Joseph Pronechen is staff writer with the National Catholic Register since 2005. His articles have appeared in a number of national publications including Columbia magazine, Soul, Faith and Family, Catholic Digest, and Marian Helper. His religion features have also appeared in Fairfield County Catholic and in one of Connecticut’s largest news dailies. He holds an MS degree and formerly taught English and courses in film study that he developed at a Catholic high school in Connecticut. Joseph and his wife Mary reside on the East Coast.
It’s a Wonderful Life is a perennial favorite film at Christmastime. Certainly it’s one of the best and most memorable movies ever made.
It was one of the 45 films the Vatican singled out in 1995 on its list to commemorate the 100th anniversary of filmmaking that year. It is among the top five films on the Register’s informal poll list from 2004.
Virginia Patton Moss knows how special that film is — right from the time it was being made in 1946. She had the great privilege and blessing to be an important part of the cast.
In October 2013, the St. Nicholas Institute recognized her for being such an important part of motion-picture history by bestowing on her at the institute’s gala awards banquet its first annual Spirit of Christmases Past, Present & Future Award.
The award is in recognition of Christian people who have made an indelible contribution to the tradition of Christmas on a worldwide basis, explained Father Joseph Marquis, founder of the St. Nicholas Institute.
What a privilege it was, then, the week before Christmas, to have a chat with Virginia Patton Moss and listen to her recall that wonderful time filming with director Frank Capra, actor Jimmy Stewart and the rest of the cast; she also shared about what the film meant to her.
Virginia Patton Moss played the role of Ruth Dakin Bailey, George Bailey’s sister-in-law. Of course, everyone knows Stewart was George Bailey.
Moss shared many fond memories of Capra.
“He was a very special man,” she said, recalling how he emigrated to America from Sicily as a very young child, worked his way through grammar and high schools and college, became an engineer, then found his way into the film industry, where, even as a young director in the 1930s, “his films had real stamina.”
After World War II, with a company called Liberty Films that he newly co-founded, he was handed a short story called The Greatest Gift and immediately wanted to film it.
“He went to Jimmy [Stewart] who said, ‘I’m in,’” Moss well remembers. “He started casting it with all his old friends. … Except for me!”
She was new to Capra. She was recommended to audition for him, which she did.
“I read for him, and he signed me,” she said. Not only did she win the role, but she said, “I was the only girl he ever signed in his whole career.”
Right then she was the only member of the film cast personally signed by Capra; all the others were on loan from other studios.
Moss vividly described the town of Bedford Falls Capra built in Encino, Calif., and how he was meticulous with details, even down to the snow. He didn’t want the usual Hollywood untoasted cornflakes that were painted white to simulate snow. He wanted real ice shaved and blown in by fans to look like real snow and be cold during the July shooting schedule.
The Pasadena train station was the site of filming the scene where Moss alighted from the train that was bringing her and George’s brother home to Bedford Falls. She shared details of how she was in a quandary about how to handle the scene, where she was talking to her new brother-in-law George.
“I was supposed to be eating buttered popcorn,” she said, thinking at the time, “What am I going to do about my gloves? I had on a white hat and suit and gloves. Here I was, eating popcorn. I was in a quandary of what I was going to do.” Should she take the gloves off or eat the popcorn with them on?
Her solution: “I just assumed everybody eats buttered popcorn in gloves!”
Of course, that wasn’t even a minor message in the film. But there surely was a major one.
“Frank [Capra] always had some kind of a message,” Moss explained. “Because it was right after the war, he thought the whole world was in shambles … and he wanted to bring the world a message of peace and courage and to lift their spirits.”
Indeed, Capra, who was Catholic, once explained that one major goal in this film was “to show ... that each man’s life touches so many other lives.”
That also happened to be his intention in making movies.
He wrote: “I will show … the courageous renewal of faith, and I will remind the little man that his mission on earth is to advance spiritually. ... My films must let every man, woman and child know that God loves them … and that peace and salvation become a reality only when they all learn to love each other.”
There was nothing phony about his casting either. Or about him.
“He believed in people projecting who they really were in the film,” Moss said. “It was a friendly place to work, and everybody loved working with Capra because of that.”
She said Jimmy Stewart “was just marvelous. He was a very kind man, and he and Capra worked very well together. They were both down-to-earth men, and they were earnest.”
She reflected more on the message of the movie. “A lot of pictures even today are not giving much of a message of hope. But that’s the whole idea of It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Even today, she hears from many people telling her how the film “changed their life in a positive way — I have read it in my letters,” she said happily. People tell her: “It has given me hope. It’s something that really did help me while going through what I just had to go through, and I’m grateful to you for it.’”
For her, “it’s heartwarming to know that people are affected by it.” (Read more about the effects of It’s a Wonderful Life as described in the Register here.)
She still gets mail regularly, and not just from the United States. Many letters come from countries abroad, since satellite technology can beam the film to several areas around the world at once.
In fact, because of that, Moss has observed humorously, “I’ve probably been in more homes than even Santa Claus.”
After It’s a Wonderful Life, she went on to star in four additional films. Then, in 1949, she resolved to walk away from Hollywood and be a wife and mother. She married Cruse Moss, and they raised a family in Michigan — where they still live and are happily married for more than 60 years now.
At first, Capra didn’t understand her decision, but then approved it, and they always kept in touch.
Before we wished each other a Merry Christmas, Moss shared with me one more reflection about It’s a Wonderful Life in a sparking voice filled with much enthusiasm and love.
“In the end, Clarence did get his wings,” she reflected. “I really do think Frank ended up getting his wings, too!”