His memories aren't the same as for the older actors--after all, he was only four and a half years old when he was brought onto the set of "It's a Wonderful Life" to play the little boy who's best known for tugging at Jimmy Stewart's coattails and saying, "'Scuse me, scuse me"? But in a phone interview with DVD Town, Jimmy Hawkins said that the film left an impression on him like none of the other 80 or so movies or television shows in which he appeared. And he's been around. Baby boomers might remember him as Annie Oakley's little brother, Tagg, from that popular TV series. Hawkins also appeared on such iconic shows as "Shirley Temple's Storybook," "Leave It to Beaver," "Dennis the Menace," "The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet," "The Donna Reed Show," and in "Girl Happy," one of the popular Elvis films. So it says something when he tells you how memorable it was to play one of the Bailey children in Frank Capra's Christmas classic.
Hawkins said he kept in touch with the cast of "It's a Wonderful Life," and three of them have written books inspired by the film. Carol Coombs, who played the piano-playing Janie, wrote a book of holiday stories (Under a Christmas Star, 2000), while Karolyn Grimes, who played Zuzu (of Zuzu's petals fame) came out with Zuzu Bailey's "It's a Wonderful Life" Cookbook) the same year. Hawkins was the first of the "Bailey children" to come out with a book. The "It's a Wonderful Life" Trivia Book appeared in 1993, followed in 1996 by "It's a Wonderful Life": The Fiftieth Anniversary Scrapbook, and 2003's "It's a Wonderful Life": Favorite Scenes from the Classic Film.
Recently, Hawkins published his most creative and original "Wonderful Life"-related book. It's a Wonderful Life for Kids (Dutton Children's Books, 2006) was written to celebrate the film's 60th anniversary, and to try to make Capra's message relevant for young people. Illustrated by Douglas B. Jones so that it faithfully recaptures the nostalgic magic of the Baileys of Bedford Falls, the book uses the same framework as Capra's film, substituting Tommy as the downcast character who meets an angel who shows him what a difference he makes to the people in his life.
This is a children's book, so no, there's no drunken scene at Martini's (it's replaced by a scene at Gower's Drug Store, where a new soda jerk appears), and Tommy Bailey isn't suicidal--he's only thinking of running away from home. But there are some clever parallels that retrace every one of George Bailey's steps using Tommy's smaller shoes and covering his life at age four, seven, nine, and 11 (when he loses $80 from the library fund and runs to the same bridge his father did during his time of need).
Plath: That's a nifty little book that you've written, It's a Wonderful Life for Kids.
Hawkins: Oh, you like it?
Plath: Very much so.
Hawkins: It was fun to do, and, you know, I believe in the message of the film. I think that kids should be instilled with that message to help build their self-esteem. That's actually the reason I wrote it, is to get Capra's message over to young kids, because they may sit and watch the film with their parents and everything, but they don't understand banking and buildings and loans, stuff like that. So if you bring it down to their level and get that same message that they're important, that they can touch lives for the better and they can make a difference, then I think the book has done it's job.
That's why I'm happy about Paramount releasing those two discs, the great black-and-white one and then that beautiful colorization one.
Plath: Doesn't it look great in color?
Hawkins: It does. It looks like it was shot that way. You see things in the movie that you never realized were there. Color really brings out certain aspects. I've talked to so many kids, and they don't really want to see black-and-white, so they don't get the message of the film. With this DVD and what Paramount has done, now they don't have an excuse, and they can watch the film and then see how that message relates to them, how they're important.
Plath: What were some of the details that you noticed for the first time?
Hawkins: Signs in the background, or something on the wall that has another dimension to it with color--maybe the butterflies on the wall, framed.
Plath: We noticed the skull on the desk.
Hawkins: Oh, yeah! But just little things in the background make you go "Wow, that looks great," and it doesn't get in the way of it. It's just part of life--but you see it now. And the color of my hair, I mean, it was perfect, and the outfit, the same color outfit I had on. They went to a lot of trouble to find out what these actors were wearing.
Plath: So they really did a lot of research, then.
Hawkins: They had to, because I know. I know what I was wearing, I know the color of my hair at that time. I mean, it's incredible. This is great!
But the main thing, outside of it looking good, is that people will be opened up to it now who weren't open to watching it in black-and-white, because they just don't like watching black-and-white. The new generation just likes color, apparently. I know my nieces and nephews, they've all seen "It's a Wonderful Life," but they won't go out of their way to see some of the old RKO classics or Columbia black-and-white films.
