Hee-haw and Merry Christmas

A Christmas movie, a hidden lesson, a quick digression, and 7 other things worth your time.

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It’s the time of year when folks start talking about the 1946 movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, which contains a key life lesson that most people miss, and that—

Wait, everyone’s seen the movie, right?

OK, I’ll do my best Orin Grossman.

Here’s It’s a Wonderful Life in just over 100 words. (Then, why.):

Frank Capra directed; Jimmy Stewart stars as George Bailey: husband, father, and president of a tiny community bank in Bedford Falls, USA. He’s always had ambition and wanderlust, but he got stuck in his tiny hometown. In December 1945, he’s $8,000 short at work, through zero fault of his own, just as the bank examiners arrive. Total calamity. He contemplates suicide, thinks better, but wishes he’d never been born.

People pray, God hears, sends an angel. George gets to see what others’ lives would have been like without him: he’s had incredible influences he never knew about. Spoiler alert (on a 74-year-old movie): He learns to be grateful. Meanwhile, folks in his town learn about his troubles, chip in $5 here, $10 there, and make up the $8,000.

Classic Christmas movie. Right up there with Miracle on 34th Street and Die Hard. It has a hit-you-over-the-head moral, which is basically that you never really know how important you are to other people.

Also, to cite an oft-quoted line, “No man is a failure who has friends."

Which brings us to why I’m discussing it, besides the the calendar. It’s because of a fairly minor character in the movie named Sam Wainwright, who only gets seven lines. (I downloaded the screenplay and counted.)

He’s one of George’s childhood friends—but he got out of town, started a company, and grew rich. He’s always showing up to try to do things for George, but George always puts his town ahead of what he thinks will lead to his own happiness.

Sam also has an odd, annoying verbal habit: He uses the [word (?)/phrase (?)] “hee-haw,” as kind of an idiosyncratic interjection. Maybe it was less weird in the 1940s.

He’s not even in the climactic scene of the movie. But, he sends a telegram that’s read in front of the group, as they’re throwing their coins and dollars and $5s into the pot to make up George’s shortfall. Here’s that part of the script:

Good friend, right? By my math, $25,000 in 1945 is worth about $330,000 today. Without even knowing any of the details, he’s willing to step up for George like this.

I’ve seen this movie a lot of times. There’s a whole other story to tell about how it temporarily lapsed into the public domain, so networks showed it constantly around Christmas during the 1980s and early 1990s, and it became much more popular than it was at first.

But, it’s always struck me that Sam’s telegram very nearly becomes a deus ex machina — meaning none of the rest of the story—the shortfall, George’s distress and dark thoughts, God sending an angel, all the neighbors digging deep—really had to happen.

All that did have to happen is that George would have had to swallow his pride, tell his friend he needed help, and be willing to accept it.

(Actually, George never does share his problems; it’s his wife and uncle who tell all the townspeople and Mr. Gower, who in turn tells Sam, prompting the telegram.)

Of course, then there’d be no story, and I’d be stuck watching some really bad, mail-it-in Christmas movie starring Tim Allen or Vince Vaughn, with my wife and daughter on movie night.

Anyway, the real moral? Cut to the chase, quit the drama if you can, and ask for help. There’s often someone out there, eager to offer assistance, in a position to do so.

In return, maybe you’ll overlook their own version of “hee-haw.”

7 other things worth your time

  • The CDC and FDA have now approved Pfizer’s Covid vaccine. Health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities get it first. Meanwhile, the U.S. is now losing 3,000 people a day, and the total death toll is now over 300,000. (CNN, Daily Mail)

  • I wrote about Elon Musk moving to Texas, and how it could likely save him billions of dollars in state income taxes over the next few years. (Inc.com)

  • Cleveland’s Major League Baseball team will drop the name “Indians” after 105 years, starting in 2022, according to a report. (NYT, $)

  • Congress passed the defense bill by a supposedly veto-proof margin, but President Trump says he’ll veto it anyway. One thing he could do is hold it until the last day, as that would require Congress to return during the Christmas break to override the veto. There’s a question logistically whether enough members would actually physically return before the January 3 deadline. (AP)

  • Apple TV was working on a fictional series based on the history of Gawker Media — the media company that in real life, in 2008, outed Apple’s now-CEO Tim Cook as a gay man. Cook found out, and the series is gone. (NYT, $)

  • Hackers believed to be working for Russia have been monitoring internal email traffic at the U.S. Treasury and Commerce departments, according to Reuters, which says officials fear they’ve only uncovered the tip of the iceberg. (Reuters)

  • OK, warning for parents of kids with iPhones, or who let their kids use theirs. A Connecticut mom whose 6-year-old apparently bought $16,293.10 in virtual tokens in an iPhone game says Apple told her it won’t refund the money, and that she should have changed her settings. The mom: "Obviously, if I had known there was a setting for that, I wouldn't have allowed my 6-year-old to run up nearly $20,000 in charges for virtual gold rings.” (Apple Insider)

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