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Saturday, June 16, 2012

Carol Channing: Larger Than Life

Carol Channing: Larger Than Life recently became available on dvd. It is an outstanding documentary I originally saw at the TriBeCa Film Festival in 2011. The Festival screening at Chelsea Cinemas was followed by a live, on-stage Q & A between the audience and the film's director, the then 90-year-old legend who is the subject of this film, and others including her late husband, Harry, and famed impersonator, Richard Skipper, one of the several, illuminating talking heads in this film. (Welcome back from the hospital and wishing you a quick recovery, Richard.)

Carol Channing is one of America's great ladies of the Broadway stage, best known for her starring roles in the iconic Hello, Dolly and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. She lost both film roles to Barbra Streisand and Marilyn Monroe, respectively. In Larger than Life, Channing bitterly remarks of Barbra as Dolly, "Everyone says, 'isn't she great?' And I say, 'Oh, isn't she?' And that's all I say."

The film opens with Ms Channing in Schubert Alley, where the Broadway superstar, at 90, greets fans and is aghast when adoring chorus boys tell her they're outside the theater, not in the wings, with 15 minutes off-stage.

Still a ball of energy despite the frailty of age, and sporting a cute,  silvery Judy Jetson hairdo, Carol revisits her past life with the filmmakers, going back to her birthplace of San Francisco. Accompanied throughout with husband, Harry Kulijian, at her side, there is a touching boy-meets-girl/boy-loses-girl/boy-finds-girl romantic tale within their reveries.

Dolly composer Jerry Herman  explains, among other things, how that show was written for Ethel Merman, who declined. Once Carol Channing was brought in, Herman says he couldn't then imagine the show being done by anyone else but her. Merman later assayed the role in a long list of replacement Dollies from Pearl Bailey to Phyllis Diller.

CC: LtL is full of excellent archival footage of its subject, and a wonderful assemblage of talking heads. They include Bob Mackey, Bruce Vilanch (surprising our paths never crossed in Paterson, NJ, though he is a few years older), Lily Tomlin, Chita Rivera, Betty Garrett, Marge Champion, Lori Anderson, George Slater, Rich Little, Richard Skipper, Tippi Hedren, Jo Anne Worley (with much to say on the importance of eyelashes), Tommy Tune (still looking good) and Tyne Daley.

Barbara Walters has lots to add, including commentary on Carol's previous marriage. So does Debby Reynolds, who had a similar controlling, abusive marriage. It's Walters who describes, simply, that Carol Channing "was larger than life; she was too large for the movies." (Though Ms Channing did get an Oscar nomination for her supporting role in Thoroughly Modern Millie in which she was brilliantly larger than life.)

Channing is shown as a warm, loving supertrouper throughout, as this is a loving tribute to a Broadway -- indeed, an American -- icon. Her foundation to get support for the arts back into our public schools is highlighted near the film's end. (And hip-hip-hoorah to that!)

During beautifully art-directed closing credits, there are lovely last-minute snippets, like Carol talking with two other Broadway legends, Angela Lansbury and Chita Rivera. The dvd graciously includes 15 bonus featurettes, my personal favorite being Carol's discussing Joan Crawford's wedding.

Below, Carol with Ethel, Ann Miller and Della Reese in a rarely seen "Love Boat" musical moment:

1 comment:

  1. How sweet of you to mention me! I'm home from the hospital and on the mend!
    It is a pleasure to be part of this film. A great cap to that phase of my career!
    Richard Skipper