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)

Henry F. Potter (commonly referred to as Mr. Potter or just Potter) is a fictional banker portrayed by veteran actor Lionel Barrymore in the 1946 Frank Capra film It's a Wonderful Life.


Both Dan Duryea and Charles Bickford were considered for the role of "Potter".[1] 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. A wheelchair-user due to a hip injury and severe arthritis, Barrymore played Potter as confined to a wheelchair due to polio. His wheelchair is pushed in all scenes by a wordless assistant (played by Frank Hagney). Mr. Potter ranks at #6 on the American Film Institute's list of the 50 Greatest Villains in American film history.

However, others view Mr. Potter as the hero of the film.[2][3][4][5][6][7] At the time some in the FBI considered the film's portrayal of Potter as unfair,[8] and in a 2007 article in The Guardian Graham Fuller quotes a 1947 FBI internal memo 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."[9] Richard Corliss of Time magazine described Barrymore's portrayal as, "... Scrooge, the Grinch and Simon Legree in one craggy, crabby package".[10]

Story line[edit]

Mr. Potter owns the bank in the fictitious Bedford Falls, as well as most of its businesses; the primary exception is the Bailey Building & Loan, in which Mr. Potter holds a minority stake. The Building & Loan is a constant source of aggravation for Mr. Potter, due to its inability to generate profits. As well, the Building & Loan's willingness to offer mortgages that the bank will not means many of the townsfolk leave Potter's rental properties (at times referred to as slums) in favor of homeownership enabled by low interest loans from the Building & Loan.

Mr. Potter is a large stockholder of the Building & Loan and has a seat on its board, giving him the ability to exert some influence on its operations. He mainly uses this influence to make several attempts to shut it down. He moves to dissolve the Building & Loan after the death of Peter Bailey, but after George Bailey makes an impassioned speech about the necessity of the Building & Loan in keeping Mr. Potter's activities in check, the board votes down the motion on the condition that George stay and run the company. As George and his new wife Mary, played by Donna Reed, start to leave on their honeymoon, a bank run commences, causing George and Mary to return to the Building & Loan. Mr. Potter calls the bank's loan to the Building & Loan (ostensibly to provide his bank with cash, but also to empty the Building & Loan's coffers) and then offers its shareholders fifty cents on the dollar for their shares in an attempt to become the company's majority shareholder. This attempt is thwarted when George convinces the Building & Loan depositors to take only what cash they need, instead of demanding their entire deposit at once. He and Mary use their honeymoon savings to keep the Building & Loan open and solvent.

In another attempt to weaken the Building & Loan, Mr. Potter offers George a job working directly for him, managing his affairs, at an extremely generous salary, and hints at the possibility of travel outside Bedford Falls, which George has always wanted to do and never has. George rejects the offer after Mr. Potter suggests that it would mean the end of the Building & Loan.

Later, with World War II over and George's younger brother Harry Bailey scheduled to come home as a war hero, Mr. Potter encounters George's Uncle Billy at the bank, where Uncle Billy is making a deposit of $8,000 in cash. Gloating over the success story that the Baileys have become, Uncle Billy accidentally stuffs the cash into a newspaper that he hands to Mr. Potter. Mr. Potter recognizes the mistake upon returning to his office, and keeps the cash, knowing that the bank examiner is at the Building & Loan on a routine visit and the loss of $8,000 will have terrible ramifications for George. George later comes in desperation to Mr. Potter asking for a loan to cover the lost money; instead of returning it, Mr. Potter demands that George show collateral. The despondent George then reveals his sole liquid asset: $500 equity in a life insurance policy with a face value of $15,000. Mr. Potter's response is that George is "worth more dead than alive." Exercising what he says is his duty as a Building & Loan stockholder, Mr. Potter then begins working the dial on his office desktop phone, chuckling as he anticipates initiating contact with local police and enabling the draft of a warrant for George's arrest on grounds of criminal malfeasance and misappropriation of funds. The defeated George leaves the scene.

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 doesn't know is that George had just been shown a vision by his guardian angel (Clarence Odbody, played by Henry Travers). George was on the verge of suicide after his conference with Potter and wished that he had never been born. In response, his guardian angel show him a vision of what would have become of Bedford Falls had George never been born. Potter has taken over the town and renamed it "Pottersville." It is a sleazy and dangerous place filled with whiskey joints, crime, pawnshops, violence, seedy entertainment establishments, and unhappy people with meaningless, amoral lives. When George returns to town he finds that all he has done for Bedford Falls has resulted in a constituency that are tremendously supportive, making him an important leader of his community, deeply respected and admired. This is evident when a large number of townspeople raise 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 lost funds.


The Simpsons creator Matt Groening drew inspiration from Mr. Potter, as well as his high school teacher Mr. Bailey,[11] for the character Mr. Burns.[12]

Barrymore's Mr. Potter inspired the voice of mad scientist Simon Bar Sinister in the Underdog cartoon series.[13]


  1. ^ "It's a Wonderful Life", American Film Institute
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  9. ^ Fuller, Graham. "Happy Birthday, George Bailey", The Guardian, December 24, 2007
  10. ^ Corliss, Richard. "Top 25 Greatest Villains ", Time, April 25, 2007
  11. ^ Billy Paterson (2006-08-20). "Exclusive: I Was Monty's Double". The Sunday Mail. Retrieved 2007-08-18.
  12. ^ Joe Rhodes (October 21, 2000). "Flash! 24 Simpsons Stars Reveal Themselves". TV Guide.
  13. ^ "'Underdog' animator had no fear". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Retrieved 12 November 2014.

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