Virginia Patton, Actress in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ Dies at 97

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Virginia Patton, who portrayed Ruth Dakin Bailey, the sister-in-law of Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey, in the Frank Capra holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life, has died. She was 97. 

Patton died Thursday at an assisted living facility in Albany, Georgia, the Mathews Funeral Home announced.

Patton’s character in the 1946 film was married to Harry Bailey (Todd Karns), and her big scene takes place at the Bedford Falls train station, when she meets George and Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) for the first time.

While crewmembers were lighting her scene — filmed at the Santa Fe railroad’s now-defunct Lamanda Park station in Pasadena — with her stand-in, she was wondering about how she was going to eat her buttered popcorn while wearing white gloves.

“I was dressed as a young matron. I had a hat, a suit and white gloves, I was coming to meet my new in-laws,” she recalled in 2016. “And I was going to eat buttered popcorn with white gloves?

“We rehearsed it, and Frank didn’t say anything about it, his assistant didn’t say anything about it, the cameraman didn’t say anything about it. I was sitting there, ‘What am I going to do? I’m going to get the popcorn all over those gloves.’ … I thought, ‘Well, I’ll just pretend everybody eats buttered popcorn with their gloves on, and they all get butter on them.’”

Virginia Ann Patton was born in Cleveland on June 25, 1925. She was raised in Portland, Oregon, where she graduated from Jefferson High School in 1942, then made her way to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career.

She signed with Warner Bros., made her movie debut in the musical Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943), starring Eddie Cantor and an all-star cast, and appeared in small roles in other films including Janie (1944), Hollywood Canteen (1944) and Jack Benny’s The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945).

A niece of World War II general George Patton, she had starred in a play written by William C. De Mille, brother of Cecil B. De Mille, while she was attending USC, and that put her on the radar of Capra. He was casting It’s a Wonderful Life, the first film he would make for his new Liberty Films production company.

“I read for him, and he signed me,” she said in 2013, adding that she was “the only girl he ever signed in his whole career.” Her contract at Warners had elapsed, and all the other adult castmembers would work on loan from other studios.

From left: Todd Karns, Virginia Patton, Jimmy Stewart and Thomas Mitchell in 1946’s ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’

Courtesy Everett Collection

Since It’s a Wonderful Life has aired multiple times every year around Christmas for decades, Patton often joked that “I’ve probably been in more homes than even Santa Claus.”

Patton had the female lead in The Burning Cross (1947), a movie about the Ku Klux Klan, and Black Eagle (1948), a Western, then retired from acting following a supporting turn in The Lucky Stiff (1949).

She left Hollywood and moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, after marrying automotive executive Cruse W. Moss in 1949, and they had three children. They were married for 69 years until his death in 2018.

Patton served as a docent at the University of Michigan’s Museum of Art and president and director of the Patton Corp., an investment and real estate holding company.

In a 2012 interview, Patton noted that Capra asked her to think twice about giving up show business, but she said she was comfortable with her decision.

“I have a beautiful letter that [Capra] wrote me because I kept in touch with him,” she said. “He wrote, ‘I just knew you’d be a wonderful mother with three little bambinos and a wonderful husband.’”