So, About That Skull on Mr. Potter’s Desk in “It’s a Wonderful Life” …

I spotted this hitherto-unnoticed detail during our annual (ritual) holiday season viewing of the classic It’s a Wonderful Life. The ornate skull on the evil Mr. Potter’s desk is a nice piece of sinister foreshadowing, but – curiosity piqued – it took some detective work to identify the actual prop, which is an antique death’s head pocket watch.

Produced as functional memento mori and especially popular during the 17th and 18th centuries, these hefty pocket watches are about the size of billiard balls. Individually crafted by skilled artisans, they are frequently engraved with mortality symbols such as Grim Reaper imagery and mottoes in Latin reading “Pale death knocks with the same tempo upon the huts of the poor and the towers of Kings” or “Life is fleeting, Look down upon a fallen thing, Look upon eternity, the hour of death is uncertain”. The actual timepiece is visible only by opening the skull’s jaw.

9 thoughts on “So, About That Skull on Mr. Potter’s Desk in “It’s a Wonderful Life” …

  1. Supposedly, due probably to the Hays Code, lost footage shows Clarence who appears to Potter to admonish him for keeping the $8000 & allowing George Bailey to contemplate suicide. We all would love to see that scene

  2. We just saw that skull! I noticed the chain and didn’t put 2 and 2 together. What a cool watch! What I thought was a blotter on the left side of the desk was a stamp, my husband said, that you rock back and forth. If anyone knows about Potter’s lighter, please post it!

    • Looking at the example given in this page, other than the image taken from the movie, I’m fairly certain that the one in the movie was specifically designed and made for the movie. The skull is not an artistic one, but matches an infant’s skull. That fits with Potter’s attitude towards the people he considers scum and low lifes.

      • Just to be clear, the antique death’s head watches pictured in the color photographs are just two of a wide variety of examples within this genre produced by individual artisans during the 17th and 18th centuries. I believe it’s very highly likely that the item on Potter’s desk is another antique of the same genre.

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