Hallmark movies, redux

Just in case you didn’t hear the news, Hallmark Channel’s “Countdown to Christmas” is once again upon us. Be still, my heart! Thirty-three new Hallmark Christmas movies plus, no doubt, innumerable repeats, will begin October 28, three days before Halloween. In one of my first blog posts last January, I wrote without shame about my attachment to these bits of holiday fluff. Once I came out of the Hallmark Christmas movie closet, many others owned up, including some of my most “cultivated” acquaintances.

Post-Christmas, I watched with amused interest as Hallmark aired first its winter-themed flicks, then Valentine’s Day, then spring, then June weddings, then summer, then autumn-in-wherever. I’ve seen my fair share of these non-Christmas movies and found most of them to be so bad, actually, that they’re good. Good enough to provide amusement that requires absolutely nothing of you. Good enough to iron by. And especially good if you join in one of my Hallmark games. Want to play? Try these:

The where-was-it-shot game. Many movies set in a particular place aren’t actually shot there, for reasons that are mostly economic. Betcha didn’t know that the interiors in  Moonstruck—maybe my favorite movie of all time—were shot in Toronto. But while in first-rate productions such scenes would be undetectable, Hallmark substitutions are way too easy to spot. You might see a flyover opening shot that establishes a location (Seattle’s space needle or a Manhattan skyline, for example), but that’s where the authenticity ends. Point in fact: There are no mountains in Bucks County,  and almost nothing in that dog show movie looks like New York, probably because it’s Vancouver. Vermont is not flat. That New Jersey bakery is really in Bucharest (which is probably why one customer’s feigned New Jersey accent was so dreadful).

The find-the-mistake game. Whoops! Snow on the ground and summer-fresh green leaves in the background! Please, Hallmark, don’t ask us to suspend our disbelief that much. No snow in December in Garland, Alaska? Or how about this—big-time marketing executive needs to come up with a holiday marketing plan for a corporate client, with only three weeks left before Christmas. I don’t think so.

The find-the-worst hair game. Hasn’t anyone at Hallmark figured out that HDTV  reveals EVERYTHING? I know full well that wigs are used widely in movies because they save time and forestall bad hair days when the camera’s rolling. I get it. The Downton Abbey ladies we all came to love—and miss every single Sunday, by the way— wore wigs for historical authenticity as well as ease. I get that, too. But some of the Hallmark wigs are so so obvious, and frankly, so dreadful looking, that one wonders why they couldn’t spend a few bucks more to give the real hair. After all, Hallmark owns this high-ratings franchise. And don’t even get me started on the male leads’ hair, some of which is just ridiculous—and far from “manly,” in my estimation—even when it isn’t “supplemented.” Who looks like that???

The switch-the-script game. My BFF says the thing she likes best about these movies is that you can join any one of them at any point in the action and it won’t matter because you always know what happens next. Which, of course, is  comforting in a quaint sort of way. You will find only a handful of plot lines in the entire universe of Hallmark movies, and they are “creatively reused” in each of the seasonal series. The heroine gets grounded in a snowstorm or returns to her home town or goes on a trip and meets up with her high school beau or struggling Christmas tree farmer or errant prince or stalwart widower. A rival of some sort—a conniving female or a really bad ex—gets in the way but is foiled in the end, when love conquers all. Point is–you could take the beginning, middle, or end of any of these movies and drop it into almost any other.

The find-the-familiar-face game. Hallmark seems to deliberately go after former TV stars whose luster has faded—either because they weren’t very good to begin with or because they’ve “aged out.” If you watch enough of these movies, you’ll find yourself muttering, “I know that face…” The late Alan Thicke showed up frequently, usually as a rigid dad with unfair expectations. I’ve spotted Patricia Richardson, the Home Improvement mom, who looked normal (which is to say, her face actually moved) and  turned in an atypically great little performance. Most recently, Hallmark scored a coup reuniting Lee Majors and Lindsay Wagner, the bionic heroes of the 1970s, in widely promoted but, sadly, weakly written supporting roles.

The pick-the-worst-painting-in-the-art-show game. You may have noticed that Hallmark movies favor certain professions: struggling/frustrated/underrated/broke chefs, writers, and artists turn up frequently. The artists are always getting ready for a big show. Notice that at the gut-wrenching gallery opening, all of the once or about-to-be famous painter’s  works on display will be utterly dreadful, and not one will be anything like another.

