch.
It got to the point that my mother and I would dialogue with the film, answering each other in character. One day when shopping, back when VHS was king, the Internet as we know it didn't exist, and old movies were not readily available, Mom found a copy of the film at a dollar store. She bought two copies and gave one to me. At that time, I didn't even have a television of my own.
I imagine I watched the film at least once a month, and at least once a week between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Every time I watch it, I find something new. My viewing of the film and frequency with which I view it changed drastically during my college career.
When I was in college, Republic bought the underlying rights to the film and limited its viewing from nonstop during the Christmas season to only once a year on NBC. My friends at college thought I was nuts when I would tell them to shut up while I was watching the movie. I don't blame them, especially considering my hypocrisy. I think I turned more than one friend away from the movie, or at least toward duct tape because I kept saying all of the lines in character. It drove them nuts.
Also during my sophomore year, I found the movie on CD ROM. Between my mother and I, I think we have nearly 10 copies of the film floating around. I myself have five.
During my senior year, I had to do a year-long research paper on a subject pertaining to communication. Early in my college career, I knew I wanted to write it on this film, but by the time I got to the class, I forgot. So during a brainstorming session, I decided to research Civil War and World War II newspapers, comparing the language used during the two wars.
When I took my notes back to the class to discuss them and hash out different ideas in a large-group setting, a floor mate of mine said, "I thought you were going to do your paper on "It's a Wonderful Life." He had a better memory than I did ! Within ten minutes, I had written a page of notes for a reader-response paper about the film. I presented both ideas to the class, stressing my want to do the "It's a Wonderful Life" project, and my classmates and professor loved it. They said they would prefer to read something about the movie than about the Civil War. That suited me fine.
One of the suggestions my professor had (one of many, may I add) was that I change the focus of the film from reader response to an examination of the representation of money and social class. I kind of blew it off at first. I didn't want to write a paper for him; I wanted to write it for me. But I thought about the film more and I realized that I couldn't get away from money and social class when writing my paper.
Curiosity got the best of me, so one night I put on my rhetorical/analytical thinking cap and sat down to analyze the movie with money and social class in mind. I found that I had to pause the movie numerous times to take notes. Every scene in the movie has something to do with money, whether it is on the surface or somewhere deep below the surface that effects the thoughts, actions and speech of the characters. The more times I watched it, the more things I found.
I even found a number of conflicting facts. In all of my reading, I every reference to the kissing scene states it was shot in one take. Everything I read told me that, but my eyes and ears told me different. The answer lay in the movie's trailer. Simply stated, it was different from what was in the movie. The inflection is different, George's actions are different, and the stress is on different words in the trailer than in the film.
The paper is finished and I still find something new each time I watch it. On November 1, 1997, I noticed that Mary touches her stomach like pregnant women often do, two scenes before she tells George she is pregnant. Capra's attention to detail is precise and unfailing.
By the time I was finished with the paper, it was 36 pages long with six pages of bibliography, including between 40 and 60 sources. I have expanded it into a book, and hope to publish it one day.
While researching the paper, I ran across an interview with Karolyn Grimes-Wilkerson, who played George and Mary's youngest daughter, Zuzu. In the interview, which I had clipped from the newspaper nearly three years prior, she said that she often got fan mail, saying that the envelopes were often simply addressed to "Zuzu, Stillwell, Kansas." (She has since moved, so this won't work anymore)
Again, curiosity got the best of me, so I wrote a letter to her. I told her I didn't want anything from her and I explained my paper and what I was trying to do with it. Two or three weeks later, I got a response from her on an "It's a Wonderful Life" greeting card designed by Todd Karns, who played Harry Bailey. She said she wanted to read my paper when I finished it and thanked me for not wanting anything.
To be honest, I thought someone else may have written the letter, not knowing if she read the mail herself, or if she had someone else reading letters and responding to them. I knew that she was a busy woman.
I wrote back to her, anyway, hoping that just maybe she was really reading them. This time, however, I did ask her for something. It was a simple request, but one that I expected to be denied, just the same. I asked for Jimmy Stewart's address. I told her that I wanted to send him a letter similar to my first one to her, explaining my paper and love of the film. To my surprise, she sent it to me. I filed the letter away, finished the paper, graduated, and moved back to my parent's house. I printed five copies of my paper, using an entire ink cartridge in my printer. I gave one to my mother, sent one to Karolyn, and kept three for myself.
