Thursday, December 8, 2016

"God bless us--bah! Humbug!" 70 (Wonderful) years of Potter

St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, model for Santa Claus.
We head toward the Christian celebration of Christmas here with fair rapidity, and while I've generally enjoyed the season (having been raised in a huge Catholic family), I find myself appalled at present Christmas films.  With all the sappy, poorly written dreck made for tv or a certain kind of Christian audience, I've found it hard to find much.  I'm not a comedy fan,  and my favorite seasonal film is A Muppet Christmas Carol,  which I watch each year.  Then things like The Year Without a Santa Claus (the Miser Brothers!), generally films with a darker edge but good endings. 

So of course...but no. I'm not really a fan of It's a Wonderful Life, and Jimmy Stewart isn't really a favorite.  He's okay in it,  but growing up it felt too sappy to me.

But I hadn't paid attention to the bad guy, Mr. Henry F. Potter. Played by?  Mr. Lionel Barrymore.

Mr. Henry F. Potter himself, in his massive, amazing wheelchair

I won't review the film,  but here's a little background as we head into the season where this film runs almost continuously,  70 years after it was made: it was Stewart's first film made after he was mustered out of the Army Air Corps with what we now call PTSD,  and he was very unsure of himself.  Several people attest he was nervous, angry, upset, and unwilling to believe films really mattered. And then...

According to a recent article on the 70th anniversary, quoting Frank Capra and others, when Stewart kept going on about believing film acting wasn't important, Lionel Barrymore asked him, "So, are you saying it's more worthwhile to drop bombs on people than to entertain them?" (Nina Metz, Chicago Tribune, Dec 8, 2016, "Stewart's War Service Influenced Movie")

Ouch, frankly. But this made an impact on Stewart and helped shift his attitude, making the rest of the film easier for him. Stewart's conflicted emotions also, though I think the film trends that way anyway, made the film much bleaker and in some cases frightening in its intensity as George breaks down.

As for Mr B? Mr. Potter is one of the only real, hardly-redeemable villains of his sound film career, and it's his best-remembered role. There's no doubt he relished the opportunity to shed his MGM-cultivated Grand Old Man persona and massively enjoyed playing the heavy. Potter ranks quite highly on Best Film Villain lists (#6 on AFI 50 Greatest Villains), which would gratify Mr B, I believe. Of course, the film also was slammed by the villains of HUAC in 1947 as "anti-bank" propaganda because of Potter (which would have pleased Mr. B, I think).

So Merry Christmas to those who celebrate,  and a warm, friendly, cozy season to all. Enjoy a Wonderful Life with one you love: I'll see it on the big screen Dec 13th! What a strange world,  that the first thing I'll see Mr B in on the big screen is in a role I hadn't paid attention to as a kiddo, in a film I generally don't find very interesting.  Maybe I'm just more Scrooge/Potter-like as I age.

The film has also been available for free a long time, so here's a link to one version on YouTube...enjoy!

(Yes, I'll be posting on the big screen experience! )

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