Bad to the Bone
"Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster."
That's the best description we've read of Henry F. Potter.
Except it's not Potter. It's Ebenezer Scrooge, that greedy villain of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Clearly, Philip Van Doren Stern, who wrote the story on which the movie is based, intended the comparison.
Henry Potter is Ebenezer Scrooge on steroids. He's a mean, old rich guy who wants to take over Bedford Falls. He made his fortune in real estate at the expense of the townspeople. As greedy movie villains go, he's kind of Gordon Gekko meets Cruella de Vil. Just check out that scowl. The American Film Institute ranked him #6 on their list of great movie villains, just behind Nurse Ratched and the Wicked Witch of the West. That's some seriously villainous company.
(Fun fact: Lionel Barrymore, the legendary actor who played Potter, was a very famous Scrooge in several radio productions. Some people thought that's why he got the part. [Source])
Potter is a slumlord who owns a bunch of rental properties in a neighborhood folks like to call Potter's Field. ("Potter's field" is a phrase meaning a city's burial place for people who die alone and penniless. It's an apt name for this depressing neighborhood.)
Potter is on the board of directors for Bailey Building and Loan, and he wants it gone. It's the one thing in town he can't control, and he's all about control. He's never understood a business that exists for the purpose of helping people rather than enriching the owner. He spars constantly with George's father, Peter, and after Pa Bailey's death, he lets George know what he thinks of his lending money so poor people can own their own homes:
POTTER: You see, if you shoot pool with some employee here, you can come and borrow money. What does that get us? A discontented, lazy rabble instead of a thrifty working class. And all because a few starry-eyed dreamers like Peter Bailey stir them up and fill their heads with a lot of impossible ideas.
Does this guy have no redeeming qualities whatsoever? He probably tortures cats.
Potter insists he's taking a practical, businessman's attitude toward the Building and Loan, but he's really just being callous. He's completely blind to the human dimension of the business. Which makes us notice: he's got no family and no friends. He has his business toadies, but that's it. He's feared, despised, and isolated with his money. No wonder George told him that Pa Bailey died a "richer" man that Potter will ever be.
Potter's last and worst act is to steal the money from George's bank deposits and call the authorities, insinuating that George has taken the money and used it for himself. He goes in for the kill, not just wanting to dissolve the Building and Loan, but to take George down with it:
POTTER: Look at you. You used to be so cocky! You were going to go out and conquer the world! You once called me a warped, frustrated old man. What are you but a warped, frustrated young man? A miserable little clerk crawling in here on your hands and knees and begging for help. No securities—no stocks—no bonds—nothing but a miserable little $500 equity in a life insurance policy. You're worth more dead than alive. Why don't you go to the riffraff you love so much and ask them to let you have $8,000? You know why? Because they'd run you out of town on a rail. But I'll tell you what I'm going to do for you, George. Since the state examiner is still here, as a stockholder of the Building and Loan, I'm going to swear out a warrant for your arrest. Misappropriation of funds—manipulation—malfeasance ...
That is just about the worst thing we've ever heard.
Even though the townspeople raise money and bail George out, Potter is never caught or arrested. He has to live with the knowledge that the Building and Loan, and George Bailey, stood up to him and prevailed. He's still alone. We guess that has to be punishment enough.
The character of Henry Potter was the reason the FBI thought this movie was suspiciously Communist-tinged. He's written as a greedy, money-mad robber baron and slumlord, which the Feds thought was anti-capitalist and therefore anti-American. At the same time, though, you could see It's a Wonderful Life as anti-Communist. It argues that the individual matters in a big way. That's as American as apple pie. Potter is simply a lousy example of an individual.
In a perfect world, Potter would get his comeuppance. In fact, the movie production code at the time, the Hays Code, contained a requirement that criminal wrongdoing in movies must never be depicted as going unpunished unless criminals are shown to repent. Potter is unrepentant to the end, and that somehow got past the censors. But thanks to SNL, we see what really happens to Potter in the previously undiscovered "lost ending" of It's a Wonderful Life.