It's about that time. You know the time: families decorate the tree, hot cocoa is poured, cheesy and overplayed yet somehow eternally comforting Christmas music wafts leisurely through the background. In the evening, everyone will gather in the family room to watch A Christmas Story or Miracle on 34th Street or Home Alone or, of course, Frank Capra's immortal 1946 classic It's a Wonderful Life. Often considered the most inspirational movie ever made, it's the story of George Bailey, a generous and kindhearted family man who suffers a setback and, at the cusp of suicide, has a little divine intervention, sees how bleak his hometown of Bedford Falls would have been without him, and learns that it's a wonderful life after all.
The film's antagonist is one Henry F. Potter, the richest and meanest man in the county. He was selected by the American Film Institute as the #6 villain in all of film history and is evidently immortal, being introduced as an old man in 1919 and still alive, kicking, and scheming in 1946. His reign over Bedford Falls is one characterized by avarice and were it not for the Bailey Building and Loan Association being the perpetual thorn in his side he would have turned the town into a living hell long ago. Or so we're told, but put under scrutiny It's a Wonderful Life flunks the "show, don't tell" test of fiction, and flunks it badly. The clear-cut black and white morality with which we see the world through George Bailey's biased eyes is swirled deeply with shades of grey, and I'm forced to conclude that Mr. Potter is not only not a villain, but perhaps cinema's greatest tragic hero.
Now, don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying that George Bailey is necessarily a villain — his prevention of his childhood boss Mr. Gower from accidentally poisoning a child and his saving his brother Harry from drowning in an icy lake are objectively good things, especially since Harry would later go on to save a ship full of American soldiers during World War II. But there can be no doubt that George has it in for Mr. Potter. Numerous times throughout the film he hurls unwarranted insults at the poor old man both to his face and behind his back, while Potter is ever the better man, remaining calm and moving forward with consummate professionalism where lesser men would have just decked the little shit. George repeatedly accosts people about the shitty houses that Potter supposedly rented to them, but watch closely. Does anyone ever really jump to agree with him, or do they just stare in confusion or nod uncomfortably to end the moment with this deranged lunatic?
Yes, Mr. Potter is indisputably a ruthless and coldly analytical man, as are many who rise to the top in business, but he's ever the professional and if unable to run his competitors out of business (a skill which, if I'm not mistaken, is generally celebrated as quintessentially American) is more than willing to extend an olive branch. He even brings George Bailey in for a meeting and makes him an exceedingly, even unnecessarily generous offer, a nearly 1000% raise from what George is making at Building and Loan and the opportunity to join Potter's inner circle and perhaps even steer the town in a direction more suited to George's moral code. And what does the man do? Well, this is George Bailey we're talking about here, so we know how it goes: he responds to Potter's generous offer with a near-psychotic torrent of verbal abuse before storming out in a rage. Bedford Falls' number two business owner, ladies and gentlemen. Bravo.
But enough with the film's primary timeline. Let's hop over to the supposedly hellish alternate reality that Angel Second Class Clarence Odbody shows the despairing Mr. Bailey to reignite his Chrismas spirit and will to live, tellingly renamed Pottersville by the grateful populace. As I've acknowledged, yes, the kid with the prescription and Harry Bailey are decades deceased, which is tragic, but other than that you will never in a million years convince me that the Bedford Falls of George Bailey's 1946 is a better place to live than Pottersville. Yes, Bedford Falls is the sleepy, white bread All-American suburb of picket fences and hard work and wholesome families that old people fantasized about returning to all through Reagan's presidency; despite the film's 1946 release date, it's instantly recognizable as the contemporary fantasy version of 1950s America. And Pottersville? Well, Pottersville is (get ready for this) the sleepy, white bread All-American suburb of picket fences and hard work and wholesome families with a strip club, a casino, and a bar that serves hard liquor. Holy god, the motherfucking horror!
