We can all find solace in director Frank Capra’s supremely inspiring 1946 tale “It’s a Wonderful Life,” in which Jimmy Stewart’s struggling everyman George Bailey discovers the meaning of life with the help of a clumsy angel.
But, as the holiday classic celebrates its 75th anniversary this month, it’s important to remember the film’s deliciously irredeemable villain, Mr. Potter.
You don’t have to root for him; simply admire him.
The crooked businessman, played to ruthless perfection by the great Lionel Barrymore, ranks sixth on the American Film Institute’s list of the 50 Greatest Villains. That means Darth Vader, ranked third on the list, should keep an eye on Mr. Potter as he becomes more relevant with each business news headline.
“He craves power. Mr. Potter is only concerned with owning property, having a lot of money, and owning people “Karolyn Grimes, 81, who played Zuzu Bailey in the film, agrees. “The frightening thing is that we see so much of that today.”
Mr. Potter is immediately dubbed the “richest and meanest man in town,” even by an angel. From there, the perpetually sneering fiend gleefully runs with the title. He achieves despicable immortality in a few scenes, flanked in his wheelchair by his silent, looming assistant (onetime pro boxer Frank S. Hagney).
The Bailey Building & Loan adversary steals the company’s misplaced $8,000, putting George in legal jeopardy and self-crisis. Mr. Potter then finishes George’s spiral by delivering the infamous crushing blow, “You’re worth more dead than alive.”
Clarence, an intervening angel, miraculously shows what life and quaint Bedford Falls would be like without George and his Building & Loan. Mr. Potter’s alternate life in the town is literally called Pottersville, and it appears to be hopping with its jitterbug-friendly bars.
Barrymore’s performance is so heinous that seeing the legendary actor at the “It’s A Wonderful Life” wrap party is startling (seen in home movies extras from the Blu-ray release). Barrymore is seen socialising with cast and crew while in a wheelchair due to severe hip and arthritis problems. He’s actually (gasp!) smiling.
“I was surprised to see him there,” Grimes says. “I was terrified, but I managed to engage him in conversation. And he was actually quite pleasant.”
Based on Barrymore’s annual radio performance of Ebenezer Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol,” Capra desired the Academy Award winner for the role. Mr. Potter, on the other hand, is next-level Scrooge, lacking the sympathetic backstory of how life went wrong and most emphatically lacking the Christmas morning redemption.
He’s a jerk to the bone until the bitter end.
Mr. Potter was last seen giggling gleefully in his office on Christmas Eve, making the sheriff’s call that he believes will land George in jail. The classic 1986 “Saturday Night Live” skit “It’s a Wonderful Life: The Lost Ending” imagines Bailey (Dana Carvey) and company seeking outlandish pummeling vengeance.
However, there is no need for a final scene to emphasise that Mr. Potter and his evil ways have been soundly defeated by the virtuous George Bailey. Mr. Potter’s comeuppance has already arrived, according to movie historian Sal St. George, who will highlight Mr. Potter in his 75th anniversary talk at the It’s a Wonderful Life Museum in Seneca, New York, when Bailey is home surrounded by his children, wife, and friends.
“One of the film’s final lines is a toast to ‘George Bailey, the richest man in town,'” St. George explains. “So George Bailey dethrones Mr. Potter as the richest man.”
Mr. Potter would have managed a slight villain’s last laugh even in defeat. After all, he had already explained himself with complete inner clarity.
“I am an old man, and most people despise me,” Potter tells Bailey in a pivotal scene. “But I don’t like them either, so it’s all good.”