'It's a Wonderful Life' is 75! A tribute to supreme villain Mr. Potter


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 finding life’s meaning with help from a clumsy angel.

But as the holiday classic turns 75 this month (with an anniversary Blu-ray release airing on NBC Dec. 4, 8 p.m.) 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 No. 6 slot on the American Film Institute’s list of 50 Greatest Villains. That means Darth Vader, No. 3 on the list, should really watch his back, as Mr. Potter only gains more relevance with every business news 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 the film’s Zuzu Bailey. “The scary thing is, we see so much of that today.”

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'It's a Wonderful Life' is 75! A tribute to supreme villain Mr. Potter

Mr. Potter is immediately labeled, by an angel no less, as the “richest and meanest man in town.” The perpetually sneering fiend gleefully runs with the title from there. He earns despicable immortality from a handful of scenes, flanked in his wheelchair by his wordless, looming assistant (onetime pro boxer Frank S. Hagney).

The Bailey Building & 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 intervening angel Clarence miraculously shows what life, and quaint Bedford Falls, would be like without George and his Building & Loan. The town’s alternate life, finally in Mr. Potter’s clutches, is literally called Pottersville, which frankly looks hopping with its jitterbug-friendly bars.

'It's a Wonderful Life' is 75! A tribute to supreme villain Mr. Potter

Barrymore’s performance is so full-on dastardly that it’s jarring watching the legendary actor at the “It’s A Wonderful Life” wrap party (seen in home movies extras from the Blu-ray release). In the footage, Barrymore, in a wheelchair because of severe hip and arthritis problems, is glimpsed socializing with cast and crew. He’s even (gasp!) smiling.

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

Capra wanted the Academy Award winner 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 definitely lacking the Christmas morning redemption.

He is bad to the bone until his bitter end.

'It's a Wonderful Life' is 75! A tribute to supreme villain Mr. Potter

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

But there isn’t need for a final 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,’ ” St. George says. “So George Bailey takes the richest man title from Mr. Potter.”

Even in defeat, Mr. Potter would have still managed a slight villain’s last laugh. After all, he already had explained himself with perfect inner clarity.

“I am an old man, and most people hate me,” Potter says to Bailey in a telling scene. “But I don’t like them either, so that makes it all even.”

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