|“||Yeah, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year--IN JAIL!||”|
— Mr. Potter, plainly demonstrating why he is the Christmas financial villain who did not reform
Henry F. Potter is the main antagonist in It's a Wonderful Life. He occupies the #6 slot 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).
Throughout the entire film, Mr. Potter is a heartless, cold, apathetic, and downright evil man. Everything that he does in the film is motivated by money and greed. Be it "saving" George Bailey's clients during a bank run or offering him the job of his dreams, all are thinly veiled plots to fill his own wallet.
Not much is revealed about Mr. Potter's personal life aside that he is single, and never has had a wife, children, or any close or distant family members, and he uses a wheelchair for reasons that are never explained (which was due to Lionel Barrymore's real-life health conditions). Because of his disability, he always has the same mute bodyguard by his side, who travels with him wherever he goes and pushes his wheelchair for him.
Though he is also a mill owner, banker, and slumlord, Mr. Potter is a businessman at heart. If there's one thing he's talented at besides making people's lives miserable, it's his ability to manage, plan, and keep order. During the whole length of the film, he seems particularly deft in the ways of finance and business, much to the chagrin of the good people of Bedford Falls. 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 and Loan. In his first appearance in the film, he is seen being transported in a decorative horse and buggy, which causes Clarence Oddbody (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!"
As a cosmic and karmic comeuppance for Mr. Potter's actions, there was to have been a scene in which Clarence would appear before him at his house to shame him for nearly driving George to suicide. Upon learning of the fate that awaits him after death, he is terrified and suffers a heart attack. The scene was deleted by director Frank Capra as Clarence's narration made it seem too mean-spirited.
- Despite the film's somewhat undeserved reputation as a fluff piece, the depiction of Mr. Potter drew scrutiny from an unexpected source - J. Edgar Hoover, the infamous first Director of the FBI, felt that Mr. Potter's character was an anti-capitalist slight, since he was a banker. This view seemed to ignore the fact that George Bailey was also a banker, who helped make people into homeowners who also founded thriving small businesses.
- An essay has made the rounds defending the hard-nosed Mr. Potter and the pre-reform Ebenezer Scrooge as being better for the economies health than George and the reformed Scrooge. Since some people on both ends of the political spectrum reacted strongly to this, the original author has been forced to state on several occasions that it was meant as a satire.
- Besides being a top-flight villain, Mr. Potter has attracted top-flight actors to play him, including Lionel Barrymore in the 1947 original film, and Orson Welles in the 1977 made-for-TV remake, It Happened One Christmas.
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