Every Christmas, TV audiences find comfort and triumph in the rerunning of a black-and-white 1946 movie: It’s a Wonderful Life.
It’s the story of George Bailey (James Stewart), a decent husband and father who hovers on the brink of suicide–until his guardian angel, Clarence, suddenly intervenes.
Clarence reveals to George what his home town, Bedford Falls, New York, would be like if he had never been born. George finds himself shocked to learn:
- With no counterweight to the schemes of rapacious slumlord Henry F. Potter, Bedford Falls becomes Potterville, filled with pawn shops and sleazy nightclubs.
- With no George Bailey to save his younger brother, Harry, from drowning in a frozen pond, Harry drowns.
- With no Harry to live to become a Naval fighter pilot in World War II, he’s not on hand to shoot down two Japanese planes targeting an American troopship.
- As a result, the troopship and its crew are destroyed.
George is forced to face the significant role he has played in the lives of so many others.
Armed with this knowledge, he once again embraces life, running through the snow-covered streets of Bedford Falls and shouting “Merry Christmas!” to everyone he meets.
Audiences have hailed George Bailey as an Everyman hero–and the film as a life-affirming testatment to the unique importance of each individual.
But there is another aspect of the movie that has not been so closely studied: The legacy of its villain, Henry F. Potter, who, as played by Lionel Barrymore, bears a striking resemblance to former Vice President Dick Cheney.
Henry F. Potter
It is Potter–the richest man in Bedford Falls–whose insatiable greed threatens to destroy it. And it is Potter whose criminality drives George Bailey to the brink of suicide.
The antagonism between Bailey and Potter starts early in the movie. George dreams of leaving Bedford Falls and building skyscrapers. Meanwhile, he works at the Bailey Building and Loan Association, which plays a vital role in the life of the community.
Potter, a member of the Building and Loan Association board, tries to persuade the board of directors to dissolve the firm. He objects to their providing home loans for the working poor.
George persuades them to reject Potter’s proposal, but they agree only on condition that George run the Building and Loan. Reluctantly, George agrees.
Later, Potter tries to lure George away from the Building and Loan, offering him a $20,000 salary and the chance to visit Europe. George is briefly tempted.
But then he realizes that Potter intends to close down the Building and Loan and deny financial help to those who most need it. Angrily, he turns down Potter’s offer:
“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.”
It is a setback for Potter, but he’s willing to bide his time for revenge.
On Christmas Eve morning, the town prepares a hero’s welcome for George’s brother, Harry. George’s scatter-brained Uncle Billy visits Potter’s bank to deposit $8,000 of the Building and Loan’s cash funds.
He taunts Potter by reading the newspaper headlines announcing the coming tribute. Potter snatches the paper, and Billy unthinkingly allows the money to be snatched with it.
When Billy leaves, Potter opens the paper and sees the money. He keeps it, knowing that misplacement of bank money will bankrupt the Building and Loan and bring criminal charges against George.
But at the last minute, word of George’s plight reaches his wide range of grateful friends. A flood of townspeople arrive with more than enough donations to save George and the Building and Loan.
The movie ends on a triumphant note, with George basking in the glow of love from his family and friends.
But no critic seems to have noticed that Henry Potter’s theft has gone unnoticed. (Uncle Billy can’t recall how he lost the money.) Potter is richer by $8,000. And ready to go on taking advantage of others.
Perhaps it’s time to see Potter’s actions in a new light–that of America’s richest 1%, ever ready to prey upon the weaknesses of others.
Justice never catches up with Potter in the movie. But the joke-writers at Saturday Night Live have conjured up a satisfactory punishment for his avarice.
In this version, Uncle Billy suddenly remembers that he left the money with Potter. Enraged, George Bailey (Dana Carvey) leads his crowd of avenging friends to Potter’s office.
Potter realizes the jig is up and offers to return the money. But George wants more than that–and he and his friends proceed to stomp and beat Potter to death.
The skit ends with with George and his friends singing “Auld Ang Syne”–as they do in the movie–as they finish off Potter with clubs.
America is rapidly a divided nation–one where the richest 1% lord it over an increasingly impoverished 99%.
The time may be coming when many Americans are ready to embrace the SNL approach to economic justice.