Thursday, December 25, 2014

It's a Wonderful Life: a little more respect for Lionel Barrymore's Mr. Potter, please

Maybe Lionel Barrymore was too good at playing the deliciously avaricious bankster, Henry F. Potter. While critics now rave about Donna Reed and Jimmy Stewart, appreciation of Barrymore's craft seems to have been swallowed up by the overall revulsion at his character — which would not be as acute had Barrymore been less talented (and if his scripted lines hadn't been so terrific.) Even Roger Ebert inexplicably had nothing to say about Barrymore's delightful performance.
     Next Time It's a Wonderful Life plays on TV, go ahead and chuckle appreciatively as Barrymore incorrigibly yawns, twiddles his thumbs and casts bored looks around the room while Jimmy Stewart praises the working man and appeals to high ideals.
     At one point, Barrymore's Potter tried to get the best of George by shrewdly assessing his disappointments and failed aspirations, praising him, appealing to his desire to be a better provider — and then dangled a $20,000 yearly salary (huge, in Depression America) in front of him, spinning what Jimmy Stewart called a "web" after coming to his senses. Potter's inventive machinations are a wondrous garden of evil beauty at which to cackle.
     Barrymore, by then wheelchair-bound by arthritis, turned in a performance as good as anyone else's in the movie, including Stewart's. When is he going to start getting the credit he deserves?

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