(If you have not seen It's a Wonderful Life, you might not want to read this article. It addresses plot points key to the film. In other words, Here There Be Spoilers! You have been warned.)
"You sit around here and you spin your little webs and you think the whole world revolves around you and your money. Well, it doesn't, Mr. Potter. In the whole vast configuration of things, I'd say you were nothing but a scurvy little spider!" (George Bailey to Henry F. Potter in It's a Wonderful Life)
Short of Drew Barrymore (the granddaughter of the legendary John Barrymore), today it is quite possible that Lionel Barrymore is the most famous member of that illustrious acting dynasty. Over the years Lionel Barrymore would play many impressive roles. He won the Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role as Stephen Ashe in A Free Soul (1931). He played Otto Kringelein in Grand Hotel (1932), Billy Bones in Treasure Island (1934), James Temple in Key Largo (1948), and Dr. Gillespie in the "Dr. Kildare" movie series. Despite having played a number of well received parts over the years, there can be little doubt that Lionel Barrymore's fame today rests primarily with one movie, It's a Wonderful Life (1946), in which he played the villain Henry F. Potter.
Not only is Henry F. Potter (more often than not called "Mr. Potter" or even more often simply "Potter") today the most famous role Lionel Barrymore ever played, he is so identified with the role that it is hard to picture anyone else in it. As hard as it is to believe, other actors were considered for the role. Both Dan Duryea and Charles Bickford had been in the running for the part. While both Messrs. Duryea and Bickford would have done well in the role, fortunately Lionel Barrymore got the role of Potter in the end.
There can be little doubt that much of the reason Lionel Barrymore was cast as Henry F. Potter was the simple fact that he had played a similar role for literally years. Starting in 1934 for many years Lionel Barrymore played the role of Ebeneezer Scrooge in annual Christmas specials on CBS Radio. In fact, when MGM produced their version of A Christmas Carol (1938), they had originally intended to cast Lionel Barrymore in the role of Scrooge. Unfortunately, while shooting retakes for Saratoga (1937), Mr. Barrymore tripped and broke his hip. In the end the role of Scrooge in the film went to his friend Reginald Owen. The similarities between Scrooge and Potter are immediately noticeable to anyone who has read A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (or seen one of the many screen adaptions) and has seen It's a Wonderful Life. Indeed, if anything else Potter is even worse than Scrooge. Time critic Richard Corliss once described Lionel Barrymore playing Potter as "...Scrooge, the Grinch and Simon Legree in one craggy, crabby package." One has to suspect that, unlike Scrooge, Potter could never have been reformed. Quite simply, he would have ordered the ghosts out of his bedroom and that would have been the end of it!
Indeed, Potter is a thoroughly despicable person, one of the greatest screen villains of all time. Peter Bailey (played by Samuel S. Hinds), the father of George Bailey (played by James Stewart), describes him as "Frustrated and sick. Sick in his mind, sick in his soul, if he has one." Watching It's a Wonderful Life, there is not only some doubt as to whether Potter has a soul, but whether he has a heart as well.
The first scene in It's a Wonderful Life to significantly feature Mr. Potter shows just how greedy and how lacking in compassion he can be. Seeking advice from his father, twelve year old George barges in on a meeting between Peter Bailey and Henry F. Potter. In the meeting Potter is calling in a loan of $5000 that he made to the Bailey Building and Loan. When Peter Bailey asks for thirty more days in which to raise the funds, Potter suggests that he foreclose on the Building and Loan's lendees. Peter points out to Potter that these are families with children to no avail. That's right. Potter has no problem throwing families with children out on the street!
As It's a Wonderful Life progresses Potter does not get any better. In fact, he seems to only get richer and even meaner. It soon becomes clear that Potter either wants to own the Bailey Building and Loan or, at least, see to it that it is closed down. Indeed, not long after Peter Bailey has died Potter makes a motion at a Board of Directors meeting to dissolve the Building and Loan and "...turn its assets and liabilities over to the receiver." He is stopped only because George stands up to him. During the Depression, when there is a run on the bank, Potter makes an offer to buy Building and Loan shares for "fifty cents on the dollar." It is quite clear he doesn't simply intend to save the Building and Loan--he wants to either take control of it or kill it.
Over the course of the film we learn that Potter has his own housing development. It is aptly named "Potter's Field", a traditional term used for a graveyard for paupers unable to afford burial in a better cemetery. Potter's Field would appear to be something of an overpriced slum. In trying to convince the customers of the Building and Loan not to go to Potter, George says to Joe (played by Ray Walker), "Joe, you lived in one of his houses, didn't you? Well, have you forgotten? Have you forgotten what he charged you for that broken-down shack?" During the Depression, Potter took control of Bedford Falls' bank, bus line, department store, and apparently every other business in town. As he tells George, "You saved the Building and Loan, and I saved all the rest. (to which George replies, "Yes. Well, most people say you stole all the rest.")"
