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 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.


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). His performance is listed in the sixth slot on the American Film Institute’s list of the 50 Greatest Villains in the history of American cinema.[2] Richard Corliss of Time magazine described Barrymore's portrayal as, "... Scrooge, the Grinch and Simon Legree in one craggy, crabby package".[3]

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. a common trick used by communists."[4]

The Simpsons creator Matt Groening drew inspiration from Mr. Potter, as well as his high school teacher Mr. Bailey,[5] for the character Mr. Burns.[6]

Barrymore's Mr. Potter inspired the voice of mad scientist Simon Bar Sinister in the Underdog cartoon series.[7]

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. The Building & Loan is a constant source of aggravation for Mr. Potter, due to his inability to gain control of it. 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 under the auspices of the Building & Loan.

Nevertheless, 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. During a bank run, he 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 (which would make him the company's majority shareholder.) This attempt is also thwarted when George convinces the Building & Loan shareholders to take only what they need, instead of demanding their entire stake at once, and he and his new wife Mary use their honeymoon savings to keep the Building & Loan open and solvent. Finally, 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 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 collateral of George (of which he has almost none), rejects his pleas, and suggests George would be worth more dead than alive due to his $15,000 life insurance policy. Mr. Potter then, as a Building & Loan stockholder, swears out a warrant for George's arrest, for malfeasance and misappropriation of funds, and George runs off despondently.

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 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. Potter has taken over the town and renamed it Pottersville, which is a sleazy and dangerous place filled with whiskey joints, crime, pawnshops, violence, seedy entertainment establishments 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 business rival, the townspeople's response to his compassionless, uncaring attitude towards them isn't 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.


  1. ^ "It's a Wonderful Life", American Film Institute
  2. ^ Santoski, Teresa. "Actor Lionel Barrymore, who played Mr. Potter in 'It’s A Wonderful Life,' dies today in 1954", The week in Preview, The Nashua Telegraph
  3. ^ Corliss, Richard. "Top 25 Greatest Villains ", Time, April 25, 2007
  4. ^ Fuller, Graham. "Happy Birthday, George Bailey", The Guardian, December 24, 2007
  5. ^ Billy Paterson (2006-08-20). "Exclusive: I Was Monty's Double". The Sunday Mail. Retrieved 2007-08-18. 
  6. ^ Joe Rhodes (October 21, 2000). "Flash! 24 Simpsons Stars Reveal Themselves". TV Guide. 
  7. ^ "'Underdog' animator had no fear". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Retrieved 12 November 2014. 

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