Mr. Potter

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Henry F. Potter
It's a Wonderful Life (1946) character
Lionel Barrymore as Mr. Potter.jpg
Henry F. Potter (played by Lionel Barrymore)
Information
Occupation
  • The Richest Man in Bedford Falls
    Owner of half of the town

Henry F. Potter (commonly referred to as "Mr. Potter" or just "Potter") is a fictional character and the main antagonist in the 1946 Frank Capra film It's a Wonderful Life. He occupies slot #6 on the American Film Institute's list of the 50 Greatest Villains in American film history (in its 2003 list entitled AFI's 100 Years... 100 Heroes and Villains). Mr. Potter was portrayed by veteran actor Lionel Barrymore.

Character persona[edit]

Mr. Potter is depicted as a greedy banker whom the film's protagonists find to be utterly unlikeable. Everything he does in the film is motivated by money and greed, regardless of the consequences the action in question may have for anyone else. Richard Corliss of "Time" magazine described Barrymore's portrayal as, "... Scrooge, the Grinch and Simon Legree in one craggy, crabby package".[1]

Potter often appears to be a very skilled businessman, which combined with his greed naturally leads to unpleasant repercussions for any residents of Bedford Falls who are struggling financially. During the whole length of the film, he (much to the chagrin of the protagonists) demonstrates an impressive ability to manage, plan and keep order, and seems particularly deft in the ways of business and finance. His business propositions may seem fair, even charitable at first, but his ulterior motives are of a far more sinister nature. Thus, he will stop at nothing so long as it means more money in his coffer and the downfall of the Bailey Building & Loan. In his first appearance in the film, he is seen being transported in a decorative horse and buggy, which causes the Angel 2nd Class Clarence Odbody (who is researching George's life) to ask "Who's that, a king?", to which his superior, Joseph, answers "That's Henry F. Potter, the richest and meanest man in the county!"

Early encounters[edit]

In 1919, Mr. Potter, even before the story starts, has already tried many times to buy the Building & Loan company from Peter Bailey, proprietor for many years. His first run-in with George Bailey was in the middle of a business meeting, when a very young George needed to ask his father, Peter Bailey, an urgent question about chemicals as he found cyanide in a child's medicine bottle at work. Potter is annoyed at Peter Bailey for refusing to foreclose on debtors who are past due, whereas Peter rebuts by saying the economic downturn has hit people hard, which will only be worsened by immediate foreclosures. When Henry Potter berates the elder Bailey, this infuriates the younger Bailey, who interrupts the business meeting to tell Potter he is nothing but mean-spirited. To Potter, this action by George convinced him further that the Bailey clan was annoyingly upstanding.

When Peter Bailey dies from a sudden stroke some years later, a 20-year old George must abandon his dreams of going off to college or traveling the world. Mr. Potter takes advantage of the crisis by attempting to close down the Bailey Bros. Building & Loan and place the assets in receivership, which he admittedly has the right to do as the principal shareholder in the company. The bereaved George must fend off Potter in order to save the Building & Loan. The rest of the savings bank's board of trustees endorses George's leadership, thwarting Potter's plans to take complete control of the Bedford Falls financial market; but it ends up costing George heavily. The board's decision is contingent upon the son taking over full-time management of the struggling, marginal business.

In one scene, Potter scoffs at the idea of a lowly man such as Ernie Bishop, the taxi driver, receiving a loan because George can vouch for his character. Potter snorts, "What does that get us? A discontented, lazy rabble instead of a thrifty working class." At that, George Bailey protests that those hard working people deserve a decent standard of living such as owning a properly equipped home, which the reasonable loans provided by the Building and Loan makes possible.

While his mute valet (Frank Hagney) watches, Mr. Potter slumps in his wheelchair when having to face Peter Bailey (right) and his minor son George (left).

