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TV’s majestic franchise

Dec 3, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Sponsor involvement in program content is supposed to be a no-no, a very bad thing. One conspicuous exception to the rule, however, has resulted in conspicuously exceptional television for half a century. The program reflects well on the sponsor, the sponsor reflects well on the program, and everybody goes to bed happy.
In a medium that has seen innumerable trends come and go with the Tides, the Alls, the Wisks and the Cheers, one TV series has managed a majestic consistency: For 50 years, with remarkably few missteps along the way, “The Hallmark Hall of Fame” has blazed a trail of quality and in the process become one of the most gratifying success stories in broadcasting history.
The official birthday is Dec. 24, because on Dec. 24, 1951, the curtain went up on the first “Hallmark” special: “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” a Christmas opera commissioned for television by NBC, composed by Gian Carlo Menotti and sponsored by Hallmark Cards. Two television traditions were born that night. There would be more than 200 more “Hall of Fame” broadcasts in the next 50 years, including annual repeats of “Amahl” through 1954 and occasional rebroadcasts after that. A new production was unveiled in 1964.
Hallmark realized there was more to the greeting card business than Christmas and expanded its offerings to air throughout the season, usually four a year, sometimes more. For many of those years, each telecast began the same way, with Hallmark’s trademark crown on the screen and a fanfare from the “Orb and Scepter” march heralding the new arrival. You knew you were about to witness an event-a television event and often an important cultural event. When Hallmark aired “Hamlet” in 1953, for instance, it was estimated that more people saw the play on that one night than had seen all the previous stage productions ever done, starting with the first.
No anniversary of anything can go uncelebrated these days, but Hallmark’s 50th birthday truly deserves commemoration. The company calls its collected works “50 Years of Great Movies,” but of course many of the early Hallmarks were live dramas produced in television studios. “Amahl” had to be remounted four times and performed live each time before finally being committed to videotape in ’64.
What Americans gathered at their TV sets to see in those first two decades was not so much movies (although there was a stunning film version of “Richard II” with Laurence Olivier) as plays, many of them culled from what are considered “the classics”: “Twelfth Night,” “On Borrowed Time,” “Ah, Wilderness!,” “A Doll’s House,” “The Little Foxes,” “The Tempest,” “Pygmalion,” “Cyrano de Bergerac,” “The Magnificent Yankee” (with Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne), “Inherit the Wind,” “Blithe Spirit,” “Saint Joan,” “Harvey,” “The Man Who Came to Dinner” and too many more to list.
It was an education in theater, really, conducted by the world’s greatest actors: Maurice Evans, Orson Welles, Bette Davis, Helen Hayes, Elizabeth Taylor, Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, Alec Guinness, Joanne Woodward, Sophia Loren, Deborah Kerr, Julie Harris, Henry Fonda, James Stewart and on and on to include contemporary such as Morgan Freeman, James Woods, James Earl Jones, Joan Allen, Glenn Close, Tuesday Weld, Alfre Woodard, Cicely Tyson, Diane Ladd, James Garner, Laurence Fishburne.
“Hallmark Hall of Fame” became one of the most dependable franchises in all of television. You literally couldn’t go wrong when you saw the crown and heard the tooting trumpet. Hallmark proved that good television could be good business. It prospered by aiming high. If every television show had been produced with as much integrity and taste and class, then the first 50 years of television would have put the Italian Renaissance to shame. But of course that much quality television would be too much; we would all be exhausted from it.
That doesn’t mean the productions were stuffy. To the contrary, they made “the classics” refreshingly accessible, and so close you really could reach out and touch them, or at least touch the glass that protected them. Even if there had never been a golden age of live drama, the “Hallmark Hall of Fame” would rank as a golden age all by itself.
Nothing’s perfect, and “Hallmark” didn’t actually sustain the quality of its first two decades as it moved into its third and fourth, the ’70s and ’80s. The play was no longer the thing, and most Hallmarks arrived on film-film that didn’t always stay fresh in the can. New productions of already-filmed novels like “A Tale of Two Cities” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” seemed like just scaled-down, lower-budgeted knockoffs of the Hollywood originals.
“Hallmark” even seemed to be acquiring some films and just slapping the old crown on them, so that not every “Hall of Fame” appeared to have been commissioned specifically for the series, a break with tradition. Swashbucklers like “The Master of Ballantrae” and “The Corsican Brothers” were filmed under what looked suspiciously like cut-rate conditions as international co-productions. It was as if somebody in the Hallmark hierarchy had decided to make the “Hall of Fame” more cost-efficient.
Other offerings didn’t just advertise greeting cards but gave the impression of being the equivalent of greeting cards themselves: sticky-sweet picker-uppers designed to warm hearts and squeeze out a tear or two, sometimes by using tried-if-not-true “disease of the week” tactics. An aura of quality still prevailed, but Hallmark’s specials became somehow less special. They didn’t stand out from the crowd as dramatically as they once had.
That period of relative mediocrity is long over. In more recent times, the “Hall of Fame” has returned to the high standards that made it a great television institution in the first place. Oh, they’re not commissioning operas anymore, and Shakespeare has gone out of favor, but unmistakable classiness in concept and execution has returned, and some of the original dramas and adaptations became virtually instant classics: “Sarah, Plain and Tall,” “To Dance With the White Dog,” “A Place for Annie,” “The Boys Next Door,” “What the Deaf Man Heard,” “O Pioneers!,” “Caroline?” and many others.
Some of “Hallmark’s” films dramatized social problems without being pat or sappy about it, while others were produced for the pure pleasure of witnessing top talents working at peaks, whether in front of the camera or behind it. The old luster was back, and “Hallmark Hall of Fame” regained its former clout. Hallmark’s movies tend to be not only better than most films made for television, but also longer. Sole sponsorship makes it possible to cut back slightly on commercial time, so that a Hallmark film can be five or even eight minutes longer than the 90 minutes of most “two-hour” TV movies.
Hallmark’s dramas have aired on every network, but lately, like since the mid-’90s, they’ve been exclusive to CBS and have usually aired on Sunday nights-sometimes scoring absolutely astronomical ratings. In October, despite a concerted effort by Disney to lure Hallmark to ABC, Hallmark and CBS announced an extension of the exclusivity agreement through May 2005.
CBS President Les Moonves said in a statement, “We’re honored to continue the partnership with our friends at Hallmark, which is truly a top-rate and first-class organization.” He said Hallmark’s films are “perfectly suited for our Sunday night audience,” suggesting that tradition will continue.
At Hallmark, they must be doing something right, and they’ve been doing it right almost since television was born. They’ve cared enough-as someone is bound to say during the birthday celebration-to send the very best. And they’ve persisted at that in a manner that seems virtually heroic. Commercial network television, which has rewarded mediocrity and tastelessness lavishly over the years, is quite capable of rewarding excellence and quality, too. “The Hallmark Hall of Fame” is proud proof of that.