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What Happened To The Little Girl From It's A Wonderful Life?

It's a Wonderful Life had a rough start – it's one of those classic movies that barely broke even at the box office – but today it's known as an absolute Christmas essential. It doesn't tackle the holiday season with the same friendly cheer as many of its contemporaries, instead exploring things from a darker angle. George Bailey (James Stewart) grows up an optimist, always looking to help people, but life isn't so accommodating as all that, causing him to spiral into a suicidal depression that climaxes on Christmas Eve. Only the intervention of a guardian angel (Henry Travers) who reveals what the world would be like without Bailey prevents the worst from happening.

Hope springs from the depths of despair, the film seems to say — a simple message told through a beautiful story. Though the adult actors do most of the heavy lifting as far as that story is concerned, it's hard to forget little Zuzu, who delivers the movie's most famous line: "Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings." She's played by then-child actor Karolyn Grimes, who isn't a household name like Stewart or Donna Reed. So what's Grimes' story?

A short-lived acting career

Before Grimes had the chance to play Stewart's on-screen daughter, she was Bing Crosby's in the musical comedy Blue Skies. Most of her other roles at the time were inconsequential, uncredited appearances in movies like Philo Vance's Gamble and Mother Wore Tights. When she did take on a credited role, it tended toward the innocent young girl stereotype; she'd proven she could nail that part in It's a Wonderful Life, and directors wanted to capitalize on her expertise.

It was Grimes' mother who inspired her to take on the big wide world of Hollywood, and her mother who kept her going. Unfortunately, when Grimes was only 14 years old, her mother passed away from illness. Her father followed suit a year later, dying in a car crash. In the aftermath, Grimes moved out from Hollywood to Missouri to live with relatives, essentially marking the end of her acting career — which lasted less than ten years total.

Grimes' life after Hollywood

Grimes' personal life hasn't been so wonderful as her film counterpart's. After the deaths of both her parents, the relatives she moved in with weren't the best guardians in the world. Still, she plowed through, attended university, and was able to pursue a career in the medical field. A shift from Hollywood to hospitals is an uncommon tale, and an impressive one (via MSN Entertainment).

She married and had two children all the while, though that marriage ended in divorce. As if life couldn't get any worse, her ex-husband died in a hunting accident, making him the third person close to her that passed away post-Hollywood. The trend continued during her second marriage, with both a son who died by suicide and a husband who lost a battle with cancer. It really was one thing after another for Grimes.

Luckily, It's a Wonderful Life has stuck with Grimes since its inception, affecting her life well into the 21st century (for reference, it came out in 1946). As one of the only surviving actors from the film, she's done countless interviews about her time on set and continues to prop up the film in any way she can, from attending screenings to selling a cookbook inspired by the movie. Life hasn't been easy for her, but like George Bailey, Grimes makes the best of what she has, finding the light in the darkness and trudging ever forward.