So, all that being said, have I sworn off these featherweight fantasies?

Not on your life.

’Twas the season to watch Hallmark movies

Two Christmases ago, one Facebook friend advised another who was feeling glum to “go watch a Hallmark Christmas movie.” But several other FB pals joined the chorus, and I realized she was serious. I was stunned. That slurpy Hallmark Channel stuff? No way.

Fast forward to summer 2016. We are deep into the divisiveness of the nastiest presidential election in my increasingly long memory. One muggy afternoon, making my way through a pile of ironing, I turn on the TV and zap through the guide. “When what to my wandering eyes should appear…” but a Hallmark  Christmas movie. With few other options, I figured it would be worth a  good laugh.

The movie, Christmas Under Wraps, starred Candace Cameron Bure and David O’Donnell, with Brian Doyle-Murray as the “Santa figure”. Bure comes to a tiny Alaska town to run its equally tiny hospital after her residency application, her greatest “wish,” is rejected. That Doyle-Murray’s character is Santa is never stated outright; but he is rotund with a white beard, wears red flannel and suspenders, and has a reindeer named “Rudy” in his barn. His son is reluctant to be part of the family business, “Holiday Shipping,” about which everyone in town is pretty cagey. A romance evolves slowly and chastely, and when the doctor has a second crack at the Boston opportunity, she ultimately rejects it, perhaps to become the future Mrs. Claus. One can only suppose. No award-winner, for sure, but charming in its way, with a bonus of some stunning flyovers of Alaska-like terrain and a peak at the Northern Lights.

I didn’t admit it to a soul, but I was interested (or needy) enough to stick with these movies during Hallmark’s “Christmas in July ” marathon. At the least, it was a good backdrop for chores. When my husband wandered in to ask what I was watching, I’d replied, “Stupid romantic drivel.” He was smart enough to leave it at that. When the series ended, promising more to come at Thanksgiving, I told myself I was done with it.

Summer passed. The election and then the post-election invective heated up. Friends were calling each other names, mothers were worrying about fights around the Thanksgiving table, and millennials were foretelling Armageddon. Searching for any escape route, I  realized I was not only noticing teasers for Hallmark’s 30-day Countdown to Christmas but also anticipating them with minor enthusiasm. Stripped across prime time at two-hour intervals, the nightly movies promised to keep you warm and cozy and Christmas-y through the entire holiday season. And to keep you company while you’re baking and wrapping and cleaning with daytime repeats.

These movies are shot in idyllic places in the US and Canada, with a deliberate sheen worthy of the channel’s Hallmark Cards roots. Watching a Hallmark Christmas movie is like being inside one of those little Golden Books you’ve stashed in the basement for your future grandchildren. You’re kind of sad when you get to the last page.

One night, when Penn State football was on hiatus till the bowl games and news channel pundits were screaming at each other, I invited Hubby into to my Hallmark world. He sat through the movie with me—I don’t remember which and, of course, it doesn’t matter—and lo and behold, afterward said he’d liked it. Turns out he was ready for a warm, cozy , Christmas-y place, too. So we made it a nightly ritual.

We accepted the movies “where they were”. As Oscar Wilde wrote (snidely, of course), “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.” If you’re a movie buff, you’ll see a hint of “old chestnut” in Hallmark’s line-up. Borrowing from The Bishop’s Wife, Santa sends a young girl elf to help people in the everyday world save the Christmas spirit and get their priorities straight. Borrowing from Roman Holiday, a young princess escapes her entourage to wander the streets of New York incognito and falls in love with a commoner. There are permutations on the Cinderella story, and a secret admirer theme, not unlike the anonymous love letters in The Shop Around the Corner (Nora Effron’s inspiration for You’ve Got Mail).

The acting is so-so in some, acceptable in others, and pretty good in a few. If you’re of a certain age, you won’t recognize most of the actors. To be fair, the Hallmark movie world is overwhelmingly white and middle class, although the newer movies appear to be becoming more diverse.

In spite of both the genre and ourselves, we had a fun time counting down to Christmas. Beyond their predictability and deliberate absence of real-world intensity, the Hallmark Christmas movies demand nothing in return for an “Aw, shucks” warmth that attracts and sustains world-weary viewers. Just as the Busby Berkeley movies (42nd Street, for one) and other bits of fluff got frightened, worn-out Americans through the Depression and World War II.
Photo: A street scene in Vieux Quebec during Carnaval.