What happened to the Hallmark Hall of Fame is that the program became just another of the company's greeting cards. Indeed, in newspaper ads heralding the 27th season of this once-prestigious series, the company declares that the real purpose of its televised dramas is "to touch your life, fill you with joy and warm your heart."
What was once a showcase for illustrious playwrights and the noblest actors has become just another instrument of advertising. In fact the program has become the province of the NBC Television Network and the Hallmark and agency, Foote, Come and Belding, in Chicago.
Tonight's season-opener for the Hallmark series, a new television adaption of Edwin O'Connor's "The Last Hurrah," to be seen at 8 o'clock on Channel 4, was produced by actor Carroll O'Connor's production company and Columbia Pictures Television, a TV series factory. O'Connor, who stars and wrote the static, amateurish script, tried to seel the program to CBS, which turned it down, and then got NBC and Hallmark to pick it up.
In the old days - the unjustifiably notorious 1950s - the "Hall of Fame" acquired some shows from outside sources, too, but somehow, these were on a slightly higher plane - films like Laurence Olivier's "Richard III," which has its American premiere on the "Hall of Fame," and a splendid color film of "Macbeth" starring Maurice Evans and Judith Anderson.
Did "Richard III" touch our lives, fill us with joy, and warm our hearts? In the way that great plays and great players can, yes - in a way to which O'Connor's "Last Hurrah" couldn't hold the tiniest candle.
Most of the memorable "Hall of Fame" shows were aired during its first 10 years (it premiered on Christmas Eve, 1951), when producer-director George Schaefer had artistic control. Schaefer returned to network TV last year with a magnificently revived "Our Town," but it was sponsored by The Bell System, not Hallmark. He tried to sell Hallmark on the project several times in recent years, Schaefer said yesterday from Hollywood, but he kept getting turned down.
"I think they had the funny feeling that it wasn't uplifting enough - that it was somehow downlifting," Schaefer says. (Such minds rule television).
Just a list of old Hallmark productions is enough to generate goosebumps: Julie Harris in "The Lark" and "The Little Moon of Alban"; Helen Hayes and Mary Martin in "The Skin of Our Teeth"; Alfred Drake recreating his Broadway role in Cole Porter's "Kiss Me, Kate"; and Maurice Evans' modern-dress version of "Hamlet," among dozens. Schaefer staged "Winterset," "Doll's House," "Pygmalion," "Cyrano de Bergerac," "Alice in Wonderland," "The Green Pastures," "Saint Joan," and Noel Coward's "Blithe Spirit."
Just about anybody who saw it would probably rank Hallmark's production of "The Magnificent Yankee" with Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, as one of the indelible viewing experiences of one's television lifetime.
The memory of "Hurrah" will be lucky to linger for 15 minutes.
O'Connor's attempt to remake and update the O'Connor (no relation) novel is especially presumptuous since director John Ford did the book nearly every possible justice in a swooningly sentimental 1958 movie that starred Spencer Tracy as old-time Boston mayor Frank Skeffington. Tracy's scenes with character actor Edward Brophy, as his infallibly loyal and unquestioning right-hand man Ditto Boland, were beauties.
By updating the time of the story to the present, O'Connor robs the character of its poignance, and since he plays the role himself with barely the movement of a single muscle, Skeffington lacks human definition as well as symbolic resonance. When he finally crawls off to Irish heaven at the fade-out, we haven't the slightest idea why we should care.
It's not the passing of the Frank Skeffingtons so much as the passing of the Halls of Fame that "Hurrah" really commemorates. Schaefer thinks its decline began with the retirement of company founder Joyce C. Hall as president in 1956 (he remains honorary chairman of the board) Hall had taken an active interest in the program and saw it as a goodwill gesture, not just a greeting card hawker.
"One day a week, I used to meet with Mr. Hall," Schaefer recalls. "We'd discuss the plays that were coming up and sometimes he had his own ideas. He's the one who suggested we do 'The Lark,' for instance. I remember how skeptical he was when I told him I wanted to do Gilbert and Sullivan's 'Yeoman of the Guard,' but the night it went on, he called me up to tell me how much he loved it.
"He never really cared that much about numbers of viewers. We had 5 millioin or 10 million who were really devoted, who always watched, and that seemed fine with him. When he retired, I think they decided to reach out with more generally popular stuff. They got out of the classics completely, to my sorrow, and then the network, which had left us alone, became more active in it. That frankly is the reason I left; I missed the wonderful independence of being able to do exactly what we wanted to do."
In those days, once the program graduated from half-hour to 90-minute or two-hour specials, commercials were adjusted to fit the program. "If a play broke up into two long acts, then they'd only have three commercials," says Schaefer. He doesn't seem anxious to bad-mouth the Hallmark shows that followed his tenure, but concedes that in recent seasons they've done some "really, just awful things."
What happened? Live drama died, of course, and Hallmark should at least he given credit for maintaining full sponsorship of a drama series, even an occasional one, when other companies - Philco, Westinghouse, U.S. Steel - dropped out. But TV helped make greeting cards a very big business, and television became a megabusiness itself.
And there no longer was room for programs that seemed sponsored in a genuine spirit of philanthropy.
Today the idea of a "Hamlet," "Macbeth" or "Richard III" in prime time on a commercial network is virtually unthinkable. It isn't being too drastic to say that the decline of the "Hall of Fame" paralles a decline in the quality of TV programming generally. There seems to be a corollary to TV's law of rising profits: A Gresham's Law of entertainment. Bad drives out good.
Thus did ABC's inane "Love Boat" score higher in last week's ratings than NBC's telecast of "The Godfather."
ABC's Fred Silverman, suffering a chronic case of logorrhea in recent weeks, has been making speeches defending television programming as it is, claiming that TV has to be good or else millions of people wouldn't watch it. It could be that millions of people have nothing else to do.
One begins to wonder if "The Last Hurrah" for television, as well as the "Hallmark Hall of Fame," wasn't sounded some time ago.