The greatness of Barrymore's performance actually comes most into play as a most worthy opponent for James Stewart as George. There first face off, and Barrymore's second scene, is after George's father has died and the share holders of his father's company the Bailey Building and Loan are there to determine its fate. Potter wants it to be dissolved as it poses a threat to his control of the town, although he has a backhanded praise of George's father. Barrymore is brilliant in how he does this as he stats that Bailey was a man of so called ideals. The way he looks to the side in discontent and pauses with the so called is time so perfectly by Barrymore that gives such an a callousness to his statement. Barrymore continues to excel and is a great counterpoint to Stewart's performance as George makes his passionate rebuttal against Potter's view of the people of the town. Barrymore's reaction is perfect in showing just how little Potter thinks of George's words. What's particularly great is the way he does the yawn, where he kinda tries to hide but in a way to bring more attention to it.
I don't know if I can name a performance where someone makes their face as expressive as Barrymore more does here as Potter. It never feels strange or awkward or any way and in fact Barrymore uses that as well as his hands as an effective way to make up for the fact that he obviously has some physical constraints. Barrymore is great just to watch here with all that he does in his various facial movements and hand gestures. They never feel like too much but only aid in making his Potter all the more memorable as a character. These certainly come into play in one of Barrymore's best scenes when Potter calls in George to his office in an attempt to get George to accept a high paying job in order to rid himself of his rival. Barrymore is amazing in this scene because he does shed the true nature of the character ever so much as Potter makes his offer. For a moment Barrymore is terrific as he brings a false kindness to Potter as such a sweet offer to George, and makes it so very tempting. My favorite moment is that final smile where he thinks he has George, since there is such deviousness within it.
Well his offer to George is Potter at his most "kind" later on we get Potter at his worst and Barrymore is once again outstanding. George comes to Potter for help due to a misplacement of funds, which actually accidentally fell into Potter's hands, hoping that Potter will help him. Barrymore does not hold back at just how despicable Potter is in this scene as Barrymore begins with Potter almost confused and concerned by George's predicament. As Potter asks about embezzlement or possibly an affair George is thought to be, incorrectly, having Barrymore has almost a fatherly tone as if Potter is trying to mentor the young man on proper business practices, even though he knows the truth. When Potter sees that George has nothing financially to offer him Barrymore brings out the full sinister nature of Potter, and he gives basically a sickly inverted of George's earlier speech against him. Barrymore's is incredible as he matches Stewart's passion from that earlier scene but is quite chilling by making the passion serve such a horrible notion and purpose.
Lionel Barrymore and Henry Travers don't share any scenes together and whereas Barrymore has a some scenes throughout Travers's are all one after another, but they fulfill two polar opposites. Where Travers was such a wonderful personification of good, Barrymore is such a personification of evil. Lionel Barrymore succeeds in making Mr. Potter one of the all time great villains of cinema, and Potter does not even need to physically harm a soul. Barrymore's performance makes Potter such a vile sort by realizing the man's cruel ideology. It is interesting to note that Barrymore was originally going to play Ebenezer Scrooge in the 1938 version of A Christmas Carol, but was unable to do to his legs. It is easy to see him, due to his role here as Potter, to play the unreformed Scrooge, but actually Barrymore does not make Potter just the unreformed Scrooge. Barrymore makes Potter a darker sort, a man incapable of seeing the error of his ways. I love this performance, which is even very entertaining due to Barrymore's energetic style, yet that never takes away even an ounce of the viciousness of his characterization.