Who knew, back then? I mean, in talking to everybody who made the picture, it was just a job. They went to work. And for it to have become this classic, it's wonderful. Their work is now appreciated forever.
Plath: Now, I'm assuming that most of your memories, since you were only four, four-and-a-half at the time, come from your contact with fellow actors?
Hawkins: No. I remember vividly certain things: going to the studio, how long it took, it was dark when we left, getting on the soundstage, walking on the soundstage with the smells and all the commotion going on, and seeing, before you walk into that Bailey house, all the snow. Real snow that they had on the front porch and outside. Then walking on that set and seeing this Christmas tree--here it is in May, June, you know, and all this commotion going on--and then how patient this man, who turned out to be Frank Capra, was with me in explaining exactly what he wanted me to do and when he wanted me to do it. And he would stop all the action, then squat down, and talk to me and say, "Now, keep pulling on this man's coattails, and when you get right here, see right here?" he'd point on the carpet. "You say 'Excuse me,' can you say that?" Yes sir. "Excuse me." "Right when you get here. Okay everybody, let's keep going." So everybody'd stand up, and he'd start walking, and then Jimmy Stewart, and then "Okay, stop." And he'd squat down again and say, "See right here? When you get here, say 'Excuse me' again. Can you do that?" I said, yes. He'd explain everything, vividly. I remember like it was yesterday.
Now, that wasn't so in other movies I did when I got to be a little older. I see them today on television, and I don't remember going to the studio, I don't remember doing the part, I don't remember anything about it. But I remember "It's a Wonderful Life" vividly, just like it happened yesterday.
Plath: Why do you think that is?
Hawkins: I have no idea. I don't know why. Why do I remember sitting on this man's lap, putting tinsel on his head, and him pulling me into him? I remember that because I had a Santa Claus mask on, and it was like sandpaper inside. Every time he pulled me to him and kissed me and, you know, had all these things on his mind-oh God, I'm gonna lose all this because I lost the $8000--and he would pull in. And that mask would hike up and scrape my cheek, every time. And I kept wondering, why does he keep doing this? I mean, why does this mask keep going up all the time? We'd rehearse it, and then everything got real quiet, we were doing a take, so I remember that happening maybe two or three times. Then it was over, and I go, oh good, now he's not going to be pulling me into him. I remember that, vividly, and the other stuff.
We'd shoot for 12 days. I remember we came in on a Saturday, because you always shot on Saturdays back then. And they called for the second-unit director. You know when he's yelling and breaking up the place, they pop into a close-up of all the kids? That was shot by another director.
Hawkins: Yeah. The guy that did all the second-unit montages for it was called Vorkapich, and he was a great montage director. They brought him in to do all the pop-ins for that family scene where all hell's breaking loose. And I remember him telling me . . . but he was a different type of director. He was more mechanical than Capra, because Capra would take his time and talk to me. With this director, "Okay now, look real sad," and then you see some water welling up in my eyes [laughs]. It's funny, things that people aren't aware that, gee, there's a second-unit director on this movie. Capra didn't do all that? Not in that scene anyway. How much more he allowed somebody else to direct, I don't know. I just know in that scene another man was telling me what to do, and it was a different time. We shot that scene maybe two-three days before, and then came back on Saturday to do the close-ups with this other person.
Plath: You also wrote The "It's a Wonderful Life" Trivia Book. What are one or two trivial facts about the movie that you're most proud of digging up?
Hawkins: The one thing, I wanted to know who played those angels [at the beginning of the film], who were the voices of the angels? And I called Capra, Jr., I called people and said, "Who did it?" And I thought, boy, if I could just get the paper on this, if I could just get the call sheet. There's got to be a record of somebody being called in after the movie was over to do those voiceovers--you know, when everybody comes back, there was a plane here, somebody dropped something, it wasn't clear enough so you've got to say that line over--there's got to be a record. Then I found all the records for the movie, and I went through all the call sheets and I knew it had to be at the end. And there it was. And it had the actors, the day they were called in to do the voiceover. But I thought, no, wait a minute. That's not that actor's voice. They called in an actor, William Demarest--do you know who he is?
Plath: Yes, I do.
