I think it's time we all took another look at Mr. Henry F. Potter, the heartless businessman played by Lionel Barrymore in the 1946 classic holiday film It's a Wonderful Life. Yes, he's a crotchety old slumlord who wants to buy out the Bailey Building and Loan and not let "lazy rabble" have mortgages, but in the current economy, you have to wonder if some of his policies made sense. Adam Gopnik in The New Yorkerpoints out that Jimmy Stewart's George Bailey was handing out a lot of sub-prime mortgages to bad risks, which is maybe not something we'd consider praiseworthy these days.
In addition, as I grow older, the hypothetical Pottersville doesn't look all that bad to me -- it's not nearly as lurid as Vegas or the French Quarter. Perhaps I've been prejudiced by one of my favorite short stories, Bradley Denton's "The Calvin Coolidge Home for Dead Comedians," in which the afterlife for comedians who must reform before they can get to Heaven includes a daily viewing of It's a Wonderful Life. Some of the characters become quite cynical about the Capra film after a number of viewings and I'm sure that rubbed off on me.
Mr. Potter is undoubtedly villainous, though -- if nothing else, he stumbles upon a large deposit from the Bailey Building and Loan that he never returns or turns in. I'm attaching two clips from It's a Wonderful Life below -- the one where George persuades the Building and Loan board not to sell to Potter, and the one where he visits Potter and asks for $8,000, after the money has gone missing.
Finally, I can't forget one of my favorite Saturday Night Live segments ever. As you know -- I can't imagine this is a spoiler for anyone -- Mr. Potter escapes the end of It's a Wonderful Life scot-free, with no one realizing he's got the missing money. I suppose director Frank Capra felt it was punishment enough that Potter continues a lonely, dissatisfied life. But most of us would like a little more revenge on the film's villain, and SNL provides it beautifully with the "lost ending" from It's a Wonderful Life. Check it out after the clips from the real movie.