Monday, August 11, 2014

The Hallmark Hall of Fame: 63 Years and Counting

In terms of television ratings, 2014 has not been a good year for the Hallmark Hall of Fame. As the industry publication Variety recently noted, the venerable "franchise remains a shadow of its former self." Ironically, the decline of of the Hallmark Hall of Fame comes as the Hallmark Channel thrives on cable. In fact, the success of the latter may have diluted the greeting card company's long-running series of television specials.

One could argue that a presentation of the Hallmark Hall of Fame is no longer special--you can view similar movies any time on the Hallmark Channel. It wasn't always that way, though. For decades, the Hallmark Hall of Fame meant first-rate entertainment for the whole family. It was "event programming," too, with only three or four specials per year.

Amahl was broadcast on NBC, Hallmark
Hall of Fame
's home for 27 years.
Hallmark launched the series on NBC in 1951 with the broadcast of Gian Carlo Menotti's opera Amahl and the Night Visitors (the first original opera commissioned for television). Hallmark has shown the opera seven times, with its last appearance being in 1964. Since then, there have been an incredible 252 Hallmark Hall of Fame broadcasts through April 2014.

Chamberlain as Hamlet.
Hallmark introduced Shakespeare to millions of families with adaptations of: Hamlet (Maurice Evans); Richard II; Macbeth (Maurice Evans and Judith Anderson); The Taming of the Shrew (Evans and Lilli Palmer); Twelfth Night; Kiss Me Kate; The Tempest (Evans and Richard Burton); and a second Hamlet (Richard Chamberlain).

For its first three decades, the Hallmark Hall of Fame relied on classic literature and, most prominently, stage plays for its program content. The plays ranged from A Doll's House (Julie Harris and Christopher Plummer) to Inherit the Wind (Melvyn Douglas and Ed Begley) to Harvey (with James Stewart reprising his role 22 years after the 1950 film version). The classic literature adaptations included The Master of Ballantrae, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Anthony Hopkins), and The Secret Garden.

A trend toward recent "feel good" novels in the 1990s ignited with Sarah, Plain and Tall, an adaptation of Patricia MacLachlan's 1986 Newberry Medal-winning novel. Glenn Close starred as the mail order bride who moved to Kansas in 1910 to care for a widower (Christopher Walken) and his children. The telefilm was nominated for nine Emmys, but only won one for Best Editing for a Miniseries or Special. Still, its popular success spawned an encore showing and two sequels with Close and Walken: Skylark (1993) and Sarah, Plain and Tall: Winter's End (1999).

The "feel good" formula found ratings success and the Hallmark Hall of Fame thrived for most of the next 20 years. As recently as 2010, it pulled in over 13 million viewers with November Christmas, the story of an optimistic young girl with cancer. However, a network switch from CBS to ABC proved disastrous and 2011's Have a Little Faith, adapted from Mitch Albom's bestseller, attracted less than 7 million viewers. Subsequent Hallmark Hall of Fame specials have performed about the same--a far cry from the days when they were ratings blockbusters.

Hopefully, it's not the end of the line for the long-running series, which has amassed an impressive 81 Emmys. I suspect that even if ABC drops it, the greeting card company may retain the franchise on its Hallmark Channel. If the Hallmark Hall of Fame continues, I'd love to see a return to its stage and literary adaptations which starred the likes of Jason Robards, Ralph Richardson, Bette Davis, Basil Rathbone, Ossie Davis, Faye Dunaway, Alec Guinness, and Deborah Kerr.


Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

An excellent series, and these programs were not to be missed. There is certainly a diluted feeling with the channel taking over the "feel good" string of shows, as you say. I suppose it was the last of the great corporate-sponsored shows of cultural programming back in the day - like the Bell Telephone Hour, Firestone, etc. Thanks for the reminder, Rick, on this great program.

Caftan Woman said...

I hadn't even realized they still produced "Hallmark Hall of Fame" specials. In my younger years it was event television.

Happy Miser said...

Some of the classic HHoF show up on eBay and Youtube. I got Arsenic and Old Lace with Karloff, Tony Randall, Mildred Natwick and The Lark with Karloff, Julie Christie, Jack Warden, Denholm Elliott from eBay.

Jennifer Garlen said...

I really liked "To Dance with the White Dog," the one they did with Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy.

Silver Screenings said...

Some of the later Hallmark movies are too schmaltzy for words, but I'm going to try to watch some of the earlier works you mentioned. They sound worth the effort.

Rick29 said...

THE SNOW GOOSE and ALL CREATURES GREAT AND SMALL (with Anthony Hopkins and Simon Ward) are two if my favorites.

Mitchell Hadley said...

You're so right, Rick. "Feel good" indeed. As I'm going through my TV Guides for each week's update, I'm continually frustrated by the decline in quality of the show. Throughout the 50s and 60s they aspired toward quality, and even when they missed ("A Punt, a Pass and a Prayer," anyone?) they hit more often. It was prestige for NBC, which at the time was more than willing to sacrifice ratings for the sake of the critical praise they got.

The point, I think, is that HOF has become just another TV movie event. Some of them may be quite good; it's just that you could see them any time, on any network. Setting aside the lack of quality, there's just nothing distinctive about it anymore. I'd go back to their short run on PBS (one-man plays about Lincoln and Casey Stengel, and "Dear Liar") as the last time they did anything of distinction.

Just check out the list:

Thanks for comemmorating the anniversary, Rick!

Gilby37 said...

"Witness for the Prosecution" starring Ralph Richardson, Deborah Kerr, Diana Rigg, and Beau Bridges is one of my favorites.

toto2 said...

This was a fascinating profile. It would be interesting to see rebroadcasts of the classic programming.