Like most of you reading this, I’m a big fan of It’s A Wonderful Life. It’s one of the all-time best Christmas movies (I mean, it’s no On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but it’s pretty okay).
But once a movie gets as familiar as It’s A Wonderful Life is, you start noticing things. For me, I start wondering about all the interesting characters in the film. I’m not talking about main guys like George, Mary, Uncle Billy, Clarence the Angel, or even Mr. Potter, though. I’m talking about the cool side characters who, although they may not have a lot of screen time, make the most of it by leaving a strong impression. And many of them hint at the dark underbelly of life in the idealized Bedford Falls. I thought I’d run through a few of my favorites with you.
(All screencaps in this article are from Vagebond’s Movie Screencaps site. Check ’em out!)
Mr. Gower (H.B. Warner) – A man so committed to his work as a pharmacist that he comes to work even after learning of his son’s death. Once there, he then proceeds to accidentally poison people and drunkenly smack kids in their bad ears. Apparently H.B. Warner was a method actor, and he really slapped the shit out of Bobby Anderson, the actor playing Young George Bailey. That blood you see coming out of Anderson’s ear is real. But don’t worry, folks! It was 1946 and violence against children was totally okay!
Violet Bick (Gloria Grahame) – She’s the Bedford Falls town floozy. The Veronica to Mary Hatch’s Betty. The distant second in the “Bagging George Bailey” race. The one who leaves for NYC to get a fresh start after she’s slept with every man in town and then mysteriously changes her mind at the last minute.
What’s odd about Violet is that in the evil Pottersville, she’s a “Dime a Dance” girl, which Wikipedia tells me is slang for a taxi dancer. In Pottersville, I’m assuming she’s more or less a prostitute, which implies that in the regular Bedford Falls timeline, George Bailey once talked Violet out of a life on the streets. I’m really wishing that subplot had been left in the final cut.
Creepy Mustache Guy Trying to Pick Up Violet (Frank Fenton) – If they gave out Oscars for maximum creepiness in the shortest amount of screen time, this guy would win, hands down. First off, he’s got a pencil-thin mustache, so right away you know he’s up to no good. When George wanders into Bedford Falls one night, we see Mustache Guy aggressively hitting on Violet along with another dude, probably trying to talk her into a three-way. He’s not even fazed when Violet wanders off to go hit on George Bailey. No, he calls after her: “We’ll wait for ya, baby!” like the total sleazeball creepazoid he is. I bet this guy was right at home in Pottersville.
Sam Wainwright (Frank Albertson) – War profiteer plastics manufacturer who always has a floozy on his arm. He’s so rich that he wears tuxedos for no reason. He’s so rich that he’s got three separate telephones in his office in the middle of the Depression. He’s so rich that he can make calls to Mary in front of other women and they’re totally okay with it. Hell, he’s so rich that no one has the nerve to tell him how annoying that stupid “Hee Haw” thing is. That is RICH, my friends.
I’d like to think that Wainwright’s plastic empire eventually grew so large that the “Plastics” guy at Ben Braddock’s graduation party worked for Wainwright, thus making The Graduate part of the It’s A Wonderful Life Cinematic Universe.
Grown Up Alfalfa (Carl Switzer) – IMDb tells me that his character name is Freddie Othello, but screw it, he’s Grown Up Alfalfa. He’s the guy at Harry’s graduation dance who opens up the gym floor to dump George Bailey in the swimming pool underneath, because trying to drown a guy is a totally proportionate response to another guy dancing with the girl you like. (You could totally attempt to murder dudes for that sort of thing back then. It was 1928, and the #MeToo movement wasn’t going to start for another 90 years.)
And let’s also take a look at Alfalfa’s partner in crime (Mark Roberts), the one who provides the key to the gymnasium floor, because he is creepy as hell:Look at these two. That is some Leopold and Loeb shit going on right there. That stare is straight-up “I am going to murder someone and make savage love to you, but not necessarily in that order.” The story of this ambiguously gay duo and their sexual thrill kills is continued in Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train and Rope, which, because it also stars Jimmy Stewart, I am now considering an unofficial sequel to It’s A Wonderful Life.
Undershirt Porch Guy (Dick Elliott) – This dude is just hanging out on his porch, waiting for his neighbors to entertain him. And when the guy in the football jersey and the girl naked under her bathrobe aren’t entertaining enough for his liking, he’s not shy about speaking up and telling them what they’re doing wrong (“Why don’t you KISS her instead of talking her to death?”). He eventually succumbs to his bitterness and goes back inside, disgusted that he’s not getting to see any sweet, sweet James Stewart-on-Donna Reed action tonight (“Ohh… Youth is wasted on the wrong people!”).
I’d like to think that this guy was also an aspiring angel, working to get George and Mary together as early as possible, and he sadly failed in his mission to get his wings. That, or he was just a frustrated Peeping Tom who was fed up that PornHub wasn’t a thing yet.
