Virginia Patton and Jimmy Stewart in front of the popcorn machine.  http://www.risefallriseagainblogspot.com

Last December I rated Christmas movies according to my experience.  This December I can say I have talked with one of the stars of my #1 pick, It’s a Wonderful Life (1947).

Virginia Patton played Ruth, the wife of George Bailey’s brother, Harry.  She appears in the scene where Harry returns from college to Bedford Falls on the train and surprises George with the news that he’s married.  It’s a pivotal point in the plot, one in which George realizes that because Harry is going to work for his father-in-law, he himself will probably spend the rest of his life maintaining the Building and Loan.

We got to talk with this lovely lady this fall when my sister-in-law introduced us in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she’s lived for many years.  She gave up acting to marry and have a family in the early 1950s.

Virginia, now 93, recalled for us some details of her experience working with Jimmy Stewart and Frank Capra.  “They were so very professional,” she said.  “Mr. Capra wouldn’t have it any other way.  He had a strict budget, and everyone worked hard.”

As she talked to Jimmy Stewart in the railroad depot, she was eating out of a bag of popcorn.  “That popcorn was stale!” she exclaimed, “It had been sitting on the set for two or three days.”  The director couldn’t decide whether or not she should wear gloves during the scene, while she was eating.  She left them on.

I asked her about two of my favorite actors, Beaulah Bondi and Thomas Mitchell.  She repeated how delightful they were to work with.  “And I was the only actor Mr. Capra ever signed to a contract,” she told me.  She appeared in several other films before she decided the Hollywood lifestyle was not for her, and doesn’t regret leaving.

It was fascinating to spend time with someone who was a part of movie history.  Mrs. Moss is a living link to a work of art we cherish,  an icon which represents decency and hope.  She was employed in the industry which gave us the film, and then left it to live a wonderful life herself.



Holiday High Five

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Before Kevin McCallister, Scott Calvin, and Buddy the Elf entertained us on big and small screens at this time of year, there were already some really great black and white Christmas movies.  I’ll tell you my top five in descending order, because I don’t care much for building up to Number 1 (It doesn’t follow the inverted pyramid).  Here they are, with notes on a few others:

  1. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
  2. A Christmas Carol (1938)
  3. Miracle on 34th Street (1938) 
  4. Holiday Inn (1942)
  5. The Bishop’s Wife (1947)

It’s the cast that makes It’s a Wonderful LIfe so wonderful.  And the simple story Frank Capra chose about appreciating life itself, which began as a greeting on a Christmas card.  But not much beats watching Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell and Beulah Bondi at home in the same small town.  There’s even a short performance from Sheldon Leonard, the television genius, as Nick the bartender.

You’d think we would have said good-bye to all of its adult actors by now, but there is one who is still living in the Midwest.  Beautiful Virginia Patton, who played Harry Bailey’s new wife is at home in Michigan with her real-life husband, Cruze Moss.  The Mosses are retired Ann Arbor business owners and true-maize-and blue University of Michigan supporters.  Virginia enjoys giving interviews about the film.

John Wayne’s buddy Ward Bond played Burt the cop, just one of his supporting roles on the big screen. He was also in Gone With the Wind, the Wagon Train television series and many, many westerns.

Jimmy Hawkins was the youngest Bailey child (“Scuse me! Scuse me! I burped!”) He was a teen actor with Hayley Mills in The Parent Trap and also The Donna Reed Show in the 1960s.

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A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens probably has the most movie adaptations.  The one that stands out for me was made in 1938, starring Reginald Owen as Scrooge.  He was actually much younger than Scrooge would have been, and ended his career with Mary Poppins in 1964.  The Gene Lockhart family played the Bob Cratchit family, with another Gone With the Wind alum, Ann Rutherford,  as the Ghost of Christmas Past.

Who can forget little Natalie Wood’s performance in the original Miracle on 34th Street? The story that begins with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and ends with Santa Claus delivering her to a real home is on many lists of favorites. Edmund Gwynne and Maureen O’Hara were perfectly cast, with John Payne in the part he is most identified with.  It was a busy year for Gene Lockhart, who plays the judge in the trial courtroom.

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,Holiday Inn


Then there’s all the song and dance talent of Holiday Inn, featuring Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby, and Marjorie Reynolds.  Why Ms. Reynolds was not a major star has certainly to do with studio politics, not her ability (She also played a belle in GWTW).  Irving Berlin classics, including Easter Parade and White Christmas light up the screen.  According to my aunt, the number Be Careful, It’s My Heart was supposed to be the big hit of the film.  As much as I love the later movie White Christmas with Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen, it heralded the beginning of Technicolor, and so is not in the b/w category. 

Lately Holiday Inn has been criticized for racial reasons, and rightly so.  Let’s remember that it was a different time, and not diminish the film’s good points.  Minstrel shows are part of our history.   I also think the black actors outshine their white counterparts in many scenes.  Little Daphne and Vanderbilt are adorable.

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Does anyone not love to watch ice skaters?  Cary Grant’s faux performance on the rink is noteworthy in The Bishop’s Wife.  As another angel sent to earth, he encourages Loretta Young in her unenviable position as the wife of David Niven, an ambitious man of the church.  Grant was a master of timing and facial expression.

Barbara Stanwyk, the iron woman of The Big Valley and other shows, plays quite different parts in two early movies, Remember the Night and Christmas in Connecticut.  I favor the former because I think the portrait of rural Indiana in the early 20th Century is right on.  Beulah Bondi appears again, as the mother of Fred MacMurray, who was quite different looking when he was young  (Don’t think of him only as he was in My Three Sons).  In the second movie, Ms. Stanwyk is a society columnist who gets caught in her fake story of ideal country living, and has to hire a husband to play it out.

Many black and white pictures have memorable Christmas scenes – including Little Women.  I like the one in which Jo March is played by June Allison.  Peter Lawford doesn’t hurt it any, either.

The current deluge of Hallmark movies is nice, with several that I enjoy watching more than once.  But best are the ones with interesting shadows, old actors, and timeless music.  To me, they are the real gems of Christmas.