I went out to see `It's a Wonderful Life' for the first time in years. The movie was showing in a vintage theater, and my brother and I got to sit in the balcony. It was a lovely experience.
After all this time, I finally appreciate the move. As a kid -one with big dreams of my own- I hated how George never got to travel. Of course, at that age I probably would've been upset by the opening montage in `Up,' too. They're very similar in their way of showing how life and responsibilities can completely derail all your plans.
But the movie isn't about `hey, you've given up on all your hopes and dreams, but at least everyone else is better off.' It's about how caring for people can hurt- but it's still better than just caring about yourself.
Old Man Potter, George's opposite and foil, shows that in his jealousy of George. His stealing the money is prompted by seeing George and Uncle Charlie's joy at the national recognition of George's younger brother, Harry. Old Man Potter is alone and hated, because he only ever looks out for Number One. Old Man Potter can't be proud of his brother, or son, or friends -not only because he has none, but also because to be proud of someone, you have to love them. Old Man Potter might not understand how George got there, but he recognizes George's success-by-proxy, even if George himself can't see it.
George doesn't get what he wants in the way he recognizes, but he does get his dreams on a small scale. He never builds skyscrapers and bridges, but he builds `Baily Park'.
After George and Mary loose all the money for their honeymoon, Mary and a couple of George's friends try to turn the old, broken-down house into an exotic getaway. They completely fail. The place is still a wreck. The sealing drips in a most un-exotic way. George comes in dripping wet, disappointed, and finds that his new wife thinks he's a hero and his friends are desperate to give him the closest thing they can to what he wants most.
These aren't obvious successes or fulfilled dreams to George -but only because he thinks he knows what success looks like. From the outside -from Old Man Potter's viewpoint- George succeeds at everything he puts his hand to. That's why he's a threat and a rival at all.