Reviewed at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival
I'm sure it's possible to dislike Carol Channing, but I'm not sure how. In Dori Berinstein's documentary Carol Channing: Larger Than Life, she strolls Broadway's "Shubert Alley" and points out the theaters nearby where she's played ("There are ghosts," in the Booth Theater, she tells us. "Wonderful ghosts of great actors!"). She comes upon members of the cast for Next to Normal, who have stepped out during their matinee, and says, of the opportunity to perform on Broadway, "We should pay them!" She mentions that she's almost 90, and the young men burst into spontaneous applause; "I don't know why you applaud that, it just happened!" she exclaims. "I had nothing to do with it!"
So yes, she's delightful--charming and funny, and a terrific storyteller (and who else is still around who can tell a story about Edward G. Robinson?). Her persona is comically over the top, and she certainly is not the most wide-ranging actor; as Bob Mackie points out, Carol was always basically playing Carol. But she played Carol awfully well. In the film, Chita Rivera calls her "a force of nature"--and she knows from forces of nature.
Much of the film is centered on her defining performance, as the title character in Hello, Dolly! She played the role on Broadway (several times) and on tour--though not in the movie, where she was replaced by Barbara Streisand (Channing is hilariously diplomatic about that). But it also gives us a sense of her background, growing up as a stage-hungry kid, working her way to Broadway, and becoming a theatrical legend.
It is also, charmingly, a love story. Carol is married to Harry Kullijian, her junior high sweetheart; they've known each other long enough that their duo interviews have the pitter-patter of an old vaudeville two-act. They haven't been married that entire time, though; they reconnected after the end of his "beautiful 65-year marrage" and her "miserable 42-year marriage." But the love between them in palpable, and heartwarming.
The vintage TV performances and appearances are priceless. The stories told, not only by Carol but about her, are wonderful; everyone, it seems, has a Carol story to tell, because she did something sweet for all of them. She talks about her first screen kiss, in The First Traveling Saleslady ("worst script I'd ever read!" she announces, cheerily), with a very young Clint Eastwood. Jerry Herman talks about how he composed one of her signature numbers, "Before the Parade Passes By," in the middle of the night at a hotel during an out-of-town preview in Detroit, and woke her up to come sing it. Jo Anne Worley giggles about understudying for Carol, who famously never missed a performance (except one, she now admits, in Kalamazoo); catching Worley working on the numbers, Channing grinned, "Jo Anne, don't worry, you'll never have to go on!" That consecutive-performance track record held, we're told, even when she was undergoing treatment for ovarian cancer while on the road with Dolly.
The trouble with Carol Channing: Larger than Life is that it does, in places, leave you wanting more. We never really get a sense of what was wrong with her lengthy marriage to husband/manager Charlie, and why it was abruptly ended; what's more, her two husbands before him aren't even mentioned. In discussing Streisand making the film of Dolly, there is some discussion of how, as Barbara Walters says, she was "larger than life, too large for the movies," but no real sense of how she felt about always having to turn over her hard-played stage roles to movie stars (lest we forget, Marilyn Monroe played her part in the film of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes). And any thoughts or analysis of her current status as a beloved gay icon are mostly present by inference.
Nonetheless, it's a cheeky treat, entertaining and skillfully crafted--the bridging animations (adapted from Al Hirschfeld's drawings) are marvelous, and an early montage, in which Channing gets young and younger via intercut performances of "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" is lovely. There aren't a lot of performers who can honestly be called "living legends," and Channing is one of them. If Carol Channing: Larger than Life leaves us wanting more of her, well, that's probably an accomplishment.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.