Film Review – Carol Channing: Larger Than Life
If you are my age (43) or younger, you probably know Carol Channing from her appearance on The Muppet Show and maybe her role in Thoroughly Modern Millie, which is a really weird movie that traumatized me as a child. If you are a theater nerd, you will also know that she is the creator of two legendary stage roles: Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly! That’s about all I knew before I watched Carol Channing: Larger Than Life, a documentary about her career and romance with her last husband. This film is more of an appreciation piece than a documentary, but it works—it’s fun, and I came away knowing a lot more about why Carol Channing is as beloved as she is.
Ms. Channing was born in Seattle in 1921, but grew up in San Francisco. She was an imaginative child, and it became to clear pretty quickly that she was destined for the theater. After announcing this to her parents, she single-mindedly pursued this ambition for the rest of her life. She attended Bennington College in Vermont, and then headed for New York, where she proceeded to work her way up the ladder. As a tall blonde with her trademark big eyes and large mouth, she might have been hard to cast, but she was both funny and dedicated, and eventually came to prominence as Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. (It is hard to imagine Ms. Channing as the lush Lorelei embodied by Marilyn Monroe in the film adaptation, but Channing’s Lorelei is much more of a ditzy flapper.) But it is as Dolly Levi in Hello Dolly! where Channing really reached national prominence, and this film spends quite a bit of time with the 1994 revival cast trying explain why that particular run was amazing for viewers and performers. Channing parlayed her success into a string of television appearances, although she was generally considered too large a personality for the movies. She did, however, garner an Oscar nomination for her role in Thoroughly Modern Millie.
The tone of this documentary is very much “WE LOVE CAROL CHANNING,” and, after watching it, it’s hard not to join in. She is very funny and a born storyteller. At age 90, she’s got all her wits about her, and is very generous with the audience by sharing her stories of a lifetime in show business. (Her bit about how she got her first agent is hysterical.) There are a lot of interviews with people who’ve worked with her, and every last one of them talks about her dedication, her professionalism, and her kindness. She only missed one performance of Hello Dolly! out of thousands because she got food poisoning and was vomiting on stage. People were tearing up while talking about how great she is to work with.
The film moves into the personal when it tells the tale of her romance with Harry Kullijian, her junior high sweetheart. After a 70-year separation, their love for each other shines through, and it’s obvious that Harry could just sit back and listen to her stories forever. (Unfortunately, he passed away in late 2011.) It’s in addressing her personal life though, that this film falters a bit. They lightly pass over much of what is negative in her life, to focus mainly on the good. Only two of her four husbands are mentioned, and her unhappy marriage with third husband Charles Lowe is only lightly touched upon. From what I understand, he was more interested in controlling the Carol Channing business than in Channing herself. But it’s hard to get a sense of what that means, because they don’t go in to it at all. And there are the more gossip-worthy tidbits: she did not discover until she was an adult that her mother was Jewish and her paternal grandmother was African American; her father passed as white during her lifetime. I’m not saying that I wanted a True Hollywood Story bring-out-all-the-trash fest, but it would not have hurt this film at all for a more balanced look at her life.
This gap is especially noticeable when she talks briefly about parenting her son. She admits that the theater came first with her and she was somewhat lacking in the parenting department. Her son is not interviewed in the film, so we don’t really get his perspective on it either. It’s interesting: this is a woman who put theater before everything else in her life—when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, she would tour during the week and fly back to New York on the weekends for treatment—and yet you never see that driven person in this film. It is acknowledged that there is that side to her by a couple of people, but that’s it. I wanted to see more of that to get a better idea of who Carol Channing really is. It’s obvious that she’s “on” most of the time, and it would have been really interesting to see the person behind the performance.
This isn’t really that kind of movie though, and that’s okay. If you’d like to know more about Carol Channing, already love her, or have any interest in musical theater, then this is the movie for you. It’s a bit fluffy, but it’s well done, and Carol Channing provides more than enough material to carry it off.
Carol Channing: Larger Than Life opens today at SIFF Cinema at the Film Center.
Final Grade: B+