Hawkins: And he was the voice of the angel. And I said, he wasn't in this movie. So I kept turning the pages, and then, boom. They redid that, with another actor. They took Bill Demarest out and got another actor to do the voice. I guess when Capra saw it, he thought, naw, that's not the voice. It was William Demarest who was originally signed, but I guess he just didn't have the voice. He's a great actor, but Capra, you look for something. It's a sound--nothing against an actor. Then boom, I had the two guys. It was Joseph Granby and Moroni Olsen. Olsen, you remember him from "Father of the Bride." He was father of the groom. The other guy, he had a great voice. So, that was my proudest moment. I said I'm gonna get it, and there we got it.
Plath: Neat. Now was it your idea for It's a Wonderful Life for Kids to have the main character be Tommy, or was it your publisher who said, "You know what? Do it from the boy's point of view."
Hawkins: I thought maybe we should do it from Zuzu, but they said, "No no, it's gotta be Tommy. You're Tommy, it's Tommy's story." So I said, okay.
Plath: It was kind of nifty the way it all matched up. Even things like "Happy Trails" replacing "Hot Dawg!" as the expression . . . .
Hawkins: Yeah, or "Hee-haw!"
Plath: Right, catch-phrases like that.
Hawkins: Well, Roy Rogers was the big star at that time that kids that age related to.
Plath: Now, I have to tell you, I was a Gene Autry man myself.
Hawkins: Well, I turned out to be a Gene Autry man, as you well know. I was under contract to him for six years. But when I was a kid, Gene Autry was in the service, and Roy Rogers was the guy who rode the screen every Saturday. And so that's why I gravitated to Roy Rogers, because Gene Autry was in the service. He came out, and I remember seeing "The Strawberry Roan" , and I liked him. I wrote the afterwards for a new book on Gene Autry, and I relate those stories: seeing him as a kid . . . being in his home for Christmas, and watching him, how he was with people, and saying, well, that's the same guy that you saw as a kid, and he turned out to be just like he was on the screen. A nice person.
Plath: So when people meet you now, do they say, "'Scuse me, 'scuse me"?
Hawkins: Yeah. People tell me stories. Oh, I was at a screening, and I liked "It's a Wonderful Life," and I met my wife, and that was our thing all the time, "'Scuse me, 'scuse me." They tell me stories about that line. Yeah, it's something, how different people pick out different things from that movie that they relate to, and this one happened to like that line.
Plath: What's your favorite moment in the movie?
Hawkins: The phone scene, with Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed on the phone. I think it's one of the greatest love scenes I've ever seen. It just says it all. They didn't take their clothes off, they didn't do anything. But you knew. Boom. You can see the electricity on that screen. You can see sparks flying.
Plath: How many people were on the set for that scene? Were most of the actors sheltered off somewhere?
Hawkins: The crew, everybody was around. The had a crew of maybe 60, 70 people, all doing their job, making sure that their little department was right, whether it was a gaffer, make sure a mark is all set so when a camera moves in, or, you know, lighting this, props are all there, the telephone is there, the make-up people are making sure they're not shiny. They're all there, making sure that their department is up to snuff.
Plath: I'm assuming you were in a trailer or something when that scene was shot.
Hawkins: I wasn't even around. My stuff was 12 days in the Bailey house on Stage 12 at the RKO-Pathé Studio. That's it. Twelve days. Brought us in, 12 days later, goodbye. That was it.
Plath: Twelve days of Christmas.
Hawkins: [Laughs] That's about it, yep. Boy, it's something you did so long ago, and it's still here. No matter how many movies or TV shows I did, that's what I'm gonna be known for. And it's great to be known for that, something so positive and uplifting, and a message I believe in. Being the youngest cast member, I'm carrying the baton of Frank Capra to let people know that this is a great movie. And whatever it takes to see it, whether it's colorizing it--I mean, you could make it polka-dot to get the message across--then I'm all for it. It just happens that in this version the color looks beautiful. And that's why I wrote the kid's book. To instill in them at a young age that they're important, and they'll have a good self-esteem in later life. I keep trying to find ways.
When I produced the PBS television special on the Lux radio version of it ["Merry Christmas, George Bailey," 1997] and had the all-star cast recreate the parts . . . just anything I can do. I've been talking to people and have had an offer to animate my book.
Plath: Are you gonna do it?
Hawkins: Not with this company. I didn't like 'em. They're cheap. And this is a quality thing, it's a quality book. Anything I put out, it's the best. Television special, it had Nathan Lane as Clarence, Bill Pullman and Sally Field were in it-all-star cast in every role--because I believe in this. Capra believed in doing everything top-drawer, and when this animation is finally completed, the company I go with is going to be top-drawer, or I'm not going to do it.