Later, in around 1930, when there is a bank run at the Building & Loan, Mr. Potter tries again to cripple the company. He offers fifty cents ($0.50) on the dollar to customers of the building and loan for their accounts, which would allow him to close the company and leave the bank (which he has effectively taken over) as the only financial institution in Bedford Falls. George refuses, and instead (with the approval of his wife) creatively offers each client his own honeymoon money ($2,000) to hold them over until the week ends, when the money arrives in the Building & Loan vaults, and most of the depositors decide to trust George, withdrawing no more than what they need for the week.

First real attempt: Temptation[edit]

Years later, Mr. Potter's own investments and income are threatened by Bailey Park, a new suburb-like development upstart by George's company. Complaining that the Building & Loan has "been a boil on my neck long enough," Mr. Potter summons George to his office and extends him the job offer of his dreams. On condition that he turn the Building & Loan over to Potter, George will receive a plentiful salary with a bonus.

Mr. Potter, by this time, knows that George has always wanted but never received. There are four things Potter knows that George has always desired, and implements these in a dastardly scheme to coax the Building & Loan from George's safe hands.

Sensing George's desire to leave Bedford Falls behind and see the world, Mr. Potter proposes George an incredibly profitable career at Potter's company, running all of Potter's properties and financial affairs. George is offered an immense salary, benefits and business trips to New York City and maybe even Europe.

George initially takes the bait, and asks for 24 hours to talk it over with his wife, Mary. Potter agrees to let George think his offer over. But once he shakes Mr. Potter's hand, George somehow has an epiphany when he realizes Potter's true intentions, and refuses him.

Second real attempt: Arrest (and making George consider suicide)[edit]

During World War II, Mr. Potter becomes head of the draft board in Bedford Falls. He is satisfied to see that George is ineligible to serve on the war front because of deafness in one of his ears; it is a scar and trophy from when his brother Harry fell through the ice at the age of nine and George rescued him from the freezing waters. Instead, George stays behind and fights the "Battle of Bedford Falls", supervising scrap metal and rubber drives, allocating ration coupons, and volunteering as an air raid warden.

On Christmas Eve 1946, George's brother Harry (serving as a U.S. Naval Aviator) is to return to Bedford Falls after being decorated with the Medal of Honor for saving the lives of countless soldiers on a troop transport in the war. George's scatterbrained Uncle Billy, an associate of the Building & Loan since Peter Bailey's days, arrives in Potter's bank with $8,000 to deposit. The miser is wheeled into the bank in his wheelchair by his long-term bodyguard, is greeted by four bankers and then, sarcastically, by Billy, who, noticing a copy of the Bedford Falls Sentinel in Potter's lap snatches and reads it out loud.

Well, good morning, Mister Potter! What's the news? Oh, well, well, well: Harry Bailey wins Congressional Medal. That couldn't be one of the Bailey boys. You just can't keep those Baileys down, now, can you, Mister Potter?

And when Potter criticizes George by calling him a "Slacker" in a reference to his 4-F status (his deaf ear already having rendered him unfit for military service), Billy responds with a criticism of his own:

Some people HAD to stay behind. Not every heel was in Germany or Japan!

An angered Potter snatches the paper back, and Billy, chuckling in satisfaction at his misfortune, happily trots back to the register. What the two men have not realized however, is that when Billy snatched and, while mocking Potter, folded the newspaper, he inadvertently wrapped the $8,000 inside of it-and when Potter snatched the folded up newspaper back, the money was still inside. Potter does not realize this until after he has entered his office and left Billy's sight, when he opens the newspaper and sees the money. Quickly asking his bodyguard to wheel him back to the door, Potter takes a peek into the lobby and sees the absentminded Uncle Billy frantically searching the bank for the money, completely clueless as to where it is. Taking delight in the misfortune of the man who just taunted him, Potter hides inside his office, stealing the money, knowing the ensuing ruin that will happen for George's company.

