55: It’s a Wonderful Movie—Mary Owen and Karolyn Grimes
This is episode is my first to feature two guests on the same topic, although Episode 34 included Jordan Peterson and Senator Don Plett at the same time in separate cities.
This week’s show topic is the enduring cultural impact of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1947) through the eyes of two women close to its creation.
I say “Frank Capra’s” because that’s how the movie was marketed (it’s now called the vanity credit) and may help explain why the film got only a so-so reception when it was first released. Most of Mr. Capra’s pre-World War II movies were so sweet-hearted that they later earned the not-quite-complimentary moniker “Capra-corn.”
It’s a Wonderful Life is one of the most critically acclaimed films ever made. Nominated for five Academy Awards including Best Picture, recognized by the American Film Institute as one of the 100 best American films ever made, and placed number 11 on its initial 1998 greatest movie list, it also ranked number one on its list of the most inspirational American films of all time.
Think about that, in light of the hundreds of thousands of movies ever made.
By the end of the War, though, the mood of the movie-going public had shifted, as I wrote about the making of the movie in National Review a few years ago here
The next day after it was published, an appreciative email from a woman named Mary Owen arrived in my inbox. Turns out, Mary is the daughter of actress Donna Reed, who played Mary Bailey, the wife of James Stewart’s George Bailey.
I thanked her for the lovely email and we had a few back-and-forths. After my podcast was up on two feet and spreading around the world (11o countries and counting), I thought it would be fun to have her on the show to talk about her mother’s role in this now-international favorite Christmas movie and to learn some back story to her mother’s career and her commitment to writing back to the G.I’s who wrote to her from the trenches and the gun turrets of World War II.
(Oh, by the way, she was not named for the character her mother played in the Capra movie.) The interview segues nicely into the next one, a rich conversation with actress Karolyn Grimes who played Zuzu, one of the four Bailey kids. Remember Zuzu’s petals? This was a real treat for me who loves the movie so well, and I know it will be for you as well.
I learned, among other things, how much Mrs. Grimes suffered as a teen when her mother died and then the next year her father was killed and she became a ward of the state—then “rescued” by an aunt and uncle in Missouri. An unhappy home situation after an abrupt end to her budding acting career (she also played Debbie, the daughter of David Niven and Loretta Young in another Christmas favorite, The Bishop’s Wife).
For those of us who can’t gobble up enough trivia and true stories about It’s a Wonderful Life, Mrs. Grimes is a treasure trove of first hand memories and insights!
In this episode you will learn
- How Donna Reed’s work represents the best of the Golden Age of television and movies
- Why she made sure she was “just a regular mom” with Mary and her other real-life children
- The story of how Reed’s children found a shoebox full of correspondence with American soldiers from the War in her Bel Air home 65 years later
- Why Owens thinks the movie that made her mother a household name has such enduring appeal
- Who is the oldest living cast member (hint: it’s not one of the child actors)
- What it was like to be on set with Frank Capra and to appear with Jimmy Stewart
- The ways in which It’s a Wonderful Life touched the lives of the cast and crew forever.
Resources mentioned in this episode
It’s a Wonderful Life: A Memory Book by Stephen Cox.
The Essential It’s a Wonderful Life: A Scene-by-Scene Guide to the Classic Film by Michael Willian
The Name Above the Title: An Autobiography by Frank Capra
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