Pretty much everyone has their own perspective of the Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life, but how many people can talk about that Old Hollywood film who were actually involved with its making? Jimmy Hawkins, who played Tommy Bailey (you know, the kid who walks around tugging at Jimmy Stewart saying, “Excuse me,” because, it turns out, he burped) is one of them. And, thankfully for us, it’s a subject he never gets tired of talking about.
“I really don’t,” he laughs in an exclusive interview with Closer Weekly. “I just love the picture. There are only three of us still around, and we just feel that we’re here to carry on the message of [director] Frank Capra. And the message of the movie is still extremely important. Each year when it’s aired on NBC, the ratings go up. Years ago when I talked to Sheldon Leonard [who played Nick the bartender in the film] about its popularity, he really said it best: The movie never changes, people do. And people need the message of the film more than ever.”
“That message,” Jimmy, 78, continues, “is that we’re all important; that we, individually, can all make a change in people’s lives if we choose to. They see through George Bailey, who didn’t think he was doing anything at the time, but was just doing the right thing. And then, when things turn, people came to his rescue, showing him that even if he doesn’t think so, he is important. Throughout his life all he wanted to do was leave Bedford Falls, but something always happened to keep him there. But at the end he realizes that that’s where he was the happiest; he had everything he needed, he just didn’t realize it. That message, that each man’s life touches so many others in such a way that if they weren’t around, it would leave an awful hole, is why people gravitate to that movie and spend two-and-a-half hours watching it. It says that they are important, and they are.”
This message was driven home to him about a year ago when he went to a prison to screen the film to see what the inmates thought — and these were hardened criminals, so it wasn’t really clear at the outset what the response to it would be.
“I had said, ‘I want to go to Attica,’ which is probably one of the most famous prisons in the United States,” he says, “and notorious for the hardened criminals that are there. I wanted to see if that movie touched their lives. I had a hard time getting in; they didn’t want us there, or it was too difficult, but eventually we got there.”
It’s a Wonderful Life was shown on the TV in each of the prisoners’ cells and, afterward, the inmates gathered in the prison’s chapel for what was to become a question and answer session. “These guys were so well prepared and they had their notes and asked their questions. It was a wonderful experience and they were so touched that, when it was over, they asked me to sign their programs. Later, the superintendent of all prisons turned to me and said, ‘Jimmy, I’ve never experienced anything like this. Any prison you want to go to in the state of New York, it’s done. Just let me know.’”
The lasting legacy of the film is certainly surprising to Jimmy and his surviving costars, Carol Coomes (Janie) and Karolyn Grimes (Zuzu), considering the attitude of everyone at the time the 1946 film was filmed. “We [the kids] shot for 12 days on that picture, and then everybody moved on,” he relates. “They didn’t know if the picture was going to be good or bad, they were just working on it. And that’s what we did. We were so young at the time, but we’re still getting the opportunity to talk about it with people, like I’m getting to with you right now. It’s just been a wonderful association.”
Check out It’s a Wonderful Life on 4K High Definition, Blu-ray/DVD and digital from Paramount Home Entertainment.