Giving up a promising career in Hollywood to start a family might be a difficult choice for a talented young actress, but for Virginia Patton, the decision paved the way for a wonderful life away from the limelight.
Patton, now 86, portrayed Ruth Dakin Bailey in the 1946 Frank Capra classic It’s a Wonderful Life, starring alongside such screen legends as James Stewart and Donna Reed at just 20 years old, but left acting soon afterwards to move to Ann Arbor, MI to pursue a family with husband Cruse W. Moss, a successful automotive executive.
Patton, of Ann Arbor, and Moss appeared together Sunday at the historic Penn Theatre in downtown Plymouth, MI for a screening of It’s a Wonderful Life, where the former actress signed autographs and posed for photographs with fans.
One fan, Robert Volpe of Livonia, caught Patton by surprise when he asked her to autograph vintage movie posters for two of Patton’s lesser-known roles, Black Eagle, a 1948 western, and The Horn Blows at Midnight, a Jack Benny comedy in which Patton had a small, uncredited role.
Patton joked with Volpe, who collects vintage movie posters, that neither film was a great movie.
Patton’s appearance packed the 405-seat Penn Theatre auditorium, as audiences erupted into applause when Patton first appeared onscreen during a scene at a train depot and again when her name appeared in the credits.
The road to Bedford Falls
Patton said while a freshman at the University of Southern California, she starred in a play by playwright and silent film director William C. deMille, brother of legendary filmmaker Cecil B. deMille, a Hollywood connection that helped lead to her eventual casting in It’s a Wonderful Life.
“Virginia was the only girl that was contracted directly by Frank Capra,” Moss said of his wife. “Everybody else in that film was loaned by another studio. But Ginny was not with the studio and Frank Capra actually signed her for that picture.”
In the film, Patton portrays Ruth Dakin Bailey, wife of protagonist George Bailey’s younger brother, Harry Bailey.
The arrival of Patton’s character disrupts George Bailey’s plans to leave his hometown of Bedford Falls and hand the family business off to his brother when Ruth Dakin Bailey’s father offers Harry Bailey a more lucrative job elsewhere.
A wonderful experience
Watching the film again brought back fond memories for Patton.
“That really is a wonderful motion picture,” she said. “I hadn’t seen it in a while. I’m getting tears in my eyes.”
Patton spoke highly of working with Capra and her time on the set of It’s a Wonderful Life.
“When you were on the set, you knew your lines, you knew your business,” she said. “It was a camaraderie, but it was a business. It was a wonderful atmosphere that some other directors didn’t produce.”
Patton starred in four more films before she left Hollywood in 1949 to marry Moss and start a family in Michigan—a move that ended her acting career, but also earned Capra’s blessing.
Moss said Capra told Patton to think about what she’s walking away from, but said he knew she was making the right decision.
Patton and Moss moved to Ann Arbor and raised three children.
“I have a beautiful letter that (Capra) wrote me because I kept in touch with him and he said, ‘I just knew you’d be a wonderful mother with three little bambinos and a wonderful husband,’” Patton said.
While she was involved with the Young Presidents’ Organization, a group that enlisted guest speakers from around the world, Patton said she again crossed paths with Capra, who was a speaker for the organization. She said she and Moss visited the filmmaker at his California home and she and the director became “renewed acquaintances.”
A wonderful life after Hollywood
Patton, who currently serves as a docent at the University of Michigan Museum of Art and is involved in a handful of other local organizations, said she has no second thoughts about leaving acting to start her family.
“I couldn’t see me doing that for my life,” she said. “That isn’t what I wanted. I wanted exactly what I am. Ann Arbor, Michigan, a wonderful husband, wonderful children, a good part of the community. I work hard for the community.”
This story has been updated on Dec. 9 to clarify that the couple lives in Ann Arbor, not Dexter, an adjacent community.
Editor's note: This article originally was published by Plymouth-Canton Patch in Michigan.