Virginia Patton, actress who played James Stewart’s sister-in-law in It’s a Wonderful Life – obituary
Virginia Patton, who has died aged 97, played Ruth Bailey, James Stewart’s sister-in-law, in Frank Capra’s uplifting 1946 Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life; she was the only member of the cast personally signed up by the director, her fellow actors all being on loan from other studios, and she was the last surviving adult actor from the cast.
It’s a Wonderful Life centres around Stewart’s George Bailey, who contemplates taking his own life after a financial disaster but is saved when the angel Clarence (Henry Travers) earns his wings by showing George how the world would have turned out if George had not been born.
Virginia Patton, a tall, blonde and dazzling young starlet, owed her part to a projectionist’s mistake. She had made a test reel for the producer-director George Stevens, but a few days later Capra was in the projection room to watch Stewart and Donna Reed, who played his wife Mary, in early scenes from It’s a Wonderful Life. The projectionist picked up the wrong can of film and unwittingly screened Virginia’s test, but Capra sat through it and decided she would be ideal for the part he had in mind.
The role was a small but crucial one. In a scene shot at a railway station in Pasadena, California, Ruth alights from a train as the new bride of George Bailey’s brother Harry (Todd Karns as the all-American war hero), and announces that her father has offered Harry a lucrative job elsewhere, crushing for ever George’s dreams of leaving small-town Bedford Falls.
Virginia Patton recalled her dilemma over how to handle the scene: “I was supposed to be eating buttered popcorn,” she told the National Catholic Register. “What am I going to do about my gloves? I had on a white hat and suit and gloves. Here I was, eating popcorn. I was in a quandary of what I was going to do.”
She adored working for Capra. “It was a camaraderie, but it was a business,” she said. “It was a wonderful atmosphere that some other directors didn’t produce.” She also told how Capra always had some kind of a message. “Because it was right after the war, he thought the whole world was in shambles … and he wanted to bring the world a message of peace and courage and to lift their spirits.”
She told her friend and correspondent Austin Mutti-Mewse how Jimmy Stewart approached his depiction of George Bailey with the attitude of someone who had seen war at first hand, as Stewart had as a bomber pilot flying missions to the continent from bases in Norfolk.
She noticed that he had lost weight and “when Jimmy as George cried, they were real tears… We all cried with him. George had been given another chance. Many of our boys hadn’t. [Jimmy] knew that. He’d seen that.”
It’s a Wonderful Life was not a box-office success on its release, particularly in the US; but affection for it blossomed as repeat showings became a fixture of Christmas television. Virginia Patton joked that she had been “in more homes than Santa Claus”. But Virginia Patton knew there was something special about the film while she was working on it.
“People of all generations can still identify with Jimmy Stewart’s character,” she said in 2011. “I felt then, and still do, that in times of austerity one’s guardian angel can work wonders for the soul. Therapists have often suggested that It’s a Wonderful Life can beat low-level depression. How many movies can [be credited with] helping those in pain and suffering?”
In 1995 It’s a Wonderful Life was one of 45 films chosen by the Vatican to commemorate the 100th anniversary of filmmaking.
Virginia Patton’s role, however, was not quite as chaste as she had been promised. As she put it: “I was a teenager playing a very sophisticated woman, or so I thought.” These contrasting features are revealed when James Stewart kisses her in the film, although Capra had told her that this would not happen.
Virginia Ann Marie Patton was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on June 25 1925, the daughter of Donald Patton and his wife Marie, née Cain; she was the niece of George S Patton, the American general. Her father’s work took the family to Portland, Oregon, where she was educated at Jefferson High School before moving to California.
“I wanted to make it in Hollywood,” she said. “I could think of nothing else. So when I arrived at Union Station and walked through the vast arrival halls and saw palm trees outlined beautiful by the Californian sunshine, I knew I had arrived at my Mecca. When I arrived on Hollywood Boulevard however, I have to admit, my slight disappointment at seeing Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, Hedy Lamarr and others sauntering along the sidewalk.”
She studied acting at the University of Southern California with William C DeMille, brother of Cecil B DeMille, and soon secured several minor film roles with Warner Brothers. One of the stars she took a shine to was Bette Davis, recalling how : “We had already met on the set of [the all-star morale-booster] Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943). When we worked again together in Old Acquaintance [also 1943], in which I played a sweet natured college girl called Maud, she made a point of being nice to me.”
After It’s a Wonderful Life, Virginia Patton made four more films, including the Ku Klux Klan exposé The Burning Cross (1947), the story of a war veteran who struggles to adjust to civilian life. But the previous year Warner Bros had released her from her contract, and without the backing of a big studio her career started to founder.
She retired from acting in 1949 to marry Cruse Moss, an American Motors executive. Although Capra urged her to think twice about abandoning her acting career, she had no regrets and “couldn’t see me doing that for my life.”
The couple settled in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she ran an investment business. In 1984 they narrowly escaped drowning on board a Scandinavian Airlines flight that overshot the runway at JFK airport, New York, and plunged into swampy water. “I can still taste Jamaica Bay,” she said a few days later.
Moss died in 2018; they had three children.
Virginia Patton, born June 25 1925, died August 18 2022