"Decoration Day," the dreary tear-jerker that mawkishly launches a new season of "Hallmark Hall of Fame" specials tomorrow night at 9 on NBC (Channel 4), serves up a powerful load of mush, much mushier than it is powerful.
People don't demand much of heartwarmers except that they go efficiently about their heartwarming. But this one goes about its in devious and counterfeit ways.
Its story of a cranky retired judge renewing acquaintance with a black friend from his youth is helped a lot, however, by the performances of eternally likable James Garner as Judge Albert Sidney Finch and Bill Cobbs, fondly remembered as the sagacious bartender on the wonderful "Slap Maxwell" series, as Gee Penniwell, Finch's stubborn pal.
Why did they drift apart? A chronic case of hug failure, it seems. Albert should have hugged Gee at a crucial moment in their early manhoods and didn't. Will they hug near the fade-out of this film? You bet your Barry Manilow records they will.
What brings Al and Gee together after years of separation is a letter from Washington. The federal government wants to present Gee with the congressional Medal of Honor for heroism during the war. In 1944, he wiped out a German panzer unit in Belgium. But Gee doesn't want the medal because -- well, that's the movie's big terrible secret.
It involves an incident of vicious racist violence, but then the movie turns around and says that was really all a misunderstanding, thus rendering Gee's long decades of bitterness meaningless. It's a dirty trick to play on the character and on the audience.
Meanwhile there's a subplot that overshadows the plot. A young couple who are friends of Finch are having marital troubles. Everybody's favorite judgey-wudgey is enlisted to patch things up.
This story line, too, involves a doubling back by writer Robert W. Lenski, adapting a novella by John William Corrington. First a character is declared to be "dying, sure enough," of leukemia, but a short while later the tune has changed with no explanation: "I'm not real sure whether I'm gonna live or die."
Lenski reverses himself to help fabricate a sappy half-happy ending.
Although their names are buried way down in the credits, Jo Anderson and Norm Skaggs as the young couple probably give the best performances in the film. Judith Ivey is awfully good too, as a legal secretary who figures in the plot, and Ruby Dee handles the role of Finch's friend and housekeeper with effortless snap.
Garner is his agreeably ornery self, but my, he's gotten tubby. He could replace William Conrad on "Jake and the Fatman." The man is a veritable dirigible! It's discouraging, too, to find him gravitating toward the kind of Cuddly Codger parts once played by Walter Brennan and Gabby Hayes.
Director Robert Markowitz succeeds at making the slow pace work for the story and the bucolic Georgia setting, but he can't do much about the script's tiring talkiness. When the words get to be too much, he sends Garner off to the lake to ponder the meaning of it all.
What is the meaning of it all? Publicity material from Hallmark says the story reminds us "that it is never too late to care, never too late to stand up for what is right, never too late to live life to its fullest."
Oh. And here we all thought it was.
Of course, it's never too late to send a Hallmark card, either. Maybe that's the real meaning. There was a time when Hallmark's TV plays were at least an eency bit more profound than the firm's greeting cards. Now they're about equal, except that you can read one of the darn cards in a lot less time than it takes to watch one of the dang plays.