Ruth Bailey (Virginia Patton) – This is Harry’s wife who he meets in college. And she seems great. She’s pretty, she’s personable, she’s got a good sense of humor, and the Baileys all take to her instantly. Ma Bailey seems to think that her son’s made a good choice, and that “she’ll keep Harry in line.” So far so good. The really weird thing is that Ruth completely disappears from the film after the Baileys have a party to celebrate her marriage to Harry. Let’s take a look at the end of the movie:
Harry flies back in a blizzard to be with his brother when he’s in trouble. Everyone in Bedford Falls shows up, except Ruth. Her husband’s just returned home from the war, he’s won the Congressional Medal of Honor… and she’s nowhere to be seen. No one even comments on her absence, either. Apparently they weren’t expecting her to be there. What gives? Did she have something more important to do? Was it the night of her bowling league? Did she and Harry get divorced? Did she pass away for some reason? Was she murdered? Is that why Violet’s leaving town? Did Violet move on to Harry after she couldn’t get George and decide to finally take out the competition when he came back to the country? Is there an unmarked grave in Potter’s Field? What are you hiding about Ruth Bailey, Bedford Falls?!?
Mrs. Hatch (Sara Edwards) – A.K.A. Mary’s Mother. She wants her daughter to be married to Sam Wainwright, and she’s not even trying to be subtle about it any more. She is so focused on her mission that she’s not even fazed by Mary telling her that George is making violent love to her in the living room. Sam is going places, unlike that loser George Bailey, and she wants her daughter to be taken care of financially.
This is her look seconds after George and Mary declare their undying love for each other:
Look at how miserable she is on her daughter’s wedding day:
Those are not tears of happiness, people. That is “My baby’s made a horrible mistake, and I can’t do anything to stop it.”
I can’t imagine that George and Mary giving away their honeymoon nest egg during the bank run later that day did anything to assuage her fears, either. Do you think she ever warmed up to George? Or did she just pepper every conversation over the years with passive-aggressive comments about her worthless son-in-law until George and Mary only invited her over to see the grandchildren?
Mr. Carter the Bank Examiner (Charles Halton) – The more I think about this guy, the more I love him. He’s pissed off to be working on Christmas Eve, and he doesn’t care who knows it. His utter indifference to everything he encounters in Bedford Falls is magnificent to behold. When Mr. Carter is told that his George’s brother has just been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for shooting down 15 enemy planes and saving a transport boat full of soldiers, he just mutters, “Hmm. Well, I guess they do that sort of thing.” He could not give less of a shit.
Nothing cracks this guy’s crusty exterior. Here’s Mr. Carter witnessing George’s joyous reunion with his children:
Yeah, he softens at the end and seems to catch the Christmas Spirit along with the rest of the town, but if you look closely, he only seems to toss in a buck. I’d like to think that his change of heart wasn’t so much Mr. Carter being overcome by sentiment as it was just him reading the room and realizing that going along with this nonsense was his best chance of getting out of there quickly.
Mr. Welch (Stanley Andrews) – The husband of Zuzu’s teacher, who yells at George over the phone and then, instead of staying home and consoling his upset wife, goes out in a snowstorm to get sloshed on Christmas Eve. It was apparently the right decision, though, because it gives him a chance to sock George in the kisser at Martini’s bar. Without Mr. Welch, George couldn’t get so happy about his lip bleeding when he comes back to the real world, so if you think about it, Mr. Welch is the real hero of It’s A Wonderful Life.
Mr. Welch is also one of the few people in Bedford Falls who still thinks that George Bailey is an utter bastard at the end of the movie. I bet he and Mr. Potter could form a club.
Nick the Bartender (Sheldon Leonard) – First of all, you’ve got love Nick because he’s played by Sheldon Leonard. The man produced I Spy and The Dick Van Dyke Show, so he deserves our respect. Leonard makes every line he has entertaining (“We serve hard drinks in here for men who want to get drunk fast, and we don’t need any characters around to give the joint AT-mosphere.” “That’s it! Out you two pixies go, through the door or out the window!” and “Get me, I’m givin’ out wings!” are all gold).
Nick is one of the few people who’s arguably better off if George Bailey had never been born. In Bedford Falls, he’s just a bartender at Martini’s place, but in Potttersville, he owns the joint. That’s a definite upgrade. And he’s apparently a better manager than Martini is, since Nick’s is a lot more crowded than Martini’s, and it looks like a real happening joint (on Christmas Eve, yet!).
Unfortunately, Pottersville Nick is kind of an asshole (that seltzer-to-the-face gag with old Mr. Gower is not cool), but if he lightened up a bit, I’d definitely watch a spinoff about Nick’s Bar. Think of it as a Cheers for the Baby Boomer generation.
Who are your favorite side characters from It’s A Wonderful Life? Sound off in the comments! And Merry Christmas, you old Building and Loan! See you next year!