Carol Channing: Larger Than Life


Life is a musical number when you're Carol Channing

Life is a musical number when you’re Carol Channing

(2012) Documentary (EntertainmentOne) Carol Channing, Harry Kullijian, Lily Tomlin, Chita Rivera, Barbara Walters, Tyne Daly, Debbie Reynolds, Phyllis Diller, Loni Anderson, Bruce Vilanch, JoAnne Worley, Rich Little, Angela Lansbury, Bob Mackie, Tommy Tune, Tippi Hedren. Directed by Dori Berenstein

There are names and then there are Names. A lot of younger people aren’t that familiar with the name of Carol Channing but to those of my generation and before, she is virtually synonymous with Broadway. She originated the roles of Lorelei Lee in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and more notably, Dolly Levi in “Hello, Devi.” In both cases her signature roles were handed off to other actresses for the film versions, Marilyn Monroe for the former, Barbra Streisand for the latter.

These days she is pretty much retired from the stage although she does make appearances from time to time; for example she does a show number at the Kennedy Center Honors with Chita Rivera and Angela Lansbury (which begs the question why hasn’t she gotten one yet) and a number from “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” for a benefit.

Still, she’s recognized as the Ambassador of the Great White Way; while she’s taking a stroll pointing out the various theaters she’s been onstage in, she is seen by members of the chorus line of “Next to Normal” out taking a break between performances and is shown the reverence and love that those who love Broadway understand that she deserves.

Channing (who was 90 when this was filmed – she’s 91 now) is an ebullient force of nature, one who tells stories with genuine wit and warmth and has lots of stories to tell (such as of her first screen kiss from none other than Clint Eastwood). She’s one of those people you can’t help but like after spending just five minutes with her, and that personality shows through here.

There was a lot about her I didn’t know – about her support for gay rights causes and for other liberal touchstone causes. She has been a tireless worker in helping young actors survive the often brutal financial realities of life as a struggling actor, and for the furtherance of theatrical preservation. The more you see here, the more you like and respect her.

She hasn’t always had it easy. Not much is said about her marriage to her third husband of 42 years other than that the marriage ended abruptly and but before the divorce could become final her ex passed away. There have been allegations that it was a loveless marriage in other sources, but none of that is discussed here. Instead, the focus is on her fourth marriage to Kullijian, whom she met at Aptos Middle School in the San Francisco Bay Area and who turned out to be the love of her life, although sadly he passed away one day shy of his 92nd birthday in December 2011. However it’s obvious that they have an easy familiarity that comes from time and simpatico.

This is less of a documentary than a tribute; Berenstein really doesn’t linger too much on the unpleasant aspects of Channing’s life and rarely asks insightful questions. Not that a Mike Wallace-like approach would have been preferable but a look at the person behind the persona would have been welcome.

I still liked the movie a great deal however and wound up really falling in love with the subject a little. She may not be your cup of tea in terms of her life on Broadway, but nonetheless she’s great fun to spend an hour or so with. “Always leave ’em wanting more” is an old show business saying and it’s very true here – I wanted to spend more time with Carol Channing after the movie was done. I just wanted to get to know her better than the filmmakers allowed me to.

WHY RENT THIS: Gives you a glimpse into an amazing woman who’s had an incredible career.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Focuses overly much on “Hello, Dolly” and not enough on maybe her thoughts about certain aspects of her life.

FAMILY VALUES: Nothing here your kids haven’t heard or seen before. There is some smoking and a few mildly bad words here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Channing appeared on Nixon’s enemies list, which she later claimed as “the highest honor of her career.”

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The DVD is packed with ’em, including a Barbara Walters interview, a look at the opening night of “Hello Dolly” and much more.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $22,740 on an unknown production budget; probably lost money.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ahead of Time

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Desert Flower