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'Wonderful Life' actress sees faith in the midst of tragedy


(RNS) It is an iconic moment in American holiday life: The little girl tells her father at the end of “It’s a Wonderful Life” that “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.”

The words of 6-year-old Zuzu Bailey capture the innocence and joy of faith amid the celebration when the town of Bedford Falls rallies around Jimmy Stewart’s character, a man on the verge of suicide who comes to appreciate the value of life.

That girl, actress Karolyn Grimes, is now 68. She has experienced more than her share of tragedy. Her parents died when she was a teenager and she lost an 18-year-old son to suicide. Not long after, her husband of 25 years died of lung cancer.

But she says each stage of her life, beginning with her role as Zuzu – and the happiness her character has brought millions of the movie’s fans – was part of a divine plan to use her fame to understand the suffering of others and help them through their pain.

“I do believe that being Zuzu is a bit of a mission,” said Grimes, who makes personal appearances throughout the year and offers reflections on her website,

“The real main message about this movie is faith,” Grimes said.

In the movie, George Bailey, played by Stewart, plunges into despair after his Uncle Billy loses an $8,000 deposit on the day a bank examiner is coming to inspect the records of the Building & Loan company the two men run. But even at his most despondent, Stewart’s character does not turn on his relative or pray for the money that would save the family from scandal, Grimes said.

He simply prays, “God, show me the way,” Grimes said.

In her life, Grimes says she has found hope reaching “for that inner strength that I know will be provided by God.”

The movie helps people see the wonder in their lives, Grimes said.

“There are more important things in life than money ... family, the love that exists from God,” Grimes said. “Maybe you can’t make your mortgage payment, but you have your daughter, you have your son. You can’t put a price tag on love.”