The Columbus Dispatch

Villain Mr. Potter resonates as ‘It’s Wonderful Life’ turns 75

- Bryan Alexander

Now more than ever, we can all take heart in director Frank Capra’s supremely inspiring 1946 tale, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” featuring Jimmy Stewart’s struggling everyman George Bailey finding life’s meaning with help from a clumsy angel.

But as the holiday classic turns 75 this month it’s vital to savor the screen’s deliciousl­y irredeemab­le villain, Mr. Potter.

You don’t have to root for him, just appreciate him.

Played to ruthless perfection by the great Lionel Barrymore, the crooked businessma­n owns the #6 slot on the American Film Institute’s list of 50 Greatest Villains. That means Darth Vader, #3 on the list, should really watch his back. Because Mr. Potter is only gaining more relevance with every CNN business headline.

“He’s power hungry, the only things important to Mr. Potter are owning property, having lots of money and owning people,” says Karolyn Grimes, 81, who played Zuzu Bailey, one of Bai

ley’s children in the film. “The scary thing is, we see so much of that today.”

Mr. Potter is labeled, by an angel no less, as the “richest and meanest man in town.” The perpetuall­y sneering fiend gleefully runs with the title from there. He earns despicable immortalit­y from a handful of impactful scenes, flanked in his wheel chair by his wordless, looming assistant (onetime pro boxer Frank S. Hagney).

The Bailey Building and Loan nemesis purloins the business’ mislaid $8,000, putting George into legal jeopardy and self-crisis. Mr. Potter then completes George’s spiral with the infamous crushing blow, “You’re worth more dead than alive.”

But the intervenin­g angel Clarence (Henry Travers) miraculous­ly shows what life, and quaint Bedford Falls, would be like without George and his Building and Loan. The town’s alternate life, finally in Mr. Potter’s clutches, is literally called Pottersvil­le, featuring jitterbug-friendly bars (which frankly look hopping).

Barrymore’s performanc­e is so fullon dastardly that it’s jarring to watch the legendary actor at the “It’s A Wonderful Life” wrap part (seen in home movie extras from an upcoming anniversar­y home release). Barrymore, in a wheel chair due to severe hip and arthritis issues, is glimpsed socializin­g with cast and crew. He’s even (gasp)


“I was surprised he was there,” Grimes recalls of the party. “I was pretty scared, but I managed to have a conversati­on with him. And he was actually very nice.”

Capra wanted the Academy Awardwinne­r for the role based on Barrymore’s annual radio performanc­e of Ebenezer Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol.” But Mr. Potter is next-level Scrooge, without the how-life-went wrong sympatheti­c backstory and definitely lacking the Christmas morning Scrooge redemption.

He is bad to the bone until his bitter end.

Mr. Potter is last seen chuckling gleefully, alone in his office on Christmas Eve, making the sheriff ’s call he believes will send George to jail. The classic 1986 “SNL” skit, “It’s a Wonderful Life: The Lost Ending,” imagines Bailey (Dana Carvey) and company seeking over-thetop pummeling revenge.

But there isn’t need for a final scene to overstate that Mr. Potter and his evil ways have been resounding­ly defeated by the virtuous George Bailey. 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, says Mr. Potter’s comeuppanc­e already arrived when Bailey is home surrounded by his children, wife and friends.

“One of the last lines in the movie is a toast to ‘George Bailey, the richest man in town,’ ” says St. George. “George Bailey takes the richest man title from Mr. Potter.”

 ?? PHIL STERN/PARAMOUNT PICTURES ?? Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), left, looks down on George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), right, in a scene from the 1946 Frank Capra classic, “It's a Wonderful Life.”
PHIL STERN/PARAMOUNT PICTURES Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), left, looks down on George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), right, in a scene from the 1946 Frank Capra classic, “It's a Wonderful Life.”

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