Later that night, George has discovered Billy's slip-up. The company is inexplicably short $8,000 and the bank examiner is due shortly. George realizes what this means: bankruptcy of the company, scandal, and jail for whoever is responsible. If George goes to jail, Potter will control the Building & Loan, his family will suffer, and he will be shamed for the rest of his life. At first, he briefly entertains the notion of having his uncle accept responsibility for the act, but he realizes that he must save the bank. Obsessed with clearing his own name and saving the business his father started, George goes to the only person he knows who has enough money: Mr. Potter.

A distraught George Bailey (James Stewart) pleads for help from Mr. Potter.
Mr. Potter insults George in his moment of need: "You used to be so cocky..."

In this, George's ultimate moment of need, Potter merely taunts the desperate George cruelly.

Look at you... you used to be so cocky. You were going to go out and conquer the world. You once called me "a warped, frustrated old man"! What are you but a warped, frustrated young man? A miserable little clerk... crawling in here on your hands and knees and begging for help.

When Potter asks for collateral for the meager loan which would be enough to hold George over, George offers a $15,000 life insurance policy with a $500 cash value. In yet another compassionless act of pure selfishness, Potter rejects the offer and comments that George has no securities, stocks or bonds; just the $500 equity from the life insurance policy. Immediately after commenting on this, Potter delivers his most vile line in the film;

You're worth more dead than alive.[2]

Potter then telephones the police and puts out a warrant for George's arrest. The charges are of malfeasance and manipulation of funds. George, realizing Potter's statement might be true, walks out of the building and drives off, having lost faith in the world and mankind.

After the "Pottersville Sequence"[edit]

Later that night, Potter sees George once more, happy, as if he had never lost $8,000 and was positively overjoyed at the thought of a prison term. "Merry Christmas, Mr. Potter!" he shouts. Mr. Potter responds: "And a Happy New Year to you, too! ...In jail!" This is Mr. Potter's final scene in the movie.

What Potter does not know is that George has just been shown a vision by his guardian angel. George was on the verge of suicide after his conference with Potter and made a wish that he had never been born. So, his guardian angel (Clarence Odbody, played by Henry Travers) showed him what would have become of Bedford Falls had the man known as George Bailey never been born. The ensuing town is called Pottersville, which is a sleazy and dangerous city filled with jitterbug dance halls, whiskey joints, petty crime, and unhappy people with meaningless, amoral lives. This is the "thrifty working class" Potter had allegedly envisioned years earlier. With this George now realizes how malevolent and heartless Potter really is.

When George returns to town, he has triumphed over Potter, because he finally realizes that all he has done for Bedford Falls has resulted in a constituency that supports George more than they do Potter, making him an important leader of his community, deeply respected and admired. This is evident when most of the town raises a collection to help make up the financial loss, culminating with a massive advance supplied by George's wealthy industrialist friend Sam Wainwright that more than makes up the difference. Even though Potter still remains George's rival in business, the townspeople's response to his compassionless, uncaring attitude towards them is not to trust, respect, like or love him. With that kind of support, the young Bailey's eventual triumph over the aged Potter is all but assured.

Legacy[edit]

Both Dan Duryea and Charles Bickford were considered for the role of "Potter."[3] In 1931 Lionel Barrymore won an Academy Award for Best Actor in "A Free Soul" but is probably best known for his role as Henry Potter. Confined to a wheelchair due to a hip injury and severe arthritis, Barrymore played Potter as a wheelchair user. His wheelchair is pushed in all scenes by a wordless assistant (played by Frank Hagney). His performance is listed six slot on the American Film Institute’s list of the 50 Greatest Villains in the history of American cinema.[4]

In a 2007 article in The Guardian, Graham Fuller quotes an FBI internal memo from 1947 that states the film "represented a rather obvious attempt to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as a 'scrooge-type' [sic] so that he would be the most hated man in the picture. This...is a common trick used by communists."[5]

Barrymore's Mr. Potter inspired the voice of mad scientist Simon Bar Sinister in the Underdog cartoon series.[6]

References[edit]

External links[edit]