After finding a job just two days graduated from college, I continued living at home until my Cleveland-area girlfriend and I decided to move in together in an apartment in my hometown, Bowling Green, Ohio. Interestingly enough, we moved just down the street from my parents, making us the fourth Van Vorhis household on the street. The other three were my parents, my great uncle, and a man with the same first name as my dad, so the mail carrier was quite confused, I'm sure. We moved into the apartment in June, just two days before I started my new job as the religion and auto editor at the local newspaper.
I was soon to learn a hard lesson about not putting off until tomorrow what I can do today. On July 1, 1997, I was sitting, probably working on my computer, when I realized that I hadn't yet written to Jimmy, even though I had his address for nearly two months. It was late, so I decided to write to him the next day. As you may recall, he died July 2, 1997: the day I was going to write to him. That was a rough day for me.
I wrote to Karolyn again, offering my sympathy. She wrote back a letter that was lengthy for her, thanking me for my thoughts. Soon after, she wrote again, responding to my paper, giving it a thumbs-up. She told me she had let other people also read it and that they thought it was accurate.
We kept in touch, writing to each other usually once a month. Out of the blue, I received a letter from her inviting me to Cleveland to meet her. She said she would be in town November 28-30, 1997 for the opening night of the "A Wonderful Life" musical and at a book signing. I jumped on the chance to go. I got my tickets a week before the show, so opening night was sold out. I settled for Saturday evening tickets, hoping that I would get the chance to meet Karolyn at the book signing.
In the meantime, Karolyn began e-mailing me. We wrote back and forth quite often, trying to organize a meeting in Cleveland. Nothing seemed to be working out, so she asked for my phone number, saying she would call me when she arrived in Cleveland.
My work schedule got hectic that week, and I was forced to schedule a meeting that Friday afternoon. Karolyn hadn't received my last e-mail telling her my schedule, so on Friday morning, she called the phone number I gave her.
For better or worse, I gave her the wrong number. Instead of my home phone number, I gave her my parent's phone number. My mother took the call at 7:50 Friday morning. Mom called me at work immediately after to tell me about her discussion. Suffice it to say that having Zuzu call the house made her day.
I got to Cleveland late Friday evening and was forced to stew around my girlfriend's parent's house until noon the next morning. While we were sleeping, her cat jumped on the bed, catching my nose with its claws. I had a sizable scratch on my nose when I got to meet Karolyn. I felt like a putz.
I know I was a bear to deal with for that 17-hour period when I knew Karolyn was less than an hour away from where we were staying. Danielle made me well aware of that fact. I had hoped to take Karolyn out for dinner and spend some time talking, but although we tried, we hadn't figured out how to make it work.
We finally got to Borders for the book signing about ten minutes before it started. Karolyn was no more than ten yards in front of me as I stood in line. I kept wanting to walk up to her and introduce myself, but I remained calm and stayed in line.
|This was Karolyn's reaction when I told her my name.|
I gave her Danielle's cell phone number and told her we would be around the area and to call me when she was finished. She agreed to have a cup of coffee with us.
We went shopping for a little while, until the ants in my pants drug us back to Borders. We sat in the cafe for over an hour, waiting for Karolyn to finish. After a long and as patient a wait as I could manage, she came over with her friend Chris, to talk. I bought all of us something to drink, and we spent about an hour talking about the movie, my paper, and careers.
She gave me some wonderful insight about the film and we discussed the film on big screen and movie rights, referring a number of times to what she calls the "Potter-like Republic pictures." She told me that "It's a Wonderful Life" would be on the big screen in Cleveland at Cedar-Lee Cinema around December 12-14.
We also talked about the musical, which I am glad we did. She told me about the main differences between the film and the musical, including the fact that George tries to throw himself in front of a train instead of jumping off of a bridge.
|Karolyn and I after coffee in Borders bookstore, Cleveland|
The tickets were $39 apiece, but they were well-worth it. I enjoyed it a lot, and as a rule, I hate musicals. I think they interrupt the plot and prevent the story from moving forward at an understandable pace. However, I will say that I enjoyed this production and would pay the money to go again.
One last side note about the musical: the children were played by different children each night. Emily Krassen, who played Zuzu the night Danielle and I saw the production is absolutely an adorable child. When she came onstage and said that she was feeling better, she said her temperature was normal, back to 68 degrees. It was so cute.
While I hope to eventually spend more time with Karolyn, talking about the movie and more about each other, my experience that weekend was a chance of a lifetime (you hear me, the chance of a lifetime!!) and I'm glad I got it.
Visit Karolyn's site at www.zuzu.net