This isn't BiffCo from Back to the Future Part II we're dealing with here. Biff Tannen's Hill Valley was an economically devastated hellscape with through-the-roof crime and murder rates and the police functioning as Biff's fascist secret police. Pottersville, with the exception of the closed Bailey Building and Loan Association, clearly has substantially more local business and almost certainly a stronger economy than Bedford Falls. When George begins flipping his shit and harassing the locals (gee, I didn't see that one coming), the friendly police respond quickly and efficiently to the people's summons with no displays of any unnecessary brutality.
There aren't any junkies shooting up on the corner. I don't see any hookers. If anyone is going hungry we sure don't see it. In Pottersville, people work hard and families love one another just like Bedford Falls, except that in Pottersville the blue collar workers have some much-deserved nighttime entertainment. And if I lived in that dreadful boring town, I'd need to wind down with a few shots and some naked ladies too. If having a strip club makes a town evil, then America is fucked, because every town in this country with more than a few thousand people is doomed to hellfire.
But there are two symbols above all others that are meant to inform us of the pure malevolence of Pottersville. The alternate reality version of Bedford Falls' local harlot, Violet, is seen to be working as — god fucking forbid — a stripper. Which, you know, is a perfectly legitimate profession that plenty of women make a good living doing. In the real Bedford Falls Violet is a broke woman with no skills of any kind who takes off to New York with only the clothes on her back and like $20 George lends her, no doubt to die from starvation in a gutter somewhere. George sends this poor, destitute, ruined woman to her untimely death with a smile. Murderous. (Yeah, she comes back at the end, but George had no way of predicting that.) In Pottersville, she probably has thousands of bucks in the bank, hordes of admirers who pay good green cash to see her, a nice place, the works. One of these women is in a good situation, and it's not the one Frank Capra wants us to think it is.
And then there's George's wife, Mary Hatch, a woman whose real-world profession is to sit at home pumping out kid after kid that the Baileys can barely afford to feed on George's $2K salary. When interrogated about Mary's Pottersville version, Clarence reluctantly tells George that "she's an old maid. She never married," and that she's currently at work — a woman, working! — closing up the local library (an establishment never mentioned in the real Bedford Falls). George is struck numb with horror to learn that rather than pumping out children Mary has given into the blackness of books and learning and helping keep the populace well-read and educated. Not in George Bailey's America! He storms after her, flailing and grabbing and shouting like a madman, and her 100% warranted reaction of fear at being assaulted by a perfect stranger is portrayed as tragic. Also note that Clarence never said that Mary is loveless or celibate, only that she "never married." Hell, judging by the sexy librarian getup she was rocking, I bet she gets some at least once a week, and not the boring missionary style shit George is giving her. Why am I supposed to want soulless suburban drone Mary rather than awesome Pottersville Mary?
Let's look forward to 2009. Bedford Falls might still exist (then again, maybe not, with all the bad loans George was giving out undermining the town's economy), but if it does it's a sleepy, depressed armpit with good intentions and little else except some kind of hollow longing for the 1950s. And in the current financial crisis, the whole town might have just ended. And Pottersville? Well, Mr. Potter's enhancements to the local nightlife actually encouraged some new people to move in, people whose kids grew up smart thanks to Mary's work at the library. Bigger population, fresh blood, a thriving local economy, and more tax dollars to build a better hospital, a better school, and hire better teachers. Maybe Pottersville circa 2009 is even sending its kids to Ivy League schools and producing great thinkers, scientists, businessmen, artists, academics. Henry F. Potter had a grand vision for the future of Bedford Falls, not necessarily as a thriving American city, but a good place to live. George Bailey wanted to hold its hand and walk it into the abyss.
That's why I can forgive Mr. Potter's theft of $8000 from the Baileys, a desperate last-ditch effort that came so wonderfully close to driving Bailey Building and Loan under and George Bailey off a bridge. Illegal, yes, of course, but the Rebel Alliance in Star Wars was breaking the law too. This theft wasn't malicious, it was the final effort of a sad old man on the precipice of death to save his town and ensure the future. But alas, the hero could not win this battle, as the people of Bedford Falls came in throngs to bail George out of debt. Many great tales have ended in tragedy; Romeo & Juliet, Hamlet, Othello, and It's a Wonderful Life is one of them. But you did your best, Mr. Potter. I salute you.