Obituary: Virginia Patton, the actress who starred in the Christmas classic ‘It’s been a wonderful life’ thanks to a screener’s error

Virginia Patton, who has died aged 97, played Ruth Bailey, James Stewart’s sister-in-law, in Frank Capra’s 1946 Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life. She is the only member of the cast personally signed by the director, her co-stars are all on loan from other studios, and she is the last living adult member of the cast.

It’s a wonderful life revolves around Stewart’s George Bailey, who contemplates taking his own life after a financial disaster but is saved when an angel, Clarence (Henry Travers), earns her wings by showing George the world the world will be. What if George wasn’t born.

Patton, a tall, bright, blond young star, made the mistake of a photojournalist. She made a test reel for producer and director George Stevens, but a few days later Capra was in the screening room to watch Stewart and Donna Reed, who played his wife Mary, in the early scenes of the movie. It’s a wonderful life.

The cameraman picked the wrong can and accidentally screened Virginia’s demo, but Capra sat through it and decided that she would be the ideal person for the part he had in mind.

The role is small but very important. In a scene at the train station in Pasadena, Ruth steps down from a train as the new bride to Harry, George Bailey’s brother, and announces that her father has offered Harry a lucrative job there. elsewhere, shattering George’s dream of leaving Bedford Falls.

She loves working for Capra. “It was a great atmosphere that some other directors didn’t create.”

It’s a wonderful life It was not a box office success upon release, especially in the US, but affection for it blossomed as repeat shows became a fixture of Christmas television. Patton joked that she’s been “in more homes than Santa Claus,” but she knew there was something special about the movie while she was making it.

“People of all generations can still identify with Jimmy Stewart’s character,” she said in 2011.

In 1995 It’s a wonderful life is one of 45 films selected by the Vatican to celebrate 100 years of filmmaking.

However, Patton’s role was not quite as pure as she had promised. As she puts it: “I was a teenager playing a very stylish woman, or so I thought.”

These contrasting features are revealed when Stewart kisses her in the film, although Capra has told her this will not happen.

Virginia Ann Marie Patton was born in Cleveland, Ohio on June 25, 1925, the daughter of Donald Patton and his wife Marie. Her father’s job brought the family to Portland, Oregon, where she attended Jefferson High School before moving to California.

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“I want to make movies in Hollywood,” she said. “I can’t think of anything else. When I reached Hollywood Boulevard, however, I must admit to my slight disappointment when I saw Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, Hedy Lamarr and others jogging along the sidewalk.”

She studied acting at the University of Southern California and soon landed a number of small film roles with Warner Brothers.

After It’s a wonderful lifeshe made four more films, including Ku Klux Klan exposé Burning Cross (In 1947). But last year Warner Bros released her from her contract, and without the backing of a major studio, her career took off as a founder.

She retired from acting in 1949 to marry Cruse Moss, an executive at American Motors. Although Capra has urged her to rethink giving up on her acting career, she has no regrets and “can’t see me doing it for my life”.

The couple settled in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she ran an investment business. Moss died in 2018; they had three children.

Telegraph Media Group Limited [2022] Obituary: Virginia Patton, the actress who starred in the Christmas classic ‘It’s been a wonderful life’ thanks to a screener’s error

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