Virginia Patton Broke Frank Capra's Longstanding Tradition In It's A Wonderful Life

Virginia Patton, the actress most famous for portraying Ruth Dakin Bailey, the sister-in-law of Jimmy Stewart's George Bailey in "It's A Wonderful Life," passed away in August 2022 at the age of 97, as Yahoo Entertainment reports. Though her film career was relatively short -– she only had 15 credited film roles, per IMDb -– she played a supporting role in one of the most beloved holiday films of all time. Ironically, "It's A Wonderful Life" was a box office failure when it was released in theaters, and only became a holiday classic thanks to some paperwork not being signed in the right place and the film becoming Public Domain -– which means that TV stations could broadcast it without having to pay royalties (per the Library of Congress). Decades of being shown during the holiday season on TV turned it into a holiday classic, solidifying Frank Capra's place as a maker of uplifting, heartwarming films.

The film was memorable for Patton mostly because she had to wrestle with the fact that her costume required white gloves, with which she was to eat buttered popcorn. That, and director Frank Capra bent the rules a bit for her just a bit, for perhaps the only time in his career.

The Studio System

Though it was called the "Golden Age of Hollywood," the first half of the 20th century was hardly golden for many of the people who worked in the industry. The exploitation of children (financial, even sexual) was rampant in those days, per The Detroit News, and careers could be ended with the stroke of a pen if an actor offended the wrong person. 

The situation that created this toxic stew was known as the Studio System, and in essence, a handful of major movie studios controlled every aspect of the production and distribution of the films they produced. Actors and actresses were basically employees of the studios, and an employee of, say, MGM, couldn't do a film for, say, 20th Century Fox, for at least as long as the contract was valid.

What's this got to do with Virginia Patton? When she auditioned for "It's A Wonderful Life," she didn't have a studio contract, which, among other things, severely limited her career options. Fortunately, Capra had the authority to sign ad hoc contracts, which he did in spades when casting this particular film, since, according to Yahoo Entertainment, all of the principal actors were on loan from other studios.

However, Patton later told the National Catholic Register that Capra was disinclined to sign women, but made an exception for her. "I read for him, and he signed me. I was the only girl he ever signed in his whole career," she said.

Virginia Patton's Life And Brief Film Career

Though she was in one of the most beloved holiday classics of all time -– indeed, possibly one of the most beloved films in general of all time –- Virginia Patton's career didn't achieve the lofty heights attained by her biggest film.

As her IMDb resume makes obvious, Patton's film career was short, spanning just the course of six years, including four films made after "It's A Wonderful Life." After making her final film, Virginia decided to call it quits on her acting career, according to the National Catholic Register. She got married, left LA for Michigan, and settled into a quiet life of anonymity as a wife and mother.

She revealed that she still got fan mail, even decades after she'd wrapped filming on "It's A Wonderful Life." In 2013, she waxed poetic about her place in film history. "I've probably been in more homes than even Santa Claus," she said.