If somehow viewers had any doubts that Potter was evil, then they would be washed away by events leading up to the film's famous climax. When Uncle Billy stops to needle Potter in the bank, he unfortunately hands Potter a newspaper containing the $8,000 meant to be deposited for the Building and Loan. After discovering he has the money, rather than giving it back to Uncle Billy or depositing it in the Building and Loan's account for him (which as the owner of the bank and one of the Building and Loan's directors he could presumably have done), Potter simply keeps the money. That's right, As if there was any doubtabout it before, Potter is capable of outright theft.
It is Potter's theft of the $8,000 that directly leads to George's suicide attempt, which in turn leads to his guardian angel Clarence showing him what life in Bedford Falls would be like if he had never been born. While Pottersville (as Bedford Falls was renamed in the alternate reality without a George Bailey) appears to be prospering, it's not the sort of town in which most people would want to live. The primary businesses on Main Street seem to be nightclubs, dime-a-dance halls, pawn shops, and strip joints. The residents of Pottersville are obviously miserable and probably living below the poverty line. Only Bert the Cop (played by Ward Bond) appears to be unchanged (one can only guess Bert was the most virtuous man in Bedford Falls or Pottersville). We are not shown Henry F. Potter in the world in which George was not born, but one can't help but wonder that he isn't happy.
Of course, here it must be pointed out that, although it sometimes seems so, Mr. Potter is not all bad. In fact, like many great villains it seems likely that Potter does not think of himself as evil. After Peter Bailey's death he actually does show some admiration for the man, even if it is clear he thought of him as an idealist and sentimentalist. When there was a run on the bank he did offer to save the Building and Loan. He could have just as easily not have called George and simply approached the Building and Loan's customers himself. In fact, had he done that he might have taken over the Building and Loan the same way he took over the bank. Potter even showed some admiration for George and offered him a job, although his motives for doing so were questionable. It seems possible that Potter is any many respects a mirror image of George. That is, like George, Potter is motivated in maintaining Bedford Falls. The problem is that Potter's idea of maintaining Bedford Falls means leaving its citizens with only the barest of necessities and himself with everything else!
It has often been pointed out that It's a Wonderful Life violated the MPAA Production Code in that we are never shown Potter as being punished for stealing the Building and Loan's $8,000. I rather suspect it did so because we do not have to be told that he was punished. We simply know he was. To me, at least, it seems not long after the events of the movie, Uncle Billy probably remembered he left the $8,000 in the newspaper he handed to Potter. The following investigation revealed that Potter did indeed have the $8,000 and as a result he was sent to jail. Given Potter's age at that point, he probably died there.
Henry F. Potter has come to be counted as one of the greatest screen villains of all time. In its list of the 50 greatest movie villains of all time, the American Film Institute ranked Potter at no. 5. In Time Magazine's lists of the 25 Greatest Villains, Potter came in at no. 8. What is more, Henry F. Potter would have a lasting influence on popular culture by inspiring yet other villains. While it is well known that both the appearance and speech of Underdog's archenemy Simon Barsinister was inspired by Lionel Barrymore, what many do not realise is that Simon was specifically inspired by Lionel Barrymore as Mr. Potter. Montgomery Burns on The Simpsons also owes a good deal to Potter, right down to the greed and total disregard for anyone else.
Of course, what made Henry F. Potter such a great villain was not simply the movie's script by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, and Frank Capra. Quite simply, it was Lionel Barrymore's performance. A lesser actor might well have hammed it up in the role, but not Mr. Barrymore. Lionel Barrymore plays Potter straight, and as a result he seems all the more evil for it. As played by Lionel Barrymore, Henry F. Potter is not some caricature, stock villain, or cartoon bad guy. He is the sort of villain that could all too easily exist. Indeed, he is the sort of villain some people may have encountered in real life.
Indeed, Lionel Barrymore's performance as Potter is all the more remarkable when one considers that the actor played many more roles than villains. Among his best known roles today may be that of the kindly, if irascible Dr. Gillespie in the "Dr. Kildare" movies. In A Family Affair (1937), the film that would spark the "Andy Hardy" series, Mr. Barrymore originated the role of Judge Hardy played by Lewis Stone in the series. In some respects, despite having played Scrooge on radio for many years, Lionel Barrymore was cast against type as Henry F. Potter. Many, if not most of, Mr. Barrymore's roles throughout his career were of kindly, if cantankerous characters, characters who would never dream of foreclosing on families with children or stealing $8,000.
As played by the great Lionel Barrymore, Henry F. Potter has become one of the best remembered movie villains of all time. More so than even Scrooge, he has come to exemplify the trope of the evil businessman. Both J. R. Ewing and Montgomery Burns could have taken lessons from him. It seems quite likely that no other actor will every match Lionel Barrymore when it comes to playing a villainous businessman.