“Get me—I’m givin’ out wings!”
— Nick the bartender
“What’s the matter with him? I never saw Nick act like that.”
— George Bailey
You remember Nick—the barman at Martini’s. Starched white shirt, neat bow tie. A good bartender and a good man. The last man, in fact, to show George Bailey some kindness before he heads out into the snow, desperate and alone, to take his own life. How is it then, in a world without George, that of all people, Nick becomes such a scumbag?
At Martini’s, the atmosphere is festive. It’s Christmas Eve and the inn is full. Behind the bar, however, the ever-solicitous Nick notices that George Bailey is definitely not in the holiday spirit. He seems to be on the verge of tears. “You alright, George?” he inquires discreetly. “Want somebody to take you home?” George demurs. The scene ends when a man at the end of the bar punches George in the face. Nick helps George to his feet and out the door, toward his fated rendezvous with Clarence Oddbody, Angel Second Class.
In idyllic Bedford Falls, Nick is a mild-mannered helpmeet, a man of apparently modest ambitions, content in his career as a barman for the equally kindly Mr. Martini, tavern owner (and Building & Loan customer).
But in Pottersville, Nick is no longer anybody’s second-in-command. Gone is the crisply dressed, polite young man. At “Nick’s”, the establishment that Martini’s has become in this parallel universe, he is clearly the man in charge—and loving it. Hair greased back, eyelids at half mast he is the surly center of attention, a tough guy sporting a loud shirt and a clashing, polka-dot bow-tie (Like everything else in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” fashion sense is also linked to George Bailey’s existence.) Even his voice swaggers.
“I’m the boss around here,” he tells George and Clarence. But Nick’s not merely the boss, feeling his oats—he’s deliberately unpleasant. Mean. Nasty.
Nick is… an asshole.
In his brief exchange with George and Clarence—whom he takes to be, well, out of place—Nick becomes increasingly annoyed: “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 ‘atmosphere’, is that clear?” He offers the duo a look of sheer disgust after Clarence—who has just heard a ringing cash register—exclaims, “Every time you hear a bell ring, it means that some angel’s just got his wings.” Seconds later Nick ejects the duo. “That does it,” he barks. “Out you two pixies go, through the door or out the window!”
Obviously, George Bailey’s ceasing to exist wrecks many lives. But what exactly is the deal with Nick? What went so wrong, so fast? Herewith, possible explanations:
- The Potternomics theory. Perhaps Nick has had to toughen up, just to survive. In Pottersville, a town where just one man rules with an iron fist, a discontented, lazy rabble falls prey to unemployment, prostitution and crime. Downtown is a maelstrom of poolhalls, pawn brokers and seedy clubs. But the competition is fierce in this hard drinking town, and “Nick’s” is not located on the bustling, wild main street. This may explain why his roadhouse has become a smoke-filled den of iniquity, bursting with demented piano music. (The only thing “Nick’s” seems to be missing is a bouncer who studies eastern philosophy.)
- Nature vs. nurture. Was trouble always lurking inside Nick, or did Pottersville turn a nice guy into a thug? Well, Pottersville has certainly compromised others who earlier epitomized virtue and kindness. Look at George Bailey’s mother, now a bitter woman running a flophouse. His saintly wife is now a mousy librarian. Reduced to civic prole, Bert the cop discharges his sidearm into a crowd. Meanwhile, the possibly alcoholic taxi-driver, Ernie, is cuckolded and living in a Potter shanty. In a Georgeless world, Violet Biggs-a flashy tart whom George ultimately kept straight—is a quasi-hooker who’s loaded into a Pottersville paddy wagon, kicking and screaming. Troubled lives all, yet only Nick is actually thriving. Deprived of George Bailey’s nourishing influence on the town, Nick is reduced to his true nature: goon. And in Pottersville, goons come out on top.
Was he merely predisposed? Perhaps Pottersville didn’t alter Nick’s behavior; maybe he was always a wiseguy but just hid it until Mr. Martini was out of the picture. We don’t know what “Bedford Falls Nick” does for laughs – one can almost imagine him helping old ladies cross the street — but in Pottersville, we see that he gets his kicks by gleefully tormenting the downtrodden. Case in point: Mr. Gower. After the defrocked druggist wanders into the bar looking for a handout, Nick proceeds to douse the old man with a seltzer bottle, to the delight of the bar patrons. He probably also pulls the wings off flies.
- Could Nick in fact be an actual minion of Satan? Consider: immediately after Nick enters the tale, George will try to kill himself. Perhaps Nick and Clarence are locked in a battle for George’s soul. From the get-go, Old Nick becomes adversarial toward George’s guardian angel, even threatening Clarence at one point with a fist in his face.
And there’s more. Nick appears in Martini’s for the first time the very instant that George says, “Show me the way, God.” George is then assaulted by Mr. Welsh, the schoolteacher’s husband seated at the bar. (Who first identifies him to Mr. Welsh? Nick.)
“That’s what I get for praying,” says George.
Of course, the answer could be something simpler. In the alternate universe, perhaps Nick’s mother never loved him. As Clarence says, no man is a failure who has friends, and it looks like the “dark” Nick is Mr. Popularity, compared with his benign shadow. We’ll never know which fate serves him better.
Maybe in Pottersville, only one guy gets to be happy and prosperous, and it’s Nick.
One thing, however, is clear. If it weren’t for Uncle Billy